Stereotypes and Employment Discrimination Against Cancer Survivors

Topic(s): discrimination, diversity, fairness, selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Selection BIAS: Stereotypes and discrimination related to having a history of cancer.
Authors: L.R. Martinez, C.D. White, J.R. Shapiro, M.R. Hebl
Reviewed by: Kayla Weaver

Employment discrimination harmfully affects many types of people, and new research indicates that cancer survivors may be among the victims. This is especially troubling, because after a cancer diagnosis, people must overcome many challenging obstacles to enter and remain in remission. Yet, these same individuals may also have a more difficult time obtaining employment. A recent study (Martinez, White, Shapiro, & Hebl, 2016) examined the stereotypes associated with cancer survivors and the workplace-related implications of these stereotypes for both individuals and organizations.


It is typically considered an accomplishment to have overcome cancer. Given the positive outcomes associated with being a cancer survivor, individuals who have beat cancer may wish to disclose their previous diagnosis with others. In fact, an initial study involving cancer survivors showed that most participants said they would disclose (or previously had disclosed) their cancer histories in an employment context. However, revealing personal information about one’s cancer history to potential or current employers may result in unintended consequences, such as stereotyping or discrimination.


In the current study, the authors surveyed 72 participants to identify the extent to which cancer survivors are perceived as warm and competent within a workplace context. Individuals who are warm are perceived as good-natured, sincere, and tolerant, while individuals who are competent are perceived as intelligent, confident, and independent. The results showed that individuals with a history of cancer were perceived as higher in warmth than in competence.

After establishing that a general stereotype of cancer survivors exists (i.e., higher in warmth than competence), the authors conducted a second study to determine whether or not job applicants with a history of cancer would be discriminated against in the workplace.


Passive harm refers to subtle discrimination that typically involves ignoring or dismissing individuals of certain groups. Given that cancer survivors were previously shown as being higher in warmth than competence, it is believed that these individuals will experience more passive harm in the workplace.

To test this hypothesis, the authors assigned members of the research team (also called “confederates”) to apply to 121 retail jobs in the Southern United States. Some confederates wore a hat with the words “Cancer Survivor” printed on front and submitted a resume that indicated they had survived cancer. The remaining confederates applied to jobs wearing a blank white hat and did not have any additional information on their resume. Importantly, the confederates did not know which hat they were wearing at any given time.

Each time a confederate visited a retail location to submit a resume, he or she rated the interaction with the store manager on several dimensions (e.g., smiling, helpfulness, rudeness). In addition, the researchers measured the number of callbacks each confederate received after applying to the retail jobs.


The results revealed that confederates who wore the cancer survivor hats reported significantly more passive harm than individuals who wore blank hats. Even though the confederates were unaware of which hat they wore, those in the cancer survivor hats perceived hiring personnel as more passively harmful, reporting behavior such as eye-rolling, pursed lips, hostility, and rudeness. Further, individuals playing cancer survivors received fewer job callbacks than individuals who work the blank hats. Taken together, the findings suggest that cancer survivors may be subject to subtle discrimination in hiring contexts, which may influence outcomes such as obtaining employment.


Individuals with a history of cancer are at risk of experiencing workplace discrimination as a result of their past health status. The present study showed that cancer survivors often choose to disclose their medical history in employment contexts, and that these disclosures may result in negative job-related outcomes.

Organizations should ensure that managers and hiring personnel are well-versed in job requirements in order to accurately assess all job applicants fairly, including cancer survivors and other people with a history of health-related issues. Further, while organizations continue to emphasize the importance of diversity, it is critical that health characteristics be given consideration within these diversity initiatives. Educating managers and hiring personnel about the stigma of cancer can help to correct harmful stereotypes, reduce discriminatory behavior, and improve the workplace experience of employees with a history of cancer.

Martinez, L. R., White, C. D., Shapiro, J. R., & Hebl, M. R. (2016). Selection BIAS: Stereotypes and discrimination related to having a history of cancer. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(1), 122-128.