Ben A. Rissing, Organizational Behavior, has an unusual background for someone working in the social sciences. He started out as an engineer. As a mechanical and biomedical engineering student, he worked on satellites and conducted research on the mechanisms underpinning atherosclerosis (the hardening of the arteries). Then something he heard from his foreign-born peers caught his interest.
“I would hear about the difficulty they had both working and residing in the United States because of the work authorization systems we have in the country,” Rissing says. “That topic really sparked my interests in the social sciences.”
Now, Rissing applies the mindset of an engineer to the social sciences, working to understand how employment systems in our society either function or fall short. He is particularly interested in how bias and inequality persist in labor markets, especially when immigration is involved, and how social networks and the flow of information impact decision making in hiring and college admissions.
“The research questions within the social sciences are so dynamic because there are many competing factors that shape these complex systems,” Rissing says. “These kinds of questions also have, in addition to theoretical merit, practical applications and policy implications. It’s really interesting and rewarding to operate at that intersection between the two.”
Every year, tens of thousands of employers seek to hire foreign nationals in the United States, typically through programs like the H-1B temporary work visa or employment-based green card. To qualify for these programs, an individual’s application is assessed by government agents in United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or the Department of Labor. But are these assessments fair and equitable?
In one of his papers, Rissing and co-author Emilio J. Castilla (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) examined the employment-based green card program, the largest employment-based visa pathway for immigrants to reside in America on a permanent basis. They assessed all labor certification applications submitted through this program, called work authorization requests, over a period of 40 months and found that foreign nationals from particular countries were more or less likely to receive United States work approval. “People from Latin America were a lot less likely to be approved, while individuals from Asia were far more likely to be approved, all else equal,” Rissing says.
Interestingly, when the government audited these requests, Rissing and his colleague found little difference in approval by immigrant origin country. Rissing explains that through audits, the government collects much more information about the candidates they’re assessing. “When they collect more information, the process becomes more equitable,” he says. “This speaks to some of the central theories in sociology and economics about the role of information in shaping fairer labor market assessments.”
American Workers versus Green Card Workers
Rissing and Castilla’s research came to a similar conclusion in another study of how the United States employment-based green card program functions. One of the program’s mandates is to ensure that American workers are not disadvantaged by an influx of foreign workers. Therefore, companies wanting to hire foreign workers must attest that they have been unable to find United States citizens for the job. “Employers generally have to provide an attestation, that is, a good faith statement that they were unable to find U.S. workers, without providing any supporting evidence,” Rissing says. “We study whether or not these kinds of attestation-based programs are actually effective at protecting the employment opportunities of U.S. workers in these industries or occupations.”
“Employers generally have to provide an attestation, that is, a good faith statement that they were unable to find U.S. workers, without providing any supporting evidence.”
Rissing found that the attestation systems in this setting basically don’t work. As unemployment in a certain American industry went up, so did the likelihood that an immigrant would be approved to work in that industry. “The opposite of what we might expect,” Rissing says.
Similar to the study of bias in work authorizations, Rissing determined that when the government audited these requests and collected more information—for example, all the American citizen and immigrant resumes that were collected by the company—the program functioned as intended. In these cases, as United States unemployment levels rose in a given occupation, so did denial rates for immigrant applicants in those same occupations.
“The problem is that in most regulatory systems, only a small number of applications get audited. It’s 13 percent in this labor certification program,” Rissing says. “But this study speaks to whether these programs that rely on employers’ good faith descriptions of what they’ve done are actually an effective way to regulate labor markets. It also speaks to ways we might improve the process. You can imagine a system where the government proactively collects these sorts of documents as part of the application process.”
In both studies, the results support the idea that more information leads to more equitable or effective judgments.
Endorsed MBA Applicants versus Non-Endorsed Applicants
Another of Rissing’s interests is how firms or universities make applicant screening and selection decisions. What factors influence these outcomes? Social connections is one such factor that can shape these key decision processes. In a recent paper—co-authored with Castilla—Rissing investigates the role of outside endorsements, a form of social capital, in MBA admissions.
“An endorsement is when a prominent individual, such as a business leader, politician, or successful alumni, might write directly to a decision maker on behalf of a particular applicant,” Rissing explains. “So this study looks at the role of such social capital—that is, these kinds of network connections—during assessments.”
The authors studied several cohorts of MBA applicants, comparing endorsed and non-endorsed candidates. They found that generally the endorsed candidates were more successful in the admissions process. They were more likely to be interviewed and to receive MBA admission offers. Why were these endorsed applicants favored? Rissing and Castilla’s data revealed that endorsed candidates did not turn out to be more qualified as applicants, proficient in the classroom, or successful on the job market after graduation when compared to non-endorsed individuals. Endorsed and non-endorsed applicants received similar GPAs, were equally likely to receive academic awards, and had similar starting salaries and signing bonuses upon graduating.
Endorsements did correlate, however, with good citizenship qualities. “These endorsed applicants were more likely to lead student clubs, and they were more likely to act as better alumni,” Rissing says. “They were more likely to give back financial resources to the university than their non-endorsed counterparts. So the results show that such endorsements may help decision makers identify applicants who might go on to provide organizational support, though our setting suggests that such endorsements likely provide little information regarding applicant qualifications or subsequent performance.”
Rissing adds that the admissions process is not so different than hiring, where such endorsements may also be common.
Collecting Research Data
Rissing uses a mixed-method approach in his research. He collects substantial quantitative data in the form of administrative records, but he also conducts interviews with key players. “Even some of the best quantitative exercises can’t always get at the question of why,” he says. “Actually speaking to the people who make these sorts of decisions can lend a lot of insight into what’s otherwise just a coefficient in a regression model.”
It also adds a richness and nuance to understanding the issue at hand. “There are so many subtle and potentially irrational ways in which people behave and both conscious and unconscious considerations that influence decision outcomes,” he says. “It can be really rewarding to examine these kinds of questions.”
Rissing hopes that his pursuit of these questions will have impact beyond academia—which is one of the reasons he was attracted to the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and its emphasis on applied solutions. “Rigorous peer review to advance theoretical understanding is very important, but so is closing the loop with practitioners and thereby informing decision makers,” he says. “It’s part of the responsibility when you study these kinds of topics that can, at the end of the day, have an impact.”