The researchers looked into the practice of “whitening” resumes, in which minority job seekers scrub away language that might reveal their race, for fear that can it lead to conscious or unconscious discrimination—for instance, altering a “foreign-sounding” first name to something that sounds “more American.” The motivation for doing this is cynically pragmatic: The game’s not fair, so why not even the playing field in the resume-screening stage to at least get an interview?
First, the researchers conducted in-depth interview with 59 black and Asian students who were seeking jobs and internships. They found that 36 percent of their interviewees reported whitening their resumes, and two-thirds of the respondents knew of friends or family who had done so in the past. “We had first started hearing about whitening within the last few years from our students,” explained Sonia Kang, an associate professor of management at the University of Toronto and the paper’s lead author. “Students who were applying for jobs were telling us that this is something that they were doing, and something their friends were doing, and something they had sometimes been told to do when they went to career counselors.”
In addition to altering names on resumes—something half of the students in the study who whitened their resumes reported doing—the researchers discovered other common strategies for whitening resumes. For instance, some students would omit or tweak experiences so employers couldn’t identify their race. Students reported toning down racial identifiers, such as omitting being part of black or asian professional associations. Also, job seekers would purposely add experiences they considered “white”—“outdoorsy stuff such as hiking, kayaking,” Kang says. “Those were the kinds of things that people thought were tied to more mainstream white American culture.”
The study then measured how a group of minority students responded to pro-diversity language, and established that minority job seekers both pick up and react to these cues: The participants were 1.5 times less likely to whiten resumes for employers who signal that they care about diversity.
Then, the researchers tested how the labor market responded to whitening, and whether companies that emphasized the importance of diversity in their job postings would evaluate whitened resumes. They created two sets of resumes, one whitened and the other not, and randomly sent them in response to 1,600 job postings in 16 U.S. cities. They found that whitened resumes were twice as likely to get callbacks—a pattern that held even for companies that emphasized diversity.
“The most troubling part is that we saw the same kind of rates for employers who said that they were pro-diversity [in job postings] and the ones that didn't mention it,” said Kang. “Employers are sending signals, that students are picking up on, that this is a safe place where you can use your real name and real experiences. But [the students] are not being rewarded at all. … The statements the employers are putting out there aren't really tied to any real change in the discriminatory practices.”