Are you prepared to artificially and arbitrarily limit your recruiting pool next time you need to fill an important job?

Few HR people or hiring managers would answer “yes.” Yet, according to a new study done by researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse universities, employers are likely to do exactly this if the applicant self-reports as having a disability.

The researchers created two résumés for fictional candidates — one for a person with six years’ experience and another for someone just a year out of college — and used them to respond to 6,016 advertised positions in the accounting field. Along with the résumés, the researchers sent one of three cover letters: one disclosing no disability, one disclosing a supposed spinal cord injury and one disclosing Asperger’s syndrome, which presents as a mild form of autism.

A 26% difference
The researchers said they were prepared to receive fewer of expressions of interest in the fictional candidates with disabilities, but the difference between the responses for the non-disabled and disabled candidates surprised them. Fully 26% fewer of the employers tried to contact the latter than the former.

And because the relative lack of interest was about the same for the “spinal cord” and “Asperger’s” cover letters, the researchers concluded that the results reflected a broad bias against the disabled. And the researchers indicated that there was no reason to assume this kind of bias was specific or limited to the accounting profession.

As The New York Times put it in reporting on the study: “If (the lower level of interest) were the result of a specific concern — for example, that candidates with Asperger’s would have a hard time interacting with clients, or that employers would have to build ramps for people in wheelchairs — rather than a general bias against people with disabilities, it is unlikely that people with such distinct disabilities would have experienced a drop-off of interest of about the same magnitude.”

The price of discrimination
There are at least two problems with this kind of attitude toward job applicants with disabilities:

  • First, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against applicants or employees with disabilities, although the ADA doesn’t cover the smallest employers, those with fewer than 15 employees. (Indeed, the research found that lack of interest in the fictional candidates with disabilities was strongest among businesses too small to be covered by the ADA.)
  • Second, if you automatically assume a candidate with a disability — whether it be physical or behavioral — isn’t for you, you’re making it needlessly harder to fill the job you’re hiring for. And as we all know, making a good hire is hard enough in the first place.

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