Study Shows Retail Industry Discriminates Against Cancer Survivors

According to a new study by researchers from Penn State University and Rice University, cancer survivors are less likely to receive a callback for a job within the retail sector in comparison to those who do not disclose their health situation. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Researchers focussed on retail employers and compared two groups of job applicants – applicants who never had cancer and applicants whose resumes indicated they were cancer survivors.

Only 21 percent of the cancer survivor group received callbacks, while 37 percent of the non cancer applicants received callbacks. The researchers say this is a statistically significant difference.

Lead researcher and Penn State’s’ assistant professor of hospitality management Larry Martinez says, “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.”

Martinez began the research for this study as part of his graduate work.

“Basically, people are more likely to discriminate in very subtle interpersonal ways. There’s less eye contact. There are shorter interaction times when speaking with managers. There are more negative interpersonal behaviors from managers, like frowning, brow furrowing and less smiling — fewer cues that communicate to applicants that they are interested in hiring them for the job.”

One part of the study targeted 121 retail managers at three large shopping malls in the southern part of the U.S. Five “undercover” researchers, two men and three women aged between 21 and 29, were randomly assigned to disclose a history of cancer or provide no cancer history when applying for advertised positions.

The applicants presented managers with resumes which included actual work experience modified to fit the job requirements and work history for the advertised retail position. Participants’ resumes were also standardized.

Although the researchers say no hiring laws were broken, there is clear evidence of discrimination.

“Despite the fact that cancer survivors are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we did see this difference in callbacks between them and the general public, as well as the negative interpersonal treatment they received,” Martinez says.

Researchers also conducted online surveys with 87 participants who were employed full time in management positions. They were were asked their opinions on how people feel about cancer survivors in the workplace. The results show employees with a history of cancer were rated higher in “warmth” than competence.

The study concluded that while diversity efforts have increased over the last ten years, health characteristics are rarely included in diversity programs.

Martinez says, “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.”

He adds, “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.”

Stay Connected