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How reference checks contribute to sex discrimination at work

On Behalf of | Jul 31, 2023 | Employees' Rights |

It is common for businesses to request a resume outlining someone’s work history and also individual references for both personal and professional matters. Reference and employment checks are a way to validate someone’s claims about the experience they have and what kind of job responsibilities they formerly fulfilled. Employers can potentially screen out those who’ve caused issues in the workplace and those who’ve misrepresented their abilities or educational background.

However, social research does show that reference checks tend to result in unfair outcomes in some cases. Specifically, research has found that reference checks that involve calling former employers often contribute to subtle forms of sex-based discrimination that may diminish the opportunity of working women, in particular, to secure workplace advancement opportunities.

How does sex bias affect reference checks?

Most professionals would not give a female worker a poor reference simply because she is a woman. However, those in management and human resources positions often use different language to rate the performance and personalities of female workers when compared with male professionals with similar abilities and work histories. Men tend to receive more glowing and enthusiastic praise, while women receive more generic references. Managers and others are also more likely to use words and phrases about female workers that raise doubts about their abilities or personalities.

The unfortunate impact of that subtle bias is that men may more quickly and easily secure better positions in no small part because of the bias during the reference check process. Male workers with similar backgrounds and educations may end up commanding higher wages than women of similar status when they start at a company because of the perceived difference in their work performance.

Women seeking to move into better-paid or more prestigious positions at organizations therefore be aware of how the subtle bias of the people they formally worked with may influence what the company they used to work for conveys to a prospective employer. When workers believe that bias has impacted their advancement opportunities or income, they may be in a position to fight back. Learning more about what contributes to sex discrimination in the workplace may help ambitious employees avoid and fight back against unfair treatment by employers.


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