‘Resumé whitening’ common among job applicants

Even pro-diversity employers appear to discriminate: Report
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/18/2016

For anyone, it can be difficult to find a job, but many diverse or minority applicants face added challenges. 

As a result, up to 40 per cent of minority applicants engage in “resumé whitening,” according to a University of Toronto study. 

Applicants will change the name on their resumés to sound more anglicized or remove experience related to an ethnic group or organization, said Sonia Kang, assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and lead author of the study. 

“We’ve heard about it a lot kind of anecdotally from our students, we’ve read about it, but we didn’t know if this was something people were actually using strategically to get jobs,” she said. 

“We found in our sample that about one-third of minority jobseekers said that whitening was something they had done and about two-thirds said that they know someone (who had done so).”

However, people are much less likely to whiten when they are applying for jobs with employers that said they were pro-diversity, said Kang. 

“So either employers who had an equal opportunity statement or they mentioned that they wanted applicants from all kinds of diverse backgrounds.”

To find out if that pro-diversity stance really makes a difference in practice, the researchers sent out resumés for 1,600 jobs across the United States and made resumés for black and Asian applicants, so it was really obvious what racial group the applicant was from. 

“We sent out the normal resumés that were transparent about race, and then half of them we whitened, which means we took out the racial information,” said Kang. “We either changed the name or changed the experience so that it was less obvious or harder to tell which racial group the applicant was from.”

Researchers sent half of the resumés out to pro-diversity employers — that specifically mention diversity — while the other half were submitted for job ads that didn’t say anything about diversity. 

“What we found was there is a large gap between the whitened resumés and unwhitened resumés. So the resumés on which we had whitened the experience, we had taken out the racial information, were two to two-and-a-half times more likely to get a callback than the resumés that we didn’t whiten,” she said. 

“Unfortunately, this is the same between employers who said they were pro-diversity and employers who didn’t. Across the board, it seemed that our minority resumés were being discriminated against — even by those employers who simply said that they wouldn’t discriminate.”

Mounting evidence

The University of Toronto study isn’t the first to draw similar conclusions when it comes to recruitment and hiring bias against minority candidates, said Ritu Bhasin, founder and principal of Bhasin Consulting in Toronto. 

“We know that this happens, that because of conscious and unconscious biases, people who have harder-to-pronounce names or, for that matter, appear to be either born abroad or have ethnic or cultural backgrounds from outside of Canada and outside of the dominant culture often experience challenges with securing interviews. And then, should they make it to the interviewing process, then actually (experience challenges with) securing positions.”

None of the findings were too surprising — they merely support anecdotal evidence seen by Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto, over his career. 

“We’ve been seeing this going on over the years, particularly with people who have more traditional southeast Asian names, they change them… a lot of employers look at that (and make assumptions),” he said. 

“It is truly unfortunate that in 2016 in Canada, we are still seeing employers looking at resumés and bluntly saying things like ‘Well, they don’t have any Canadian experience.’ Which is code. It is just subtle racism.”

And it’s not just related to race and ethnicity — it also happens in regard to sexual orientation, he said.  

“I met with one woman who was part of a group called Out on Bay Street, and she was very involved. She identifies as a lesbian and she was told by her professor to take it off her resumé because it made it ‘too pink,’ he said. ”

“So resumé whitening doesn’t just have to be about race, it can be about many things. Disability is another one I can see where if you are active in a disability student group, you might take that off because it sends a message that you’re not like everybody else.”

Addressing the issue

The next step is to look at what organizations can do to address this challenge, said Bhasin.

“There are a number of things,” she said. “For example, there are organizations like Xerox… that are planning on redacting names on applications so you can’t see the name of the candidate when you receive the application and then, because of that, your unconscious biases are less likely to kick in.”

Even employers that are vocally pro-diversity need to continually examine potential, unconscious biases in recruitment and hiring, said Bhasin. 

“A lot of organizations in Canada have a stated commitment to being inclusive and hiring more diverse candidates and doing a better job of supporting the advancement of diverse people. But the practical reality is a stated commitment is not enough. You actually have to change your behaviour to change your practices to make that happen,” she said. 

“The key piece in looking at applications that employers must do is ensure that they provide the professionals who review applications with inclusion training, so they’re aware of their biases and blind spots before they review applications.” 

And then, as part of an application review, they need to use that criteria as well as assessment forms, said Bhasin.

“That way, as much as possible, people are relying on evaluation criteria as opposed to their gut or their instincts in making those decisions.”

People have learned to value diversity, said Kang — but they’re not necessarily walking the talk yet. 

“That message has (sunk in), people are buying it, they want to have a more diverse workplace. And that’s why these diversity statements are in place. But I think what’s happened is that by putting that blanket statement out there, people are thinking, ‘Now we’ve taken care of this problem,’” she said. 

“We need to think about the task that HR managers, hiring managers are going through when they’re making selections… it’s a hard job. People are getting such a large volume of resumés, they’re going through hundreds, maybe thousands of resumés for one job and they’re supposed to do it very quickly. So there’s a lot of pressure there.”

“We know that when we’re asked to do those hard information processing tasks very quickly, it’s easy for us as humans to kind of fall back on cognitive biases — on shortcuts. Things like stereotyping, things like prejudice. Even something like ‘I can pronounce this name, so that looks good to me,’ versus ‘I can’t even pronounce this and I don’t have time for this right now.’”

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