Who moves forward in the hiring process?

When hiring managers review job applications, they must make rapid assessments about who they think is a good candidate for a position. But those evaluations are especially critical towards applicants whose employment histories differ from conventional notions of what a “good” job is, according to new research by Stanford sociologist David Pedulla.

Pedulla found that applicants with backgrounds that stray from traditional, full-time employment – such as part-time positions, temporary agency employment or jobs below their skill level – face increased scrutiny that often eliminates them from the hiring process. His research also revealed how those judgments vary considerably by an applicant’s race and gender. For example, black men with seamless job histories had almost identical callback rates as white men who were unemployed for a full year.

Here, Pedulla discusses some of these findings that he recently published in his new book, Making the Cut: Hiring Decisions, Bias, and the Consequences of Nonstandard, Mismatched, and Precarious Employment, an in-depth examination into how hiring professionals evaluate and treat workers with atypical employment histories – in other words, the type of work histories that will become more common as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Pedulla is an associate professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

First off, can you walk us through some of the hiring patterns and biases that you find in your research?

Drawing on evidence from a large-scale field experiment of hiring decisions in five cities and four occupations, I find that hiring professionals are often less likely to call back applicants with nonstandard, mismatched, and precarious employment histories. Importantly, though, the consequences of different work experiences are often contingent on the socio-demographic characteristics of the worker. Both white men and white women, for instance, are much less likely to receive a callback for a new position if they have been working in a job below their skill level. However, while white men face severe hiring penalties for having worked part-time, those same penalties do not exist for white women.

The evidence from the field experiment also documents the persistence of significant discrimination against African American workers during the hiring process. Indeed, the callback rate for African American men with seamless, continuous employment experiences was nearly identical to the callback rate for white men who had experienced a full year of unemployment. This finding is consistent with prior research that has found, for instance, that African American men without a criminal record receive a similar callback to white men with a criminal record.

How do you explain some of these hiring patterns?

One way that I tried to understand why these hiring patterns emerged is by conducting in-depth interviews with hiring professionals. These interviews with HR managers, talent acquisition specialists, and recruiters enabled me to gain traction on how employers think and talk about job applicants with different types of employment experiences.

I found strong evidence that hiring professionals extract meanings from different types of work histories. In addition to raising concerns about workers’ technical skills, these employment experiences often sent complex signals to hiring professionals about workers’ personalities and soft skills as well as about workers’ compliance, or lack thereof, with “ideal worker” norms of competence and commitment. Hiring professionals also discussed how these types of employment experiences would leave them with questions. Why did the worker end up in a position below their skill level? Were they working part-time because they couldn’t find a full-time job? Questions about an applicant can easily lead to them being screened out.

Can you give an example?

In trying to understand why worker characteristics – such as gender – may influence the evaluations of employment histories – such as part-time work – the interviews were also quite instructive. What emerged from the data is that employers have different narratives – what I refer to as “stratified stories” – about distinct employment histories depending on the social characteristics of the worker.

Part-time work experiences for women, for example, were quickly explained away by employers inferring that she was a mother. While motherhood can lead to exclusion in the labor market, in this case, it appeared to provide an easy way for employers to deem part-time work as unproblematic. Part-time work for men, by contrast, was much more complicated for employers to understand. For men, part-time work was sometimes seen as a violation of “breadwinner” and masculinity norms, an indication that something was wrong with the man (e.g., he was lazy), or left hiring professionals stumped altogether about why the man was working part-time. These interpretations of part-time work for men help explain why they face hiring penalties when they have experienced this type of employment.

How might the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic challenges that will follow, influence these patterns?

We are in such a challenging moment. In addition to the tragic loss of life, millions of people have lost their jobs and it is unclear how things will look after the immediacy of the health crisis has subsided.

One thing that is clear is that many workers are going to experience spells of unemployment, potentially long-term unemployment. And it is quite possible that, as the economy recovers, many more workers will end up in positions that are either part-time, through temp agencies, or below their skill level. These are precisely the types of positions that I have been studying.

While my research has shown that some of these types of employment experiences can have negative consequences for workers, it is unclear how the meanings that hiring professionals attribute to these types of work may shift when the broader economy is experiencing so many challenges. Perhaps the consequences of, say, working in a job beneath one’s skill level will be less negative when this experience is so broadly shared by workers. Hopefully, hiring professionals will understand that nonstandard, mismatched and precarious employment experiences coming out of this moment of crisis are not reflective of workers’ underlying skills and abilities, but rather are the result of forces outside their control. In future research, I hope to be able to address this set of issues.

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