Suppose you have known a coworker for some time, and you have a good idea of how well he (or she) can perform work tasks and behave nicely. Then you hear something about the past: for example, he tried out illegal drugs in seventh grade, just when starting junior high school freshman. Would your opinion of him as a coworker change? Would your assessment of his job skills change? If you were his supervisor, would you be more likely to let him lose the job if cuts were needed?
The questions look a little artificial because we understand that it is current job performance that should decide what happens to someone at work, and that past behaviors are just that – past. Drug use would matter if it continued, but if it has happened and stopped it is just history. At the same time, the questions should look worrisome because we have an intuition that things are not quite so clean. People are seen differently and treated differently for many reasons unrelated to what they do in an organization. These views can be discriminatory and consequential: less pay for women, less job security for African American men. Can past sins such as drug use be one more factor that leads people to be seen differently at work?
The answer is yes. In a chapter in the volume of Research in the Sociology of Work on Adolescent Experiences and Adult Job Outcomes, I studied how "past sins" affected job changes. Having used illegal drugs before the age of 14 makes adults more likely to lose their jobs. Sex before the age of 14 has the same effect. It did not matter what level of job skills people had, or whether they used drugs during the work period. It did matter why the left the job, because early drugs and sex had no relation to leaving the job voluntarily, only to losing it. Past sins are punished.
How do these effects compare with the discrimination we are familiar with? It turns out that the effect of past sins is the same for men and women (including the effect of early sex). But it is not the same across races: Hispanic and African American individuals are harder hit by their past sins than White individuals.
What this research means for parents is simple and clear: Keep raising your children to stay away from behaviors that will stigmatize them in the future. What it means for organizations is less clear: Something unfair and wasteful is happening because individuals who are perfectly good workers get pushed out because of things they did in the past. But who is pushing them out, and why? It is likely that those who make them lose their jobs are unaware of the link to news they heard about past sins; just as those losing their jobs were unaware that the drugs or sex would hurt them in the future. We have learnt that it is difficult to make organizations fair, but we are not sure how to improve that.
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