Cancer survivors less likely to receive callbacks from potential employers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Job applicants who are cancer survivors are less likely to receive callbacks from potential employers than those who are not cancer survivors, according to a recent study led by a Penn State researcher.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology by the American Psychological Association, focused on retail employers and compared two groups of job applicants: applicants who were ostensibly not cancer survivors and applicants who indicated on their resumes they were cancer survivors and wore a hat that read, “cancer survivor,” when applying for a job.

The applicants who identified as cancer survivors were less likely to receive callbacks about jobs, according to lead researcher Larry Martinez, assistant professor of hospitality management at Penn State.

“This is especially problematic as 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,” Martinez said.

Part of the study targeted 121 retail managers at three large shopping malls in a metropolitan area in the southern part of the 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 also excluded employers who utilized a strictly online application process. Only one applicant entered each store.

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

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 percent received callbacks. For the control group, nearly 37 percent received callbacks, a statistically significant difference.

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 and/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.

Researchers concluded that while diversity efforts have generally increased over the last decade, health characteristics are often not included in diversity programs.

“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,” Martinez said.

Next steps in this area could include training managers to be mindful of subtle biases they might have based on past and chronic health conditions, Martinez said. Additionally, “we could train applicants who might be prone to experiencing discrimination how to present themselves in interviews in ways to reduce possible negativity they might experience,” he said.


Larry Martinez

Work Phone: 

Assistant Professor of Hospitality Management

Last Updated August 25, 2016