Politics and the Workplace: How to Hire and Get Hired in an Increasingly Polarized World

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With the 2020 presidential election around the corner and campaign season in full swing, politics is all around us — even outside of political contests.

Consistent with empirical research from political science scholars, a 2014 Pew Research Center report found that the United States has become increasingly politically polarized over the last two decades. More disconcertingly, Pew also reports a substantial increase in feelings of animosity between Democrats and Republicans.

Believing that individuals who belong to different political parties or affiliations are a threat can, perhaps, explain why political information has begun to spill over into other elements of our lives not previously influenced by politics, like romantic partnerships and, as one of my recent projects suggests, hiring decisions and collaboration preferences at work.

How can HR professionals and job candidates navigate this increasingly polarized world? Here are some tips based on our research:

Job Applicants: Consider What the Information on Your Resume Signals

As a job applicant, you have limited space on your resume to tell a coherent story about your work history and qualifications. You should think carefully about the signals that the information you include in your resume sends to hiring managers and recruiters.

According to our research at the Modern Work Lab, as little as one line of information on a resume can influence a hiring authority’s perceptions of whether an applicant would be a good hire. College students are often encouraged to show they were embedded in their communities on their resumes, but when that involvement includes political groups, local political campaigns, or other grassroots organizations, including such information can backfire.

Our findings hold even when high-demand skills are gained through political or cause-based group memberships. For instance, your intention may be to signal that you’ve had extensive experience managing complex projects when you include information about a leadership role you took on as an intern on Capitol Hill. However, recruiters and HR professionals may draw entirely different conclusions about the same information.

HR Professionals: Consider Whether the Information You Are Bearing in Mind Is Relevant to Assessing Candidate Quality

In our study, it was rare that HR professionals explicitly stated a job applicant’s presumed political affiliation influenced their thinking, but their actual decisions tell a different story. HR professionals are either unaware or unwilling to admit that political affiliation does, in fact, affect their hiring decisions.

We had HR professionals review and evaluate the resumes of three fictitious job applicants. In the experiment, job applicants who provided information that signaled their political affiliation — both Democrat and Republican — were generally evaluated as less desirable hires and passed over in favor of the applicant who did not provide any political information on their resume. This pattern occurred even when the decision makers overwhelmingly agreed that the politically affiliated applicant was objectively more qualified.

While hiring a marginally less qualified candidate who does not include political information on their resume may be done in an attempt to keep the peace at work, this strategy falls short in several ways. Most critically, an applicant who does not signal their political affiliation on a resume is not necessarily a politically unaffiliated individual. Similarly, an applicant who provides information that may be construed as political may be doing so for a number of apolitical reasons, including to highlight germane skill development (e.g., organization, time management, interpersonal skills) and work experience that would benefit your organization. Evaluating an applicant’s viability with only their possible political affiliation in mind can leave you with a deficient workforce.

In the future, applicants’ presumed political affiliations may play an even larger role in the hiring and recruiting process. Consider the growing trend of assigning a political bent to organizations. For instance, will employment at Nike or Chick-fil-A — two companies known for their politically charged ad campaigns and donations, respectively — influence perceptions of the applicant in the future? Only time will tell.

That said, recruiters and HR professionals can play important parts in ensuring that organizations do not mimic patterns of national political polarization by evaluating candidates holistically, rather than according to perceived political affiliations.

Jennifer Griffith, an organizational behavior scholar at the University of New Hampshire’s Peter Paul College of Business, is also director of the Modern Work Lab.

By Jennifer Griffith