You Survived Cancer — Good Luck Getting a Job

You Survived Cancer — Good Luck Getting a Job

Why you should care

Because it’s not OK to discriminate against job applicants for their medical history. 

Congratulations! After hours of surgery and weeks (possibly months) of chemotherapy and/or radiation, you’re in remission from cancer. Most people hail you as a fighter and an exemplar of strength, but according to a Rice University study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, there’s one arena where survivors might be negatively stereotyped:

Cancer survivors are less likely to receive a callback for a job interview than those who did not disclose their medical history.

Methodologically, the researchers employed “job applicants” who sometimes disclosed cancer history (they wore a hat that read “cancer survivor” and explained they were one year into cancer remission) to a sample of more than 100 actual retail-store managers. In other instances, the job applicants did not make the disclosure. While cancer survivors were able to apply for the same jobs — as required under America’s anti-discrimination laws — they were less likely to be called back, and they reported experiencing more “passive harm” during interviews. For example, hiring managers smiled less at them.

“When you look at cancer survivors versus their counterparts, they tend to be less likely to be employed,” study leader Larry Martinez says. “We were trying to figure out how that is.” Martinez suspects it has to do with worries about survivors’ qualifications for the job. He measured the perceptions of traits like warmth and qualities like intelligence, and the results were telling: Survivors were rated higher in friendliness than in competence.

And that’s not all. The researchers reckon that survivors, of whom there are expected to be nearly 19 million by 2024 in the U.S., might be called back less often because hiring managers worry about their ability to be healthy on the job and not take sick days. Janet de Moor, a behavioral scientist and program director at the National Cancer Institute, agrees this bias may exist, but it’s extremely outdated thanks to medical advancements. “The majority of cancer survivors will not experience major long-term disruption in their work lives,” she says.

But before anyone files a lawsuit on the basis of discrimination, there are a few ways scientists suggest the study could be improved. De Moor recommends ditching the hat and sampling from a more general representation of the population than the three shopping malls that were studied. The findings, she cautions, “should be considered exploratory.” For Martinez, it comes down to seeing if there’s evidence that cancer status has a negative impact on hiring decisions, which would be a violation of the law. His hope? To “make hiring managers more aware if there is a subtle bias,” he says. Because that kind of discrimination would be more malignant than benign.

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