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When Résumés Are Made ‘Whiter’ to Please Potential Employers

Oregon State University via Flickr

For some time now, business-school professors and HR professionals have touted the virtues of diversity in the workplace, encouraging companies and their executives to take action. The typical rationales range from moral arguments—that it’s simply the right thing to do—to more practical motivations, such as covering companies’ blind spots by having a more diverse team of problem-solvers, improving bottom lines as a result.

For companies who hear those arguments and decide to put some effort into becoming more diverse, the next steps are less straightforward. Researchers from U.C. Santa Barbara recently wrote in Harvard Business Review that despite the fact that companies spend millions on diversity programs and policies, they rarely bring results. In fact, their data showed that diversity programs simply made white workers feel that their employer was now treating minorities fairly——whether that was true or not. An increasing number of diversity initiatives are looking like they’re all talk.

new study done by researchers at the University of Toronto and Stanford University adds another dimension to this predicament. The findings suggest that the stated aspirations of companies to become more diverse haven’t changed how they go about hiring, and that minority candidates responding to job openings that welcome diverse backgrounds might find their prospects of being hired just as limited as before.

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.”

Kang says that employers should use blind recruitment—whereby information that might reveal a candidate’s race and gender are weeded out before review—in order to make it easier for managers to hire without discriminating. “We need to be realistic about humans and how we're bad at making decisions when we have a lot of information that we have to process so quickly,” she says. “So we just often fall back on biases—things like prejudices, stereotyping. Those kinds of shortcuts really come into play when we're under time pressure and we have a lot of information”—as in, when a recruiter is speeding through a pile of resumes.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis (and a contributor to The Atlantic), says the study’s results aren’t surprising. “[This] is consistent with much of the research about the covert, informal ways that companies often marginalize workers of color and undermine the organizational goal of building a more diverse workplace,” she says. She added that “[whitening] may help these employees get a foot in the door, but it also is indicative of the sorts of challenges that will likely remain present for workers of color once hired in these spaces. Rhetorically speaking, if these workers have to ‘whiten’ their resumes to be considered for the job, what happens when they’re actually employed there?”

Indeed, some of these concerns were picked up by Kang’s study. She and her fellow researchers identified several reasons why some students were against whitening their resumes. Some believed that including the experiences they’ve had is an important part of their identities, and thus their resumes’ strength, at least in the eyes of an employer that claimed to be pro-diversity. But the reason that stands out is that some students were actually including racial cues so that they could screen employers. As one black student told the researchers: “If blackness put a shadow over all [my resume] then it probably isn’t the job I want to be in.” Another voiced a similar concern, saying “I wouldn’t consider whitening my resume because if they don’t accept my racial identity, I don’t see how I would fit in that job.’’

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