Is political affiliation the new discrimination? Our research suggests 'yes'

Is political affiliation the new discrimination? Our research suggests 'yes'
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The U.S. is experiencing substantial political polarization. Words like “hate” and “loathe” are routinely used to describe opposing party members, to the point that over 60 percent of voters are angry and worried about the direction of the country. Recent events may be a manifestation of this anger. Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseTrump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests Republicans disavow GOP candidate who said 'we should hang' Omar Nunes accuses Democrats of promoting 'conspiracy theories' MORE (R-La.) was shot because of party membership, and members of “The Squad” among the Democrats in the House routinely receive death threats. Americans don’t believe the situation will improve. Further, political polarization — and violence — is occurring in other countries such as England (Brexit) and France (rioting over fuel taxes and other policies).   

At the same time, social media screening is increasingly common when hiring, with over half of recruiters reporting that they check social media accounts such as LinkedIn and Facebook, or conduct Google searches. Such platforms make a wide variety of personal information easily accessible to recruiters — including political affiliation. The increasingly partisan landscape paired with information about party affiliation sets the stage for political affiliation to affect hiring.

In an article titled, “Political Affiliation and Employment Screening Decisions: The Role of Similarity and Identification Processes” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, we conducted two studies (with colleagues Kevin Matthews of Ohio University and Caren Goldberg of Caren Goldberg Ph.D., LLC) to answer the question: Does an applicant’s political affiliation affect how a recruiter evaluates that applicant? In both studies, participants reviewed and rated a mock Facebook web page for a college student seeking work. Using random assignment, different groups saw different versions of the page.

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In Study 1, the page contained explicit cues of political party affiliation such as a donkey or elephant and a statement about being vice president of campus Democrats or Republicans (D or R). We also embedded information about job qualifications into the pages, with versions presenting the student as either better or less qualified. In this study we had two samples, one of working adult professionals and a second sample of upper-class undergraduate business majors.

In Study 2, a page for a different applicant contained more implicit (i.e., indirect) cues of party membership; either pictures of pro-choice or pro-life positions, gun control or the second amendment, and a post endorsing Black Lives Matter or Blue lives Matter. In this study, we had one sample of working adults.

In each study, after viewing one version of the Facebook page, our participants reported their political affiliation, their perceived similarity to the applicant, how much they liked the applicant, and how well they thought the applicant would perform on a job.

In both studies, the pattern of results were similar. The job applicant was evaluated more positively when the rater’s political affiliation “matched” the applicant (e.g., D rater and D applicant) compared to when the rater’s political affiliation did not match (e.g., D rater and R applicant). A match influenced how much the rater felt similar to, liked, and endorsed the applicant’s potential to perform well on a job.

Particularly surprising was that information about job qualifications had no bearing on this tendency to give either more positive or more negative ratings based on match or mismatch. Stated differently, even when the applicant was better qualified, if there was a mismatch in political affiliation the applicant was rated more negatively.

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Results were more pronounced when we took into account how the raters felt, in terms of identifying with a party (positive feelings) and disidentifying with a party (negative feelings).  Raters who identified with being either a Democrat or Republican gave even higher ratings to an applicant who was a member of that party. Conversely, raters who disidentified with the party of the applicant gave even lower ratings to an applicant who was a member of that party.  That is, the strength of feelings toward or against a party “amplified” the affiliation effects.

The implications of our study are important. Political affiliation matters and the positive and negative feelings an evaluator has toward an applicant matter even more.

This suggests individuals should carefully consider whether to indicate their political party affiliation on social media pages, resumes, or answers in interviews. Doing so could help or hurt depending upon how the decision-maker feels toward that party. 

Companies also need to pay attention to this issue.

Our results suggest that political affiliation and feelings toward a party can influence who is hired. In one sense, this is discriminatory because we have little reason to believe party affiliation is related job performance (outside of jobs in the political arena such as a legislative aide). In another sense, this could mean that organizations can become more and more similar in terms of political affiliation. For example, a university whose members are strongly associated with one party continue to hire individuals of that same party. It is possible that firm leadership may view political homogeneity as a good thing. We caution against using job irrelevant criteria for hiring. Rather, focusing on job related knowledge, skills, and abilities is preferable and more defensible.

All told, we suggest political polarization characterizes the U.S. landscape. With this backdrop, political affiliation, and feelings associated with it, are poised to influence hiring and may be a new face of discrimination in the workplace.

Philip Roth is the Trevillian Distinguished Professor of Management at Clemson University. His research interests involve employee selection and social media in organizations. He is a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and active in the Academy of Management (in the Human Resources and Research Methods divisions). Roth earned his PhD from the University of Houston.

Jill Ellingson is the Dana Anderson Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Kansas School of Business. She received her Ph.D. in Human Resources and Industrial Relations from the University of Minnesota. Her research covers topics such as hiring, retention, training, individual differences and assessment. She is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology, a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and an Officer for the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management.

Jason Bennett Thatcher is an MIS endowed fellow at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business. He has studied the positive and negative implications of information technology’s applications and use in organizations. Dr. Thatcher has been actively engaged in understanding how online environments shape human behavior for the past 25 years. His recent work directs attention to the implications of technology for how individuals define themselves vis-à-vis technology use and vis-à-vis how others use information technology. He is a past-president of the Association for Information Systems.