Intersectional Status Beliefs Transfer in Employee Referral Processes
Using employee referral programs is generally considered a best practice for organizations seeking top quality talent. However, research on whether or not these programs result in positive outcomes equally for all applicants is mixed. To date, most research examining demographic effects in employee referral programs focuses on how status characteristics of applicants (such as race and gender) can result in unequal outcomes (such as being hired or promoted) for applicants with different identities. Little is known, however, about the influence of referring employee status characteristics during hiring processes and whether or not decision makers’ biases toward certain referring employees may lead to different hiring process outcomes for the applicants they refer. Using status characteristics theory and the theory of status beliefs transfer, hypotheses were tested regarding how status characteristics of referring employees, namely race and gender, might lead to a transfer of evaluators’ status beliefs from a referring employee to their referred applicant, thereby affecting subsequent applicant evaluations. Four hundred and thirty-seven U.S. individuals with hiring experience served as participants for an online résumé evaluation experiment where the only difference between résumés was the name of a referring employee noted at the top of the document. Referring employee names were selected via pre-test to signal the referrer was either a White man, Black man, White woman, or Black woman. Results of quantitative analyses revealed a statistically significant difference in average ratings of competence, recommendations for interviews, and starting salary between referred and non-referred applicants, with participants rating referred applicants more favorably. In addition, a statistically significant effect of race, but not gender, was found in average ratings of competence, commitment, interview recommendations among referred applicants. Specifically, employees referred by Black individuals tended to receive higher average outcome ratings compared to employees referred by White applicants. Additional qualitative thematic analysis of open response data revealed intersectional evaluative differences among applicants referred by employees with different combinations of race/gender statuses. Taken together, and viewed through the lens of intersectional theories, findings suggest evaluations of applicants may have been influenced by a status beliefs transfer process whereby the intersectional status characteristics of referring employees were transferred onto and used to evaluate the applicants they referred. Implications for theory, practice, and future research are discussed.