Love Your Work and Your Paycheck, Too? Don’t Tell the Hiring Manager

Research Finds Bias Against Job Candidates Motivated By Pay, Benefits

Feb 25, 2020
Management and Organization
As Featured In 
Academy of Management Journal

People say when you find work you’re passionate about, it doesn’t even feel like a job. But that doesn’t have to mean your sole motivation has to come from the work itself. You can also be motivated by the salary and benefits that go along with that work – with one caveat: You can’t let the hiring manager of your next dream job know that you care about those things. That could kill your chances of landing it, says new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

In the research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, Maryland Smith management professor Rellie Derfler-Rozin and co-author Marko Pitesa, of Singapore Management University, find strong evidence that hiring managers are biased against job candidates who reveal interest in things like pay and benefits. But, they say, being motivated by both the work itself (known as intrinsic motivation) and other factors like high pay, flexibility, vacation time and family leave policies (extrinsic motivation), is not only common but is actually better for both organizations and employees.

“Both motivations enhance performance – it’s actually irrational for an organization to not hire someone because they are motivated by things other than the work itself,” says Derfler-Rozin. “Both motivations can and should be high, and there is robust evidence from previous research to suggest that together they strengthen each other and increase productivity.”

Unfortunately, she says, organizations don’t see it that way when hiring. And because of this bias, they are passing over many potentially great candidates.

Derfler-Rozin and Pitesa ran studies to test hiring managers’ biases. In one, they had students write fake cover letters to answer an ad for their dream job. They had another group read and code them objectively for either extrinsic or intrinsic motivation cues, without making any hiring decision. A third group acted as hiring managers, providing their perceptions of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and then indicating whether they would hire a candidate based on their letter. The results: Those who expressed high levels of motivation from salary, benefits, etc. were seen as having lower motivation for the work itself (controlling for actual coded intrinsic motivation) and the hiring managers were 20% less likely to hire them as a result.

In another study, the researchers recorded a professional actor in different job interview scenarios, talking more or less about the salary and benefits in addition to talking about the interest in the work itself. Then they had real hiring managers watch a version of the videos, and those who watched the video that expressed higher levels of extrinsic motivation, even when also expressing higher levels of intrinsic motivation, rated the candidate as lower on intrinsic motivation, leading to a 23% lower likelihood to make a hiring recommendation.

So why are hiring managers so biased? Don’t they, too, like to get paid well and enjoy good benefits? Derfler-Rozin points to lots of past research that says people tend to think about others in a much more simplified way than they see themselves, leading them to think about others in an either-or manner (either motivated by the work itself or motivated by benefits and salary).

She hopes these new findings push organizations to change: “I would hope that the implication would be let’s change, let’s update the hiring managers with research to change their mindset.”

There is some hypocrisy here, she says, because organizations tout things like their location and benefits to attract good candidates. “But then it’s so undervalued in a way,” she says. “It’s OK when they advertise it, but it’s not OK to ask about it.”

Individuals should always be careful what they ask about or show interest in during an interview. Derfler-Rozin says the research bolsters what she teaches MBAs about negotiation: “I always say don’t talk about salary while you’re interviewing. Only once you have an offer can you bring that up.”

She says policy changes that require organizations to post more information could help mitigate the bias. Though, she admits, it could be difficult to enforce. Organizations often don’t publicize benefits information or tell candidates about it up front because they want to leave it as leverage during the negotiation phase with candidates. “It’s a card for them to keep and show when they don’t want to increase salary during negotiation,” she says.

But they could – and should – put as much information about benefits as possible online so people don’t have to ask about it, especially those in marginalized groups, she says.

“Women and people from lower socioeconomic status are more likely to ask about things like salary, maternity leave and other benefits because they may need it more,” says Derfler-Rozin. “If they are potentially being discriminated against because they ask, then we are just exacerbating inequalities in the workforce.”

The punishment for caring about compensation and other factors shouldn’t mean you are passed over for the job, because those things are important, too, she says.

“We work because we like work, but we also work because we have to earn a living. We shouldn’t be ashamed of this.”

Read more:Motivation Purity Bias: Expression of Extrinsic Motivation Undermines Perceived Intrinsic Motivation and Engenders Bias in Selection Decisions,” is published in the Academy of Management Journal.


About the Author(s)

Rellie Derfler-Rozin

Rellie Derfler-Rozin is an associate professor of management & organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She received her PhD in organizational behavior from London Business School. She studies decision making in the social context. In her research, she looks at how people may deviate from decisions/behaviors that are rational from a pure profit maximization (traditional economics) perspective to satisfy needs that relate to their social world (e.g. the need to belong to a group, the need to have status in the group). Within this broad umbrella she is studying managerial decision making (e.g. looking at how managers may be averse to use their discretion in allocation decisions to satisfy belongingness needs to their group of employees), trust and ethics (e.g. looking at how group members who are at risk of social exclusions may show higher trusting behaviors and unethical behaviors that serve the group in an effort to promote re-inclusion in the group). More theme-related topics of interest to her are emotions, ethics, status and hiring decision biases.

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