Changing job criteria to discriminate in employment


New Haven, Conn.--Shifting their hiring criteria after learning the gender of job applicants is one way that employers engage in sex discrimination despite laws and policies banning it, according to a study by Yale researchers published this month.

"The question we wanted to answer is how, in this system of meritocracy where people are supposed to be judged on the basis of their personal credentials and accomplishments, the reality of discrimination continues," said Geoffrey Cohen, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and co-author of the study with doctoral student Eric Uhlmann.

What the researchers found in three studies was that people making hiring decisions construct criteria of merit congenial to the particular strengths of members of the advantaged or dominant group. Those participants who felt most strongly that they had been objective actually proved the most biased, Cohen added.

In one study, participants were asked to hire a new police chief, for which there were male and female applicants. Some of the applicants had more on-the-job "street" experience, while others had stronger educational backgrounds. "When people were evaluating male applicants they shifted the job criteria to emphasize the importance of whatever credentials the male applicants happened to have," Cohen said. They showed no such favoritism when evaluating female applicants, and even tended to denigrate the importance of the female applicants' areas of strength, he said.

In a second study, participants were asked to hire a women's studies professor. In this case they based their hiring criteria on whatever the particular strengths of the female applicants happened to be. The third study revealed that gender discrimination was eliminated through the simple intervention of having people commit to hiring criteria before they reviewed an applicant's credentials.

"People who make hiring decisions should decide what criteria are important to a particular job before the interviews so that there is no room to maneuver later on," Cohen said. "That kind of pre-commitment may help to reduce discrimination."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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