Poll: For Job-Seekers, Political Activity Can Be Perilous

The economic effects of war are not always immediately felt. One indirect impact that Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza is having: a wariness among U.S. employers about hiring recent college graduates who have participated in high-profile 2024 pro-Palestinian protests.

A new poll by Intelligent.com finds that nearly two-thirds of business leaders have concerns about hiring recent college grads. Half have become more concerned in the past five years about what they see as Gen Z grads’ troubling work ethic, greater political involvement, and lack of practical skills.

In fact, 30% of business leaders are more concerned about hiring recent grads specifically because of two major events: the coronavirus pandemic and the intense pro-Palestine protests of fall 2023 and spring 2024. More than one-fifth say they are less likely to hire a recent college graduate who participated in those protests, Intelligent.com finds.

‘HEIGHTENED CONCERN’ ABOUT POLITICAL ACTIVITY

Intelligent.com surveyed 1,268 business leaders in May to understand the concerns they have about hiring recent college graduates. The survey, launched via Pollfish, received full responses from 808 U.S. business leaders; among the demographic criteria used to ensure qualified respondents was age (35+), household income (>$75,000), organizational role (Owner/Partner, President/CEO/Chairperson, C-Level executive, CFO, CTO, Senior Management, Director, HR manager), company size (>11), and education (high school, technical college, college, or postgraduate).

Overall, most business leaders (64%) said they have concerns about hiring recent college graduates, reporting that they lack a strong work ethic (65%), have too-high salary expectations (57%), and are entitled (50%). A slight majority of business leaders (51%) say that they have become more concerned about hiring recent graduates in the past five years; conversely, 6% say they are less worried, and 13% say that there has been no change in their level of concern.

“There’s always been plenty of debate about hiring new grads due to broad assumptions around lacking soft skills, entitlement, and overall job readiness,” says Intelligent.com Chief Education and Career Development Advisor Huy Nguyen. “In recent months, there seems to be a heightened concern about Gen Z becoming far more politically active and vocal with their beliefs in all aspects of their lives including the workplace.

“Employers seem to be worried about distractions from their company’s business productivity goals and potential disruptions if they bring in outspoken employees fresh out of the college campus protest cultural environment.”

WARNING FOR EMPLOYERS ABOUT GEN Z GENERALIZATIONS

Within the overall subset (64%) of business leaders concerned about recent graduates, 84% say, compared to previous generations, Gen Zers expect too-high salaries. Additionally, 79% believe Gen Z college graduates have a worse work ethic, are more entitled (75%), and have become more political than previous generations (70%).

“Employers should be cautious about making generalized assumptions about Gen Z,” Nguyen says. “Recent grads need to directly prepare to address misguided stereotypes about their qualifications and mindset through developing their personal brand and demonstrating their experience.

“Some ways to do this include building a professional LinkedIn profile, resume, and cover letter, highlighting relatable experiences from internships, freelance work, or personal projects.”

Thirty-two percent of business leaders are more concerned about hiring recent college graduates because of how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted students’ education. Additionally, 30% have greater concerns about hiring recent graduates due to the pro-Palestine protests that began in the fall and intensified in the spring.

“Given that college protests have triggered polarizing debates around free speech, the right to protest, and tolerance for opposing viewpoints, it makes sense that some business leaders may be more concerned about hiring recent graduates,” says Nguyen.

MORE THAN ONE-FIFTH RELUCTANT TO HIRE PROTESTERS

Of business leaders surveyed who expressed concerns about hiring recent graduates, 22% say they are reluctant to hire graduates who participated in protests. Conversely, 21% indicated a preference for hiring such graduates, while 57% remained neutral.

The reluctance to hire protestors stems from concerns that they may exhibit confrontational behavior (63%), are too political (59%), or could potentially make workers uncomfortable (55%). Additionally, some business leaders perceive protestors as liabilities (45%), dangerous (40%), lacking adequate education (24%), or holding conflicting political ideologies to their own (23%).

Meanwhile, some business leaders express a higher inclination towards hiring recent graduates who actively engage in protests, valuing their outspokenness (73%), strong values (72%), and dedication to a cause (61%). Moreover, 65% say that their political beliefs align.

REMINDER: DISCRIMINATION BASED ON POLITICAL BELIEF IS ILLEGAL

Protests are a common topic discussed during the interview process, with 31% of business leaders always (12%) or frequently (19%) inquiring about a candidate’s involvement, while 16% sometimes do so and 54% rarely do. Four in ten (41%) never ask.

“This survey highlights the unfortunate reality where political issues, social activism, and divisiveness are spilling over into the workplace,” Nguyen says. “As political polarization intensifies, companies appear more likely to make biased judgments about recent graduates based on ideologies or personal behaviors, like protesting or social media activities.

“This trend poses risks for companies by potentially creating a toxic work environment and may also have legal ramifications if they are discriminating based on political beliefs during the hiring process. It would be prudent for both employers and job seekers to keep politics out of the hiring process. Focusing on a candidate’s qualifications, demonstrable skills, and personal merit is the best way to consider how well someone might succeed in the given role they are applying for.”

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