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How Old Is Your Resume?


by Kendra Clark, for SIOP, and Stephany Below, Communications Manager

Study Shows Hidden Age Cues on Resumes May Affect Job Offerings

What you do in your free time may affect whether you can get a job. Hidden age cues on resumes, such as names or a particular hobby, can give hints to how old an applicant is and ultimately may hinder acquisition of a position.

A recent study conducted by Eva Derous and Jeroen Decoster, of Ghent University in Belgium,examined how age cues on a resume can affect the perceived suitability of someone applying for a job.

Derous and Decoster found that applicants listing modern-sounding names and activities on their resumes were rated highest for job suitability, followed by those with old-sounding names and modern activities. Lowest ratings were found for applicants with old-sounding names and old-fashioned activities as well as those with a young-sounding name and old-fashioned activities, even when date of birth was omitted from the resume. This research was presented at the 30th Annual SIOP Conference, which took place in April.

In Belgium and other European countries, it remains quite common for an applicant to include his/her date of birth on their resume. However, even removing explicit age cues like date of birth from a resume seems to not always be effective, Derous explained.

“Older applicants can still be rejected more often than equally qualified younger applicants,” she said. “This raised the question, ‘is there more in a resume than explicit age cues that might disclose one’s age?'”

In the study, 610 Belgian supervisors or managers read a job description for a “project manager” then evaluated four resumes that were equally qualified for the position. The differences between each resume consisted of three manipulations (all pilot tested). The first was the name, which was made to sound old-fashioned or modern. The second manipulation was the activities or hobbies listed, which were changed from old-fashioned like “playing bridge” to modern like “snowboarding.” The final manipulation was including a date of birth in the resume or not.

The study showed there was not much difference between job suitability ratings for applicants with old-sounding names and old-fashioned activities and applicants with modern-sounding names and old-fashioned activities. Both applicant profiles received somewhat similar ratings and were rated lower than the other two applicant profiles.

“There might be several explanations for this finding,” Derous explained. “First, our data show that the ‘effect of implicit age cues’ seem stronger for the ‘activity cue’ than for the ‘name cue.’ So old-fashioned activities more strongly impacted managers’ perceptions about the age of the applicant than the applicant’s name and hence impacted job suitability ratings. Names differ from activities in that names are given whereas one typically has control over the activities he/she engage in.  Therefore, managers might assume that activities reflect certain life choices—or even competencies—as one has usually some personal control over the type of activities that one performs.”

The low rating for modern names with older activities was unexpected though, Derous noted.

How Old is Your Resume?

“There might be several explanations for this finding, one of which is that resumes of applicants with a young-sounding name and old-fashioned extracurricular activities might have been somewhat of a surprise to managers, as this applicant profile deviates from the ‘norm’ or from what is expected that young people typically do in their spare time,” Derous said. “These applicants can be considered as a-typical and evoke attributions in the recruiter of ‘being strange’ or ‘being old-fashioned’ when compared to those that engage in activities that are seen as typically being performed by younger people. Such ambiguous profiles might be depreciated.”

The study also showed that managers who are older tended to rate older-sounding names and activities lower than managers who were younger. These effects were significant but small. However, some other studies (e.g., from Finkelstein & Burke, 1998) also reported similar results, Derous explained.

“One explanation may be that older managers know how older workers are perceived by others,” she said. “Compared to younger managers, older managers might be more aware of any negative/positive attributions and/or stereotyping or issues regarding older workers in organizations. An alternative explanation might be the so-called ‘black sheep effect,’ which, interestingly, has been documented by some Belgian social psychologists. Maybe older managers do not like to hire older workers as they want to keep up a positive image of themselves and/or of the ‘older age’ group they belong to. Older workers might be perceived by older managers as somewhat threatening. Hence, one could also consider this reaction as a kind of a self-enhancement strategy.”

In the study, when applicants removed explicit age markers, like date of birth, they actually earned lower job suitability ratings. So, at least for applicants in European countries, removing date of birth may not be an effective intervention for preventing age discrimination.
“However note that cultural context plays a part, as this applies to the Western European and Belgium more specificlu,” Derous explained. “Explicit age cues like date of birth are typically not mentioned on resumes in the United States, so less visible age markers on resumes, like one’s affiliations and extracurricular activities, seem important to consider.”

She said there are many tactics organizations could employ to help prevent age discrimination. One approach might be to deploy a mix of young and old recruiters for resume screening. Another approach might be to train managers and recruiters to make them aware of subtle biases during resume-screening and selection procedures more in general. Recruiters might use a structured sifting process with competency and experience checklists or testimonials (Derous & Ryan, 2015).

“In general, I believe we need better strategies to handle subtle hiring discrimination as blatant discrimination may become less frequent,” Derous explained. “This is a real challenge because such subtle effects might depend on the interplay of many factors, like applicant characteristics, as well as recruiter, job and even organizational characteristics.”

As discussed, there might even be cultural differences in the way applicants prepare resumes and with which resume information is dealt.

“Therefore, studies that document and take into account cultural differences when investigating effects of recruitment and selection procedures are important and much needed,” she said. “Most likely, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”

Derous said she believes there is a compelling need for more research in this area.

“A lot of attention goes to bias and adverse impact of psychological tests, which is very valuable and much needed,” she explained. “Yet, one may not forget the resume! Worldwide, resumes are generally the first screening tool and still one of the most important sources of information about the applicant.”

More information about the study can be retrieved from eva.derous@ugent.be.