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Career - BLOG

Sins of the Past

Henrich Greve, INSEAD Professor of Entrepreneurship |

Adolescent mistakes can seriously impact a career today. It may not be fair but it happens.

Imagine the scenario. You have known a co-worker for some time. They’re good performers and work well with others. Then you hear something about their past: perhaps they tried illegal drugs in seventh grade. Would your opinion of them as a co-worker change? Would you re-assess their performance? If you were their supervisor, would you be more likely to terminate their contract if cuts were needed?

Life is not clear cut

The questions look a little artificial because it’s generally understood that current performance should decide what happens at work, and past behaviours are just that – past. Drug use would matter if it continued, but if it has happened and stopped it is just history.

Unfortunately life is not always quite so clear cut. People are perceived differently and treated differently for many reasons unrelated to what they do in an organisation. These views can be discriminatory and consequential: less pay for women, less job security based on race. Are past sins one more factor that affects how people are judged at work?  

The answer is yes. In a chapter from the volume of Research in the Sociology of Work entitled Adolescent Experiences and Adult Job Outcomes, I studied how "past sins" affect 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. Past sins are punished.

A racial problem

How do these effects compare with the discrimination we are familiar with? It turns out that the consequences of past sins are the same for men and women but are judged differently across races. Hispanic and African/American individuals are at greater risk of punishment for old wrongdoings than co-workers of European descent.

What this research means for parents is simple and clear: keep raising your children to stay away from behaviours that will stigmatise them in the future. What it means for organisations is less obvious. Something unfair and wasteful is happening, individuals who are perfectly good workers are getting pushed out because of past mistakes. Who is pushing them out, and why? It’s likely the reaction is purely subliminal, and those who force out a worker are unaware their decision is linked to gossip they heard about the worker's past; just as those losing their jobs are unaware that the drugs or sex experimentations in their youth would hurt them in the future. We know it is difficult to make organisations fair. How to improve this is the challenging question.


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Was there actually evidence that the managers making the firing decisions were in any way aware of the employees' adolescent behaviour - either through gossip or otherwise?

My own hypothesis would be that both the adolescent behaviour as well as the involuntary job exits are linked to the underlying character traits of the individuals (eg non-confirmist / rebellious) or to their social background / context. This would seem much more likely than the proposed causation relationship between adolescent acts and adult job exits.

Unfortunately the paper is no longer accessible, so can't read the research myself...

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