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Fearless Idea 22: Shatter Misconceptions Among Job Seekers

Mar 22, 2017
World Class Faculty & Research

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Why do job seekers, scrolling through employment postings, favor some employers over others? It may be less about what they actually know and more about what they think they know, says Cynthia Kay Stevens, associate dean of undergraduate studies, and an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. And, because job seekers resist applying to companies they have decided are not a good fit, they may miss opportunities.

Stevens has studied why job seekers seem biased against unfamiliar companies, ones that lack strong name recognition. Working with co-authors Lisa Dragoni from Wake Forest University and Meredith F. Burnett from George Washington University, she asked first-time job seekers to rate their familiarity with a set of employers and then compare them against each other, explaining their preferences, as a way of pinpointing what these potential biases are.

“Familiarity has a big effect on students’ attraction to organizations,” Stevens says of her study. Students graduating into the workforce feel more comfortable seeking jobs at companies with high name recognition — Apple, Pepsi, ExxonMobil, and so on. This means that they often pass up jobs at smaller companies or those whose focus is business-to-business, rather than business-to-customer.

The researchers probed deeper into the tendency to discard unfamiliar firms. They found that job seekers draw common assumptions about unfamiliar firms, specifically, that they were less profitable, had been operating for less time, and had less successful products or services. Also, they assumed that “if they didn’t recognize the firm, then no one else would recognize it either,” Stevens says. And if other people would not recognize the firm, these job seekers felt that it would not be a very prestigious place to work.

To counteract this effect, Stevens recommends that smaller firms and those that do little consumer advertising include more details in job postings about how long they have been in business, any well-known clients, and information about their growth and profitability.  It can prevent job seekers from drawing the wrong conclusion when they lack information.

However, it is far easier to create a positive impression of an unfamiliar firm than it is to change job seekers’ bad impressions of a familiar firm.  “You can provide information, but sometimes it doesn’t penetrate because people already have established ideas,” she says, likening the conundrum to the current discussion about how “fake news” has permeated the political discourse. “We found that once people have an opinion in their mind — let’s say, ‘I don’t think this is a very good company’ — they don’t bother to pursue or process any further information about it.”

Cynthia Kay Stevens is the associate dean of undergraduate studies and an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Research interests: Recruitment and staffing, decision-making, working constructively with difficult coworkers, and workplace diversity.  

Selected accomplishments: Identified as one of the top 10 women and top 75 scholars published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology during 1999-2000, The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, April 2000.

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2017 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, culminating with the sixth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 30, 2017.

Other fearless ideas from: Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  |  Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Rachelle Sampson  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  Cynthia Kay Stevens  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang  |  PhD Candidates

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.