Recruiting

Why Are Applicants Afraid to Disclose Being Cancer Survivors?

The reasons are twofold. First, they feel less likely to get a callback. And second, according to a recent survey, they are less likely—by 16%—to get a callback.

A Harris Poll for Cancer and Careers recently found that 61% of respondents’ fear that disclosing their cancer diagnosis would lessen their chances of getting hired.

Also, according to a new study by researchers at Rice University and Penn State, job applicants who are cancer survivors are less likely to receive callbacks from potential retail employers than those who did not disclose their health history. The study also found examples of rather subtle discrimination toward applicants who identify as having an illness.

Findings of the study, "Selection BIAS: Stereotypes and Discrimination Related to Having a History of Cancer," published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by the American Psychological Association, focused on retail employers. It compared two groups of job applicants: applicants who ostensibly never had cancer and applicants who indicated on their résumés they were cancer survivors and wore a hat that read “cancer survivor” when applying for a job.


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According to a press release from Rice, applicants disclosing a cancer history received fewer callbacks from managers than the applicants who did not disclose a history of cancer. For the cancer survivor group, 21% received callbacks. For the control group, nearly 37% received callbacks, a statistically significant difference, according to the researchers.

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

The Methodology

At the beginning of the study, the researchers surveyed almost 200 cancer patients about their “disclosure habits” in the workplace, according to a summary on APA PsycNet, and they found disclosure was common.

Part of the study targeted 121 retail managers at three large shopping malls in a metropolitan area in the southern United States. Five undercover researchers (two men and three women between ages 21 and 29) were assigned randomly to disclose a history of cancer or provide no information about a history of cancer.

Prior to data collection, researchers confirmed each establishment was hiring. Researchers excluded employers that used a strict online-only application process. Only one applicant entered each store.


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Participants presented managers with résumés that included their actual work experience; however, résumés were modified to fit the work history and job requirements for the retail position and to remove any experience that would make the applicant overqualified. Participants’ résumés were also standardized for length, formatting, and level of experience.

Also, as part of the study, researchers conducted an online survey with 87 participants who were employed full time, most of whom had management experience or experience as an interviewer. Participants were asked to provide their opinions regarding how people feel about cancer survivors in the workplace. The results indicated that workers with a history of cancer were rated higher in “warmth” than in competency.

Tomorrow, the conclusion of the survey, plus an introduction to BLR’s guide, the HR Playbook, Employee Retention and Satisfaction: How to Attract, Retain, and Engage the Best Talent at Your Organization.