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You had me at type O: Hierarchical screening of Korean job candidates

“You had me at hello” and “Nice boots, let’s go to my place” may be viewed as opposite extremes on the spectrum of dating dynamics. Korean employers and headhunters appear to subscribe to the latter.

They select workers on obsolete premises without any relevance to the ultimate objective: healthy labor relations and productive workforce. Their job application forms screen applicants’ height, weight, eyesight, blood type, family finances, drinking habits, you name it. Some ask about shoe size to make sure that candidates fit into company uniform shoes.

My recent study in the Journal of Labor Research has evaluated patterns in the prevalence of these questions on firms’ application forms, as well as firms’ stopping time: at what point firms feel that they know enough, and that collection of any more information is not warranted.

On the one hand, personal screening helps firms to better predict candidates’ skills, trustworthiness, dedication or ability to contribute to a team, and to identify the best individual in a candidate pool.

However, the effect of each characteristic surveyed on the quality of an ultimate hire is unclear. Personal characteristics differ in their predictive power over applicants’ productivity, especially if the other characteristics have already been surveyed.

Intrusive screening also carries real costs. Collecting, managing and analyzing the vast database on hundreds of candidates annually is costly. Then there is the risk of legal challenges, tensions with unions, or backlash from customers in foreign markets or in the public sector. Some commonly asked questions are illegal per se, even in Korea.

It is good to know when to stop.

Looking at companies that abstain from asking the most expected personal questions ― they don’t ask any intrusive questions. Companies that are apparently not sufficiently curious about applicants’ looks reveal a lack of curiosity about any personal characteristics. But if they ask about looks, a window opens for more intrusive questions.

Questions about looks thus appear to serve as a prerequisite for questions about eyesight, which in turn serve as a prerequisite for questions about personality (religion and blood type). For most firms, these in turn serve as a prerequisite for questions about community ties such as birthplace, family background and family finance, and financial status.

So why do some employers stop at asking about one or even no characteristics? While evidence is sparse, here is what we know: Firms asking few intrusive questions do not appear vastly different from other firms. They differ from firms asking a medium count of questions in the same way as this second group differs from serious snoopers. 

Firms’ screening appears related to conditions in the labor market in which firms operate. Knowing firms’ labor relations, working conditions and labor costs helps us predict their pattern of screening applicants.

In sectors with longer working hours and higher mandatory compensation and recruiting costs, firms practice more screening, probably because more is at stake. In sectors with higher typical discretionary and bonus pay, firms are more able to mitigate their losses from bad hiring choices, so they screen less.

Companies’ observable economic environment helps to predict whether they would ask general questions, say appearance or religion. Once companies ask general questions, however, these factors become less useful at predicting how detailed the follow-up screening gets.

Why should we worry about these patterns of applicant profiling? Because applicants are hired or disqualified for the wrong reasons. The fact that intrusive screening is widespread and systematic even at newly established firms suggests that firms choose their screening practices consciously, with specific aims in hiring.

In fact, snooping companies hire fewer women than companies that screen less, perhaps an externality of asking of too many questions. Second, workers’ incentives are distorted to invest in characteristics that companies ask about, rather than actual skills. Expending resources on the “image of success,” such as an embellished background, cosmetic surgery or English certifications, crowds out investment in more fundamental skills such as professional writing, programming, and analytical reasoning. Third, the fact that employers hold extensive personal databases under unclear data-protection measures and in violation of equal employment opportunity laws is itself a cause for worry.

More effective checks on firms’ practices are needed. For one, stomping out the most intrusive screening may be easy if many firms are already nearly indifferent about practicing it. Policymakers may also alleviate firms’ information needs by instituting protections against worker transgressions ― through traineeships for disadvantaged job candidates, penalties for fraud, civil liability in worker-caused accidents, or strict enforcement of non-compete clauses.

Besides overhauling the content of EEO laws and reducing employers’ reliance on screening, the relevant ministries should endorse proper hiring practices through systematic monitoring and stiff penalties; increase firms’ awareness of EEO laws; and empower applicants by informing them of their self-determination and data-protection rights, decriminalizing untruthful responses to intrusive questions, and encouraging whistle-blowing. Openness, transparency and free choice is what healthy relations require, both in dating and at work.
Vladimir Hlasny
Vladimir Hlasny

By Vladimir Hlasny
Associate professor, Ewha Womans University
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