Commentary by Heidi Biggs
Something I like about design research or design as a knowledge enterprise is that instead of building arguments linearly, it builds knowledge through creating objects or interventions that surface complex convergences. Eason’s design thesis, based on his own experience of cancer survival, exposes and tracks the many intersecting threads of a wooly knot of unconscious bias in automated recruiting systems and the difficulty of job-seeking for people who survive severe diseases like cancer. Often a cancer diagnosis means people must step away from professional life to undergo treatment on a full-time basis. This can leave multi-year gaps in their professional resume where the intensely challenging experience of cancer survival is invisible and/or hard to discuss and stigmatized. These gaps can lead to hiring hesitancy on the part of employers when cancer survivors re-enter the workforce, as well as immediate rejection by automated recruitment systems. Breaking these interpersonal professional stigmas and automated biases are the goals of Eason’s thesis research.
To battle the cultural and automated bias that cancer survivors face when reentering the job market after surviving cancer, Eason intervened by creating a company, called NED, that cancer survivors can add as an employer to their LinkedIn profile for times when their full-time job was fighting cancer. NED is a medical acronym that stands for ‘No Evidence of Disease,’ which means cancer is no longer detectible in the body, however cancer survivors often jokingly refer to the acronym as meaning, “Not Entirely Dead.” Adding NED to a resume both helps applicants get through automated recruiting, but also represents how not all gaps in resumes are ‘empty’ — something pivotal did indeed happen during that time. Eason has moved on from purely addressing automation, to trying to shift narratives more broadly. In his research, he interviewed recruiters, hiring managers, as well as his friend group of fellow cancer survivors and found that even if a cancer survivor makes it through automated resume vetting, hiring managers may still be skeptical of someone with a resume gap. The recruiters and hiring managers Eason talked to commiserated with NED’s agenda but still often admitted hiring someone with a resume gap remains a difficult decision.
Eason has built a branding system for NED and is currently working to extend his social media and online presence through a mission-driven website and additional social media touchpoints. His logo, an elephant, is a reference to how resume gaps from cancer treatment can be the ‘elephant in the room’ at a job interview or on a resume. His website shares the company’s objectives and the stories of how cancer survival shaped people’s character. He highlights the grit, determination, empathy, and resilience gained through fighting cancer as ‘super skills,’ turning cancer survival into something uniquely valuable for employers — in his words: “soft skills gained through tough experiences.” Regardless, exposing unconscious bias and shifting narratives about employability is an uphill battle, especially around surviving severe illness which is not currently recognized as a mainstream, clear-cut social justice issue. Changing narratives about employment and cancer will be challenging, but Eason plans to use his own super skills to continue fighting for recognition and change and expanding NED’s reach in the future.