Ever wish your name didn’t sound so “ethnic”? Or ever been advised to “lose the accent” or “talk whiter” when applying for that dream job? Despite the focus in academia and corporate culture on “diversity” and “equal opportunity,” racial otherness remains the wild card in any assessment process. A new study disrupts the conventional notion of “meritocracy” in the hiring process, revealing how hidden bias colors the way employers evaluate individuals’ credentials, by looking at how race is read—“all other things being equal.”
According to a controlled study on the experiences of job applicants of color, applicants who “whitened” their résumés did get an edge. University of Toronto researchers measured the effects of racial coding in the initial stages of the employment process—getting selected for the call-back round—by focusing on two groups: non-white job-seekers and companies. In the experiment, job applicants of Asian or black heritage sent fictitious resumes to employers, who were separated according to whether they identified as pro-diversity firms or not (for instance, by advertising that “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”). Researchers measured the outcomes for different tactics people use to “whiten” their résumés: such as making a name look whiter (anglicizing an African-influenced or Asian-language name into something more EuroAmerican-seeming), or perhaps hiding racially or ethnically themed extracurricular activities in college, like co-founding an Asian or African American student support group on campus.
So, all else being equal, does whitening work? When researchers isolated the effects of whitened versus non-whitened applications in terms of the rate of callbacks, whitening up paid off. For the baseline applicant group, the outcomes for callbacks for the original, unbleached resume were about 10 percent. Those who whitened their first names (e.g., turning “Lei Zhang” into “Luke Zhang”) had a slightly higher callback rate of 13 percent. Similarly, those who “whitened” their work experience credentials did even better: 18 percent. And whitening both the name and experience saw their prospects roughly double with a 25 percent callback rate. Overall, the black job-seeker who “whitened both his first name and the experiences…would receive 2.5 times as many callbacks.” Researchers concluded, “two equally qualified racial minority job seekers might fare very differently in the labor market, depending on how effectively they prevent their race from ‘sticking out.’”
Researchers also found that the supposedly pro-diversity “equal opportunity” employers displayed the same subsurface hiring biases that other employers did. In other words, don’t be comforted by the declaration on glossy HR brochures—they apparently don’t “value diversity” enough to avoid subconsciously favoring the white candidate. Corporations are marketing themselves to job seekers as well, so they may often oversell their social consciousness credentials and, in day-to-day operations, fall short of their own ethical standards.