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In Hiring, Managers Seek ‘Motivation Purity’

New Research Finds That You’re Not Supposed to Care About Pay, Benefits

By Carrie Handwerker

Illustration of two men and a woman at a job interview. The woman has a yellow speech bubble that says "Dream job" and a white thought bubble with a dollar sign

Illustration by iStock

UMD research found strong evidence that hiring managers are biased against job candidates who reveal interest in things like pay and benefits. 

You’ve spotted an opening in an organization you admire, doing work you’re passionate about. But if the job aspects of that dream job also interest you—you know, like how much it pays—don’t let the hiring manager know. It could kill your chances of landing the position, according to new business research from the University of Maryland.

In a paper published in January in the Academy of Management Journal, management and organization Associate Professor Rellie Derfler-Rozin and co-author Marko Pitesa, an associate professor at Singapore Management University, found strong evidence that hiring managers are biased against job candidates who reveal interest in things like pay and benefits. 

That’s despite evidence that being motivated by both the work itself (known as intrinsic motivation) and by factors like high pay, flexibility, vacation time and family leave policies (extrinsic motivation), are mutually reinforcing and increase productivity.

Unfortunately, she said, organizations don’t see it that way, causing them to pass over many potentially great candidates for no good reason, searching for what the researchers call “motivation purity.”

“We work because we like work, but we also work because we have to earn a living,” Derfler-Rozin said. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of this.”

In one study to test hiring managers’ biases, she and Pitesa had students write fake cover letters to answer a job ad, while another group read and coded them objectively for either extrinsic or intrinsic motivation cues, without making any hiring decision. A third group acted as hiring managers, providing their perceptions on types of motivation, and then indicating whether they would hire a candidate based on their letter. 

The result: Those who expressed high levels of motivation from salary, benefits and other extrinsic factors were seen as having lower motivation for the work itself, and the hiring managers were 20% less likely to hire them.

In another study, the researchers recorded a professional actor talking about salary and benefits as well as about interest in the work itself in different job interview scenarios. Then they showed the videos to real hiring managers; those who watched one in which the actor expressed high extrinsic motivation, even when coupled with high intrinsic motivation, were 23% less likely to make a hiring recommendation.

So why are they so biased? Derfler-Rozin pointed to extensive past research showing that people tend to think about others in much more simplified ways than they see themselves, leading them to think about others in an “either/or” manner—either motivated by the work itself or motivated by benefits and salary—rather than able to have the same complex motivations they do.

Derfler-Rozin hopes the research pushes organizations to change how they hire people. For now, she tells her MBA students, it’s best to be careful what they ask about or show interest in during an interview.

Policy changes that require organizations to post more information for job candidates could help mitigate the bias, although it could be difficult to enforce, she said. Organizations often don’t publicize benefits information or tell candidates about it up front because they want to leave it as leverage during the negotiation phase with candidates. “It’s a card for them to keep and show when they don’t want to increase salary during negotiation,” she said.

But they could—and should—put as much information about benefits as possible online so people don’t have to ask about it, especially those in marginalized groups, she said.

“Women and people from lower socioeconomic status are more likely to ask about things like salary, maternity leave and other benefits because they may need it more,” said Derfler-Rozin. “If they are potentially being discriminated against because they ask, then we are just exacerbating inequalities in the workforce.”



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