This blog post is cross-posted from APA’s Psych Learning Curve, a blog run by APA’s Education Directorate where psychology and education connect.
By Julia Golubovich, PhD
We continue our exploration of the field of Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology, the American Psychological Association’s Division 14. If you’ve read our recent blogs, you already know that I-O Psychology is the study of behavior in the workplace. I-O Psychologists frequently help businesses better hire, motivate, and retain employees, but they can apply their skills in many other ways.
In this second blog of a new series, we continue interviewing I-O Psychologists about their passion projects to show you how these individuals are applying their training to make a difference in human or animal lives. The first post explored the how an I-O psychologist helped the animal fostering program.
Meet Dr. Ann Marie Ryan, a Professor in Michigan State University’s Psychology Department. She received her Ph.D. in I-O Psychology from the University of Illinois in 1987, and has since become one of the most knowledgeable, productive, and respected professionals in the field. In addition to teaching, Ann Marie consults for organizations and leads a diversity research lab of graduate and undergraduate students. Ann Marie and her lab study populations that are underrepresented in workplaces. They investigate such groups’ identity management and inclusion at work with the goal of promoting workplace diversity.
One of the underrepresented populations Ann Marie and her students have been researching are individuals with criminal records. Consider this: more than 60 million adults in the U.S. are estimated to have criminal records, and 73% of employers conduct criminal background checks as part of their selection processes.
Fearing further criminal activity, or even just poor work ethic or interpersonal skills, employers are often apprehensive about hiring individuals with criminal records. The stigma these individuals carry makes it difficult for them to get good jobs, find their footing as productive members of society, and stay on paths that don’t involve any further criminal activity.
Ann Marie’s team is conducting a set of research studies to find out which impression management strategies can best help job applicants with criminal records manage their stigma, and how an employer can best judge the job-relevance of a given applicant’s criminal record. They’re attending to both job applicants’ and employers’ perspectives to find mutually beneficial solutions.
Juliya: How did you get involved in research looking at the experiences of individuals with criminal records when applying for jobs? What about this topic caught your interest?
Ann Marie: Since the beginning of my career, I have been interested in fairness in selection practices, so in some ways, this is not a new interest. However, this specific topic caught my interest a few years ago when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), state laws, and other factors started to home in on the fact that the way criminal records are used to screen job applicants carries racial disparities in our criminal justice system into the employment sector as well.
I became even more interested through serving on expert panels where organizations were trying to make systematic judgments regarding how specific offenses relate to specific jobs. How the expertise of our field in job analysis and validation of selection procedures could be brought to bear more directly on those processes was interesting to me, particularly because it’s not a straightforward application.
Juliya: Thinking about this program of research, can you tell me a little about your process of formulating research questions and methods of studying them?
Ann Marie: Some questions arose directly from conversations with a number of different individuals in practice who just directly told me, “We need research on this,” as well as from attending SIOP conference sessions where the presenters discussed EEOC guidance on the topic.
Specific studies arose within our research team where my graduate students were already interested in issues of identity management in hiring contexts, and that led to extensions specifically to those with criminal records. This fit with our general research stream on providing tangible advice for those who may face stigmatization in hiring processes.
Other studies arose directly from my experience trying to make judgments about the job relatedness of offenses for specific jobs on expert panels, as well as using that same judgment task as an exercise in my undergraduate classes. Seeing the wide variability in how people considered information like the type of offense and time since conviction made me realize that this was an area where research could really help suggest best practices in these types of judgment contexts.
Juliya: When working with current or former I-O Psychology graduate students on this research, how do you see your and their respective roles?
Ann Marie: Research collaborations always involve some negotiation of roles. This is not just about who does what task, but also about when to obtain input and when to move forward autonomously. That also varies somewhat depending on the specific nature of the research study, the expertise required for different aspects of the research process, and individual comfort levels.
Juliya: In what ways is the lens that an I-O Psychologist brings to this type of research different than how researchers in other fields might study the experiences of individuals with criminal records?
Ann Marie: The employment of those with criminal records has been a focus of research for those in criminal justice, sociology, and other areas for some time. The value of the I-O lens, in my view, is specifically in our knowledge of employee selection and what makes for valid and fair procedures. We have expertise that allows for both an applicant and an employer perspective on hiring processes.
Juliya: What kind of practical outcomes do you hope to see from this program of research?
Ann Marie: I hope that some of our research on how applicants with criminal records can navigate the interviewing process is helpful for those seeking employment and/or designing reentry programs. I hope that our research on how to determine the job-relatedness of a criminal record spurs the conversation and innovation in practice needed to enhance the fairness and acceptability of practices in this area.
Juliya: Is there anything else you’d like to share to convey the importance of research on individuals with criminal records or to highlight more generally the impact I-O Psychologists can make?
Ann Marie: I think this type of research illustrates to undergraduates why research on employee selection continues to be critical – employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism, but it is also a key factor in addressing a broader set of social ills. I-O Psychologists who work in the area of improving employee selection processes can have a major impact on the economic and personal welfare of many people.
Want to learn more about the field of I-O psychology? Read our recent blog posts for an overview, to find out other ways I-O psychologists have given back to society, and to discover your dream job in the field.