Your Politics Can Impact Your Job Search

People might suspect that being either a Democrat or Republican could affect their ability to get hired. But a University of Kansas professor has helped prove it.

“Your political affiliation matters,” said Jill Ellingson, a professor of human resource management and Dana Anderson Research Fellow at the School of Business.

Ellingson is the co-author of a new study titled “Political Affiliation and Employment Screening Decisions: The Role of Similarity and Identification Processes” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The article finds that identification and disidentification with an applicant’s political party influence the hiring process. Ellingson offers several factors for why this is so evident in modern business environments.

“The changing political landscape that characterizes our country now — compared to the United States maybe 10 or 15 years ago — has shifted such that we see a conversation around politics that is more adversarial and divisive. And it’s characterized by more negative effect,” she said.

Another factor involves social media becoming such a dominant means of communication.

“We are able to access information about other individuals in ways we never could before,” she said. “That has really changed the face of how applicants and organizations interact in the process of trying to seek work and determine who should be brought into an organization.”

The first study used in the article (which Ellingson co-wrote with Philip L. Roth, Jason Thatcher, Philip Bobko, Kevin Matthews and Caren Goldberg) presented raters with applicant Facebook profiles culled from 187 undergraduate students taking business administration courses. But these profiles explicitly noted an association with the Democratic or Republican parties.

The feedback from the first study prompted criticism that the cues were too overt. So they created a second one, which inserted more implicit cues, such as a Choose Life license plate, an NRA membership logo or a Black Lives Matter hashtag.

“My expectation was that when we provide information about real job-related requirements like internship experiences and GPA and stuff that should matter — what we call the individuating information — that should wash out the political affiliation effects. It didn’t,” she said.

In prior research looking at how demographic signals affect decisions regarding applicant hire-ability, Ellingson explained aspects such as race or gender initially mattered. But once presented with résumé, job experience, GPA, etc., that information canceled out most demographics. However, one’s political leanings lingered with the evaluators regardless of these other attributes.

Her study suggests several reasons why such affiliation proves a powerful variable in hiring decisions:

1. Political affiliation is seen as a discretionary choice rather than a biologically determined one.

2. Social media makes one’s affiliation so much easier to discern.

“For a lot of students and adults, they’re aware of the big social media no-nos: racism and sexism,” she said. “But what about indicating on your webpage you are in a leadership position for, say, the College Republicans? This is content that isn’t initially viewed as problematic. ‘Well, that’s who I am. It should go on my page. It’s part of my résumé.’ Yet we need to ask, ‘What are the implications of that kind of material?’”

Ellingson said her students are still coming to terms with how much of themselves is appropriate to reveal on social media, especially if they’re expecting to land a job after graduating.

“While this is not a new phenomenon, it’s still the case that they need to be sensitive to what they’re putting up on their profiles. And it’s not just their LinkedIn profile. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter — organizations will find those, too. They really need to have a positive and professional presence on the web,” she said.

Now in her fourth year at KU, Ellingson has also served as an associate editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology the last six years.

Ellingson, who earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, admits much of hiring still relies on instinctive reactions, which reinforces the findings of her latest study. Trouble is, instincts often prove unreliable.

“Individuals who’ve been hiring for a long time think they can do it based on their instincts. ‘I have a good feeling about you, so that feeling must be a legitimate indication of your ability to do the job,’” she said.

“I’m not suggesting you can’t have a conversation with an individual, get a feeling about them and have that feeling be indicative of who they are or what their capacity is. But the issue when it comes to hiring for organizations is can you do it, one after the other, after the other? Statistically, we know that is rarely effective.”