Many U.S. corporations are calling for an end to institutional racism and proclaiming support for diversity and inclusion. Historically, however, HR departments and recruiting firms around the country have helped perpetuate racial bias in their hiring processes and workplaces.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants based on their race, color, religion, national origin, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity) and disability. Despite the sweeping legislation, the discrimination didn't end. Explicit bias became implicit. Racial slurs became code words.
For decades studies have found that ethnic minorities receive fewer responses to job applications even when they have comparable qualifications to whites, and race-based legal complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continue apace.
In an interview with LiveCareer, Ruqaiijah Yearby, a professor of law at St. Louis University, explains that racist policy didn't end with the Civil Rights movement. "We have anti-discrimination laws that say you shouldn't discriminate against people when you're hiring them," she says, "but how we go about hiring people has built-in inequalities."
Let's take a look at how bias infiltrates the hiring process and permeates the workplace.
Bias in the hiring process is pervasive
As much as people claim to be colorblind, research says the opposite. Ethnic minorities have to complete 50% more applications on average to get invited for a job interview when compared with candidates in the majority, and applicants with "Black-sounding" names receive 50% fewer callbacks than that of their white counterparts.
Such discrimination also occurs around the world, where more explicit ethnic cues about one's appearance, such as photos attached to the resume, are common. There's a preference for light-skinned applicants over dark-skinned applicants even among darker skinned recruiters. While photos on resumes are less common in the United States, that doesn't eliminate unconscious bias from the hiring process since 84% of organizations say they use social media to pre-screen candidates.
Beyond explicit cues like names and photos, there are implicit markers, such as affiliation with socio-cultural groups, that could trigger discrimination, even from recruiters who say work experience is the most important resume section. Partially this is due to a lack of diversity in HR departments themselves, where 11.1% of HR managers are Black and 10.1% are Hispanic/Latino, not commensurate to their shares of the U.S. population.
Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School, wrote that unconscious biases have a "problematic" effect on our judgement. "They cause us to make decisions in favor of one person or group to the detriment of others," she says.
To avoid discrimination, some minority applicants have taken to "whitening" their resumes by removing ethnic details or anglicizing their names. Research suggests this tactic works, to a degree. In one study, 25% of Black candidates with a "whitened" resume got a callback, compared to 10% of those who left ethnic details intact. Similar results were found for Asian Americans — 21% of whitened resumes got call backs, 11.5% of those with ethnic details intact did not.
Candidates are half as likely to "whiten" their resume when they see pro-diversity language in the job description, despite the fact that companies that promote diversity and inclusion in their job listings have the same rate of discrimination as companies that don't include such language.
Bias goes beyond race and gender. Some researchers have found that age-based stereotypes decrease willingness to hire job candidates. Age can be implicitly communicated in the skills, professional memberships and other sections of resume. Even certain email addresses can provide clues to an applicant's age.
Other discriminatory practices in hiring are structural. The employee referral process, for example, perpetuates inequality and racial homogeneity in the workplace, St. Louis University law professor Ruqaiijah Yearby told LiveCareer.
When a company with a predominantly white workforce uses employee referrals, Yearby says, they will most likely bring other white people on board. "[Referrals are] great if we all interacted with each other, but we don't because our neighborhoods are segregated, our schools are segregated. We tend to only interact with people who look like us. Does that mean they are any better? No."
The system ends up enriching the employed white members of society at the expense of perfectly-hirable minorities that simply don't have the same connections.
Even when you make it in the door, discrimination continues
Discrimination doesn't end when you get the job.
Whether they're dealing with repeated slights from colleagues or being singled out by their boss to solve racial injustice in the workplace, Black employees are frequently judged and exploited based on their skin color, even in well-meaning organizations.
Often workplace discrimination isn't as explicit as it was in the 1950s, which makes it harder to prove. The word "boy" to describe Black employees is considered sufficient evidence of discrimination due to its long history as a means to belittle Black men. However, when the words seem more neutral and less attached to historical examples, such as referring to a Black colleague as "angry" or "abrasive," courts require more context.
Meanwhile, Yearby points out, minority and female employees are more likely to be tapped to take on additional uncompensated work. Employers who ask a Black employee to single-handedly lead a diversity task force without offering more pay may be putting an awful burden on the worker, not to mention treating them as a token representative of their race.
Solutions to the intractable problem of resume bias
HR departments are the gateway to finding a good job, so companies should make sure their resume review process is free of bias. Here are a few potential solutions to a perennial problem.
- Use blind resumes and application materials. Stripping resumes of anything that could hint at the race of the applicant is one solution that's fairly easy to implement thanks to new technology.
- Standardize the process. From using the same set of questions in every interview to carefully choosing requirements for the open position, standardizing the application process, if done carefully, will help smooth out some of the built-in bias.
- Make hiring for Black or brown or underrepresented communities an explicit goal. Ultimately, the HR department will respond to carrots and sticks. If you prioritize diversity and incentivize bringing on board a more diverse group of new hires, you can push the workforce in the right direction.