The Schulich School of Business at York University attracted an outstanding new recruit last spring: Professor Brent Lyons from Simon Fraser University. An expert in stigma in organizations, he led a team of researchers from the Universities of British Columbia, Maryland and New Mexico in a study that examined the effects of disclosing a concealable disability when applying for a job.
Lyons’ team found that disclosure strategies affect reactions, such as pity or admiration, which, in turn, influence the hiring decision-making processes. More specifically, job applicants with concealable disabilities would benefit from adopting strategies that emphasize positive aspects of a disability. This works both ways, however: organizations should ensure that employees making hiring decisions are not basing judgments on non-job-relevant information.
The results of this study were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2017).
Individuals with disabilities often hide it to limit harm
Existing research tells us that people with disabilities face biases that can negatively affect employment. Indeed, the employment rate for Canadians with disabilities is comparatively low. Statistics Canada reported that the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49 per cent, compared with 79 per cent for Canadians without a disability (2011).
This, naturally, drives people with disabilities to conceal it as a way of mitigating potentially harmful bias. These individuals then face the added burden of keeping a secret.
If these people choose, instead, to disclose their disability in a job interview situation, they open themselves up to the reaction of the interviewers. Does the way they disclose this information affect the outcome? That’s the central, pressing question that Lyons’ team sought to answer.
Two different strategies of disclosure
The researchers commenced a pilot study, a small-scale experiment to evaluate the feasibility of a more comprehensive study. In it, they focused on two different ways that a person with a disability could disclose this fact:
- integration, emphasizing positive aspects of a disability, underscoring that disability is valuable, which combats stereotypes of incompetence; and
- de-categorization or de-emphasizing the disability.
From the perspective of the observer, or interviewer, controllability is an important part of this study. This refers to perceptions of a stigmatized individual by an observer – in particular, perceptions around whether the stigmatized person is responsible for their condition/illness/disability or if the condition/illness/disability could be reversed by the stigmatized individual.
Onset controllability refers to whether contracting a condition can be blamed on a stigmatized individual. (In this study, “low onset” controllability refers to when the individual with a disability was seen as not responsible for their disability; “high onset” controllability refers to the opposite.)
Ninety-eight participants were surveyed after staged job interview
In the pilot study, the researchers examined the effectiveness of the two disclosure strategies and considered the underlying mechanism that explains any differences in effectiveness. They hypothesized that both approaches could lead to pity (negative) and/or admiration (positive).
The study participants were 98 working adults, roughly divided among men and women, from the United States, with an average age of 36 years. The researchers chose six concealable conditions (HIV, lung cancer, hearing impairment, back pain, epilepsy and brain trauma), although hearing impairment was considered the focal disability.
Here’s how the study ran: participants were told that university students were taking a business class in which the final project involved fundraising for their idea. Participants were instructed to hire students based on their capacity to effectively sell themselves and raise money for a startup. They were told to evaluate each student based on their responses to personal questions during the mock job interview, such as, “Is there is anything you would like us to know about you?,” at which point the students disclosed their disability.
Participants surveyed to determine pity or admiration, and if they would recommend hiring
In the survey, participants were asked, “To what extent does this person make you feel…” “pity,” “sorrow” and “sympathy.” This was how the researchers measured the participants’ pity reactions.
Participants were also asked, “To what extent does this person make you feel…” “admiration,” “proud” and “fond.” This was how the researchers assessed participants’ admiration reactions.
Participants were then asked if they would recommend hiring the person.
Findings suggest that if pity is lowered, likelihood of being hired is raised
The researchers found that the effectiveness of disclosure strategies depended on onset controllability – that is, whether being disabled, in the eyes of the study participants, can be blamed on a stigmatized individual. Lyons explained: “Decategorization, or distancing oneself from the disability, reduced pity reactions, but only when the individual was seen as not responsible for their disability. This is low-onset controllability.”
In other words, when pity was reduced, this led to an increased likelihood of being hired. Conversely, if pity were elevated, the likelihood of being hired was lowered.
Takeaway messages for both sides of the table
Although the researchers are not suggesting that individuals with disabilities should be responsible for managing bias in hiring contexts, the results of this study suggest that people with concealable disabilities are likely to benefit from adopting integration strategies in a job interview, emphasizing the positive.
The takeaway message for organizations? Adopt strategies to ensure that employees making hiring decisions are not basing judgments on non-job-relevant information. This could go a long way toward stigma reduction in organizations.
By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation, York University, email@example.com.