When you apply for a new job, there’s a good chance the hiring manager isn’t just evaluating your credentials — he’s also probably considering the reputation of top leaders at your former company.
And if those people are known for being liars and cheats, the hiring manager may have doubts about bringing you on — even if you had nothing to do with the immoral behaviour.
That’s according to new research from Stanford University, which found that people perceive the unethical behaviour of high-status individuals as prototypical of the group as a whole.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments to test this phenomenon. In one, participants read about an employee who was charged with fraud. Some participants read that he was a high-ranking exec; others read that he was an entry-level employee.
Participants were then asked to evaluate a job candidate for a mid-level position. The candidate was supposedly employed at the same company as the person accused of fraud. All participants read a generally positive reference letter for the employee and were then asked whether they would recommend the employee for the position.
Results showed that people were much more reluctant to recommend the candidate for the position when the person accused of fraud was a high-ranking exec.
“We found that people made significantly more negative hiring recommendations for this employee after they read that a high-ranking executive, rather than an entry-level employee, from this organisation had committed fraud — even though there was no indication that the two had ever worked together or even knew each other,” Takuya Sawaoka, one of the study authors, said in a release.
The researchers say these findings reflect the reality of people employed at companies caught in scandals. In particular, they mention former employees of Enron who feel that many people are still suspicious of them.
The authors also suggest the availability of information on the internet means these negative associations could be magnified.
“With the rise of ubiquitous online social networks, rapid news cycles and greater information transparency, details regarding your professional affiliations — organisations and people you’ve worked with, for example — are only a few clicks away. In addition, revelations about coworkers’ ethical lapses spread quickly on the internet gossip mill,” Sawaoka said.
If a top leader at your former company has a negative reputation, the authors write that there are ways to reduce the perception that you’ll behave unethically as well. For example, you can emphasise to your potential employer that the transgressor’s actions were not representative of the whole company.
You can also try to downplay the transgressor’s status in the organisation, so that his or her behaviour seems less generalizable to the whole company.
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