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To tell or not to tell; disability disclosure and job application outcomes.

The logic of job selection involves elimination of candidates until only one remains but the expectation is that this inevitably discriminatory process should be fair. Among people with a disability and professional rehabilitation counselors there is a widespread conviction that this is not the case for jobseekers with a disability. There can be no real doubt that people with a disability experience vocational discrimination (Marchioro & Bartels, 1994; Stone & Colella, 1996; Tsang, Lam, Ng & Leung, 2000). The reasons for this are multiple, interactive and complex but a major contributing factor for this exclusion has to do with employers whose negative attitudes are kept in place by myths regarding people with a disability as workers and a desire to avoid 'risky hires' (Gilbride, Stensrud, Ehlers, Evans & Peterson, 2000). Many studies have set out to research this phenomenon but it has proven very difficult to design research that takes place in an organizational environment of decision making about real jobs, involving real job applicants, despite an acknowledgment that this is desirable (Nordstrom, Williams, & LeBreton 1996; Raza & Carpenter, 1987; Stone & Colella, 1996;).

One of the major difficulties is that in a laboratory situation there is a very high risk of eliciting a socially desirable response. This appears to have significantly affected the outcome in the work of Christman and Slaten, (1991) and Nordstrom, Huffaker, and Williams (1998) neither of whom mentions this as a possibility that could have affected the outcome of their studies. Nordstrom et al. (1998) used university employees with hiring experience to simulate making decisions about who they would or would not hire for a junior administrative post based on written material and videos of psychology undergraduate students role playing applicants with and without disabilities. Participants were also asked to rate their comfort levels in interacting with people with a disability and in their knowledge of the relevant employment legislation. Results demonstrated that the participants consistently rated the 'applicants' with a disability higher than those without. There was a positive relationship between those reporting a higher comfort level interacting with people with a disability and evaluation of the 'applicants' with a disability. The work of Christman and Slaten (1991) was similar. Managers were asked to watch simulated videos of interviews and then rate three female 'applicants' in terms of their employment and management potential. The managers were also asked to fill out a questionnaire measuring their attitudes towards people with a disability. They consistently rated the two 'applicants' with a disability higher on the employment and management scales than the 'applicant' without a disability. Mean scores of these managers on the attitudes towards people with a disability scale were higher than published norms.

Laboratory techniques vary but there are examples of using students to role play both the interviewers and the interviewees (Millington, Leirer & Abadie, 2000); using video segments of a person pretending to be a wheelchair user (Marchioro & Bartels, 1994); simulating other disabilities (Christman & Slaten, 1991; Nordstrom et al. 1998); and audiotapes of a simulated interview (Stone & Sawatzki, 1980). A rare exception in the literature is a study by Hayes and Macan (1997) that utilized a design that involved students with a disability applying for real summer jobs. Their goal was to 'examine whether a common integrated model of interviewer hiring decisions developed from research using fully able samples could adequately explain recruiter ratings of applicants with disabilities'(p. 168). In other words were recruiters using the same yard sticks to measure able-bodied applicants and those with a disability? Hayes and Macan found for both groups that self-presentation and the management of information about ones' employability played a significant part in explaining hirer's ratings. Measures of attractiveness were less important in rating applicants with a disability than was the case for able-bodied applicants. Interestingly, rating qualifications was not significantly related to interviewers' hiring decisions for people with a disability, but was significantly related for the able-bodied. Overall, a review of the literature in this area demonstrates how hard it is to utilize unobtrusive measures of actual behavior (Stone & Colella, 1996) in an experimental design.

Managing what Goffman (1963) has called 'discreditable' conditions involves the disclosure and management of information about the disability. Who, what, and when to tell are important decisions to make. By careful information management, social rejection and enacted stigma can be minimized (Gray, 2002). One of the most important applications of these skills is in the process of applying for a job. One of the dilemmas that people with a disability face when doing this is whether they should reveal their disability in the letter of application. The arguments for and against are well known: if the letter makes their disability clear they may not be offered an interview. If the disability is only revealed at the interview it may cause embarrassment and ultimately distress to both parties and the applicant may not get the job. The research described in this article set out to create an experimental design that utilized decisions made by typical employers in Hong Kong and that tested the hypotheses a) applicants for a job who made it plain in their application letter that they had a disability would be offered fewer job interviews than an identical applicant without a disability; and b) that employers differentiate between categories of disability. The strategy adopted was for the research team to respond to job advertisements with letters of application and to note which letters received a positive response--an offer of an interview.


In Hong Kong, clerical jobs are one of the most common types of employment and are also often suitable for people with physical limitations with a normal standard of education (i.e. a Form Five graduate, 11 years of schooling). Thus for a three month period, the researchers responded to every job advertisement for a clerical position (requiring Form 5 graduation, English and Chinese language skills, word-processing and spreadsheet computer skills) that appeared in the two papers most usually consulted by those seeking a job. These were Ming Pao (Chinese language) and the South China Morning Post (English language). Each job advertisement received four applications: from an applicant with no mention of disability, from a person able to walk with the aid of crutches, from a person who had recovered from a reactive depression, and from a person with a hearing impairment. The letters sent were identical in their descriptions of age, gender, marital status, level of education and qualification, previous experience and residential area. Schools attended and addresses were varied so that the letters did not all look the same. Thus all relevant variables were held constant with the exception of the one concerning disability. For the sake of courtesy, any employer who offered a job interview was phoned by the 'applicant', thanked and told that another job had been offered and accepted.


During the three months, 409 jobs that met our parameters were advertised so that 409 x 4 letters (1,636) letters were sent out. A total of 161 employers out of 409 responded with offers of a job interview. Some responded to more than one applicant so that a total of 331 responses to the 1,636 letters of application were received. The letters with no mention of disability received the most positive responses (146) followed by those that mentioned a hearing impairment (68) a mobility limitation (63) and depression (54).

Multiple pairwise comparisons were made that demonstrated high levels of statistically significant differences between the normal group when compared with all the disability groups. Comparisons of the disability groups with each other did not achieve levels of statistically significant difference. The detailed results are presented in Table 2.

The most significant result was that when compared with those that made no mention of a disability, the letters mentioning depression were less likely to receive a response at the p=0.00005 level of significance.


The results of our research confirmed the hypothesis that applicants who state that they have a disability in their interview letter are less likely to be offered an interview than an identically qualified and demographically similar applicant who makes no statement about disability. Employers demonstrated a strong preference for the non-disabled applicant. Furthermore, the frequency results suggested a rank order. At the top of the list were the hearing impaired, followed by those with limited mobility. People with a mental illness came last. While these differences were not significant, this hierarchy of preference is consistent with previous research in Western countries (Stone & Colella, 1996). We were careful to choose a kind of mental illness (depression) that many people could relate to and were unlikely to be frightened by, as might have been expected if the applicant had said they were recovering from schizophrenia. Even so, this group of applicants was still the least selected among the three disability groups.

Limitations of study

Ideally, the authors would like to have been able to investigate the outcomes of job interviews. However, the logistics of a research strategy that could incorporate interviews and real choices by employers involved a complexity of design, co-operation and resources that was beyond the reach of this study. The results demonstrate that in terms of offering interviews employers favor people without a disability. However, this takes no account of the personal qualities of empathy, personality and other factors which influence the outcome of interviews. Such factors potentially could have either a negative or positive outcome for a person with or without a disability. Thus we can claim that the research conclusively suggests that people with a disability have greater difficulty getting to the interview stage but generalization from this to the outcome of an interview without further research is not justified.


The research presented here was part of a larger study on the barriers to employment for people with a disability in Hong Kong As part of that larger study, focus groups were held with employers in which discussion took place about whether or not a would be employee with a disability should 'tell' in an application letter. Opinions amongst employers were mixed but many of them commented that it was rare to receive application letters from a person with a disability. They speculated that this might be due to low self-esteem on the part of the disabled job seeker and suggested that they needed to show more self-confidence and motivation. In the face of this research this explanation seems to be another example of 'blaming the victim'. It is quite clear from the research presented here that disclosing a disability in a letter is a strategically self-defeating move for a job-seeker with a disability.
Table 1

Number of Job Interviews Offered by the Employers to the 4 Groups

Types of disabilities * N Number of job interviews
 for the 4 groups

Hearing impaired 68
Depression 54
Mobility impaired 63
No disability 146
Total 161 331

* N: Total no. of companies offering job interviews.

Table 2

Multiple Pairwise Comparison of 4 Groups Based on the Job Interview
Offers from Potential Employers

Types of dis- Hearing Depression Mobility No dis-
abilities impaired impaired ability

Hearing impaired p=0.13465 p=0.20738 * p=0.00058
Depression p=0.17235 * p=5.53E-05
Mobility impaired * p=0.00027
No disability

* p<0.01


Christman, L.A., & Slaten, B.L. (1991). Attitudes towards people with disabilities and judgments of employment potential. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72, 467-475

Gilbride, D., Stensrud, R., Ehlers, C., Evans, E., & Peterson, C., (2000). Employers' attitudes towards hiring persons with disabilities and vocational rehabilitation services. Journal of Rehabilitation, 66(4), 17-23.

Goffman E. Stigma: (1963). Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gray, A.J. (2002). Stigma and psychiatry. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 95(2), 72-77.

Hayes T.L., & Macan, T.H. (1997). Comparison of the factors influencing interviewer hiring decisions for applicants with and those without disabilities. Journal of Business and Psychology, 11,357-371.

Macan, T.H., & Dipboye, R.L., (1990). The relationship of interviewers' pre-interview impressions to selection and recruitment outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 43, 745-768.

Marchioro, C.A., & Bartels, L. K. (1994). Perceptions of a job interviewee with a disability. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 9, 383-394.

Millington, M., Leirer, S., & Abadie, M. (2000). Validity and the employment expectations questionnaire: Do disability related attitudes affect employment selection outcomes? Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 44, 39-48.

Nordstrom, C.R., Huffaker, B.J., & Williams, K.B. (1998). When physical disabilities are not liabilities: The role of applicant and interviewer characteristics on employment interview outcomes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28, 283-306.

Nordstrom, C.R., Williams, K.B., & LeBreton, J.M. (1996). The effect of cognitive load on the processing of employment selection information. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 18, 305-318.

Raza, S.M., & Carpenter, B.N.B. (1987). A model of hiring decisions in real employment interviews, Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 596-603.

Stone, C.I., & Colella, A. (1996). A model of factors affecting the treatment of disabled individuals in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 21, 352-401.

Stone, C.I., & Sawatzki, B. (1980). Hiring bias and the disabled interviewee: Effects of manipulating work history and disability information of the disabled job applicant. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 16, 96-104.

Tsang, H., Lam, P., Ng, B., & Leung, O. (2000). Predictors of employment outcome for people with psychiatric disabilities: A review of the literature since the mid-80s. Journal of Rehabilitation, 66(2), 19-31.

Veronica Pearson

Frances Ip

Heidi Hui

The University of Hong Kong

Nelson Yip

K.K. Ho

Hong Kong Rehabilitation Power

Eva Lo

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Veronica Pearson, BSc(Econ), MSc, C.Q.S,W., D.Phil, Department of Social Work and Social Administration, The University of Hong Kong.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Job Application Outcomes
Author:Lo, Eva
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Previous Article:Job placement: the development of theory-based measures.
Next Article:Discerning characteristics and risk factors of people who are deaf and low functioning.

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