Cancer Survivors Get Fewer Job Interview Callbacks

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The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on work life can vary from person to person. For some people, the effect is minimal. You may have an understanding supervisor, a flexible schedule, and an encouraging team to support you through treatment. For others, there might be some questions about how to manage work and treatment.

If you’re looking for a new job, you might be wondering where your health status fits into the process. Remember, when you’re interviewing for a new job, you don’t have to tell prospective employers about your health status. In most cases, it is illegal for a potential employer to ask you about your health history UNLESS you have a limitation that is obvious and visible and causes concern that you may not be able to perform the job.

A study offers troubling results: job applicants who are cancer survivors are less likely to receive callbacks from potential retail employers compared to people who don’t disclose their health history.

The study was published online on Nov. 9, 2015 by the Journal of Applied Psychology. Read the abstract of “Selection BIAS: Stereotypes and Discrimination Related to Having a History of Cancer.”

The study targeted 121 retail managers at three large shopping malls in the United States. Five undercover researchers -- two men and three women ages 21 to 29 -- were randomly assigned to either disclose a history of cancer when applying for a job or provide no information about a history of cancer.

Before the study started, the researchers made sure that each store was hiring. Stores that used a strict online-only application process were excluded from the study.

The undercover researchers who were assigned to disclose a history of cancer indicated on their resumes they were cancer survivors and wore a hat that read “cancer survivor” when applying for the job.

The undercover researchers submitted resumes that included their actual work experience, but the resumes were modified to fit the work history and job requirements for the position for which they were applying. Any experience that would make the undercover researcher seem overqualified was removed from the resume. The resumes also were standardized for length, formatting, and level of experience.

Applicants who disclosed a history of cancer received fewer callbacks from the managers than the applicants who didn’t disclose a history of cancer:

  • 21% of the cancer survivors received callbacks
  • 37% of the people who didn’t have a history of cancer received callbacks

This difference was statistically significant, which means that it was likely due to the difference in cancer history rather than because of chance.

“This is especially problematic as people with chronic and past illnesses are protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and our findings indicate that cancer survivors do tend to disclose their cancer histories with interviewers at relatively high rates,” said Larry Martinez, Ph.D., assistant professor of hospitality management at Penn State University, who was the lead author of the study.

“Basically, people are more likely to discriminate in very subtle interpersonal ways,” he continued. “There’s less eye contact. There are shorter interaction times when speaking with managers. There are more negative interpersonal behaviors from managers, like frowning, brow-furrowing, and less smiling -- fewer cues that communicate to applicants that they are interested in hiring them for the job.”

Dr. Martinez and his colleagues made it clear that no hiring laws were broken in the study. Still, they did find evidence of discrimination.

The researchers also conducted an online survey with 87 people who were employed full-time, most of whom had experience as a manager or as an interviewer. The survey asked for their opinions about cancer survivors in the work place. The results found that people with a history of cancer were stereotyped as being higher in “warmth” than competence.

“Managers and employees should be mindful of the fact that although societal attitudes toward cancer survivors are generally quite positive, with people often viewing them as champions who have successfully overcome a traumatic experience, we nonetheless might perceive them as being less desirable employees simply because of their history with cancer,” Dr. Martinez added.

Employees are protected from discrimination because of a health issue under the ADA, but only if the employer is aware of the health condition. If you believe you are being treated differently because of your breast cancer diagnosis, you might want to consider the following:

  • Talk with your supervisor or human resources department if an incident occurred that has you concerned or makes you uncomfortable.
  • Document any incidents that seem discriminatory. Include details of the event such as time, date, and anything that was said.
  • Keep a detailed work history, complete with a list of accomplishments and goals met. Include hours worked and days off, with notes of shifts you covered for someone else or shifts others have covered for you.
  • Contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for more information on your rights. The EEOC enforces federal laws that prohibit job discrimination.
  • Don’t miss your opportunity to file a complaint. There is a standard time limitation of 180 days from the time the incident occurred to the time the formal complaint is filed. Some local or state laws may allow for up to 300 days from the original incident to file a complaint, depending on the situation. Contact the EEOC to find out more.
  • Consult a qualified discrimination lawyer. A lawyer can give you information and guidance specific to your situation. Discuss with your lawyer the next steps to take in the process.

For more information, visit the Breast Cancer and Your Job pages.

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