For as long as women have been in the workforce, there’s been a steadfast, if unwritten, rule that if a woman wants equal footing professionally, any information related to home life stays at home.
This concept is so strong that many people on both sides of the hiring process think it is illegal, or at minimum inappropriate, to ask personal information about children or marital status. And recruiters and career websites often advise women to find “creative ways” to disguise resume gaps caused by family matters.
New first-of-its-kind research from two Vanderbilt Law School economists contradicts conventional wisdom and finds a female applicant strongly raises her chances of getting hired if she gives personal information clarifying her resume gaps. And employers are legally allowed to ask these questions as well.
“Our study provides the first-ever evidence that women who conceal personal information dramatically lower their hiring prospects,” said Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt Law School.
“Employers overwhelmingly preferred to hire candidates who provided information to explain a resume gap, regardless of content. Any information that could flesh out a woman’s job history and qualifications improved employment prospects relative to no explanation for an otherwise identical job candidate,” added Vanderbilt co-author Jennifer Bennett Shinall.
The research is in the paper “Something to Talk About: Information Exchange Under Employment Law,” forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
In their experiment, Hersch and Shinall had 3,022 subjects act as “potential employers” and choose between two job candidates, described as mostly similar except for their openness about a 10-year gap in their job histories.
The gap was explained with information such as taking time off to raise children or a recent divorce as the reason for leaving and wanting to re-enter the workforce. No information was given in the other scenarios.
The statistics were striking.
Female candidates who gave personal information raised their chance of being hired by 30 to 40 percentage points, compared to a comparable female candidate who provided no personal information.
“I was shocked by the results,” said Hersch.
“The personal information gave no indication whether the woman would be a more or less productive employee. This was entirely neutral information. Yet the number of people who preferred the woman who explained her resume gap was staggering.”
Better to know
The results are consistent with the behavioral economics theory of ambiguity aversion.
“Individuals prefer known risks over unknown risks,” said Hersch.
“It boils down to any explanation for your exit and your re-entering the workforce is better than no explanation,” added Shinall.
What about the law?
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance, which discourages employers from asking about family matters, is not a law, said Hersch. It’s a suggested policy created with the goal of encouraging compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and improving workplace equity. But the study finds workplace information restrictions may now serve to stifle workplace equity.
“The beauty of our results is that we don’t need to change the law to implement our proposal,” Hersch said. “The EEOC gives advice and guidance, but it’s not the law.”
Guidelines, unlike laws, are easily adapted.
Hersch and Shinall propose that the EEOC shift from the existing blanket “don’t ask, don’t tell” guidance to the reasonable accommodation model already used by the EEOC for disabled employees.
“The idea behind reasonable accommodation is that there’s an interactive process where the employer and employee have an honest conversation about each side’s needs and wants,” said Hersch. “This would prevent women from being fearful about giving information or asking for work/life balance modifications such as telecommuting or alternate work schedules.”
The researchers suggest that this honest conversation happen during the interview process.
“If we start to encourage these types of conversations between employers and employees on an official level, it could lead to meaningful change in the quality of applicants, particularly in industries that have been so resistant to providing family-friendly work policies,” added Shinall.
Better communications = better employees
The researchers believe changing the mindset behind communicating about personal issues would ultimately lead to more qualified candidates.
“We have a significant number of highly educated, highly qualified women who take a few years off to raise children, and want to come back into the labor market. And the fact of the matter is they seem to be getting bad advice from recruiters and career websites urging them to pretend their private lives don’t exist. The EEOC guidance is not helping their transition back into the economy to take these high-power jobs,” said Shinall.
New guidelines and more open communication would ultimately lead to better matches between employer and employee and less turnover.
“Finding a good match is exceptionally important because turnover costs are whoppingly high,” Hersch said.
Turnover costs are estimated by the Society for Human Resources Management to be 150 percent of annual salary.
“Some issues like revised schedules or working from home can often be enacted so trivially and at such low cost, but they aren’t done because of concerns like ‘we can’t make exceptions for you,’” said Hersch. “What employers need to do is stop seeing these work/family balance issues as something exceptional because 80 percent of college-educated women are in the workforce and they bear the majority of the childcare responsibilities.”
“If both parties are honest about each others’ needs, it will help create a relationship that is productive and sustainable,” said Hersch.