Posted on March 17, 2016

Jobseekers Resort to ‘Resumé Whitening’ to Get a Foot in the Door, Study Shows

Nicholas Keung, Toronto Star, March 17, 2016

A major two-year study led by U of T researchers shows minority job applicants use Anglicized names, downplay ethnic experience in the hopes of landing a job.

It’s a disturbing practice called “resumé whitening” and involves deleting telltale signs of race or ethnicity from a CV in the hopes of landing a job.

And it happens more often than you’d think.

According to a two-year study led by University of Toronto researchers, as many as 40 per cent of minority jobseekers “whiten” their resumés by adopting Anglicized names and downplaying experience with racial groups to bypass biased screeners and just get their foot in the door.

It’s when “Lamar J. Smith” becomes “L. James Smith” or “Lei Zhang” morphs to “Luke Zhang”–and the callback rates soar.

“It’s really a wake-up call for organizations to do something to address this problem. Discrimination is still a reality,” said Sonia Kang, lead author of “Whitened Resumés, Race and Self-Presentation in the Labour Market,” to be released in the Administrative Science Quarterly Journal Thursday.

“It shows us that racial minorities aren’t just passively receiving this discrimination. They are trying to do something about it.”

In the study, only 10 per cent of black job applicants–created by researchers based on real candidate profiles–received callbacks for job interviews if they stuck to their African names and experience with black organizations. However, the callback rate went up to 25.5 per cent if their names were “whitened” and their black experience was removed from their resumés.

In the case of the Asian applicants, only 11.5 per cent received callbacks if they used their Asian-sounding names and experience, compared to 21 per cent using whitened resumés.

When seeking jobs with employers known to have a pro-diversity image, minority job applicants were less likely to “whiten” their resumes, the study found.

But, perhaps most surprising, even with pro-diversity employers, the odds of getting called in for an interview were greater when a minority applicant took steps to hide their race, the research shows.

The study consists of three parts: Focus group interviews with black and Asian university students in both U.S. and Canadian universities about their experience of resumé whitening, a laboratory experiment on how jobseekers tailor resumés to pro-diversity employers and a resumé audit of interview calls from real employers to fictitious job applicants who engaged in varying degrees of resumé whitening.

Thirty-six per cent of the 59 students–29 blacks and 30 Asians of different disciplines from finance to medicine, law, education and IT–who participated in the in-depth interviews reported they personally engaged in resumé whitening and two-thirds said they knew others who did.

“I am very involved in black organizations on campus . . . Association of Black Women, Black Students’ Association, Black Christian Fellowship. I was a little hesitant about having so many black organizations on my resumé,” a female college senior told researchers.

“I did take off a couple of black organizations . . . I think to me it was just trying to tone down the blackness, for lack of a better word.”

“Freshman year in my resumé I put my legal name, which is very Chinese-sounding. And then I went to Career Services, and they told me to put my American nickname on it instead,” said a female senior of Chinese background.

Participants said they adopted the whitening techniques in order to signal to prospective employers an ability to “fit in” with white employers and co-workers and to show they are “uninterested” in political racial causes.

In part two of the study, 119 undergraduates were invited to draft resumés for job postings for two companies advertised as “equal opportunity” employers. The study found the proportion of students who whitened their resumé was up to two times lower when the employer was presented as one that values diversity.

In the third part of the research, 1,600 fictitious resumés–with no whitening, a whitened first name, whitened experience or a whitened first name and whitened experience–were sent in response to job ads.

In total, 267 or 16.7 per cent of the applications led to a job interview request. For black applicants, the callback gap between unwhitened resumés and those for which both the name and the experiences were whitened was 15.5 percentage points; for Asians, the gap was 9.5 percentage points.

Kang, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management, said employers must go beyond the rhetoric of how they appreciate diversity in their workforce. “By creating a false sense of security, these (diversity) statements merely provide an illusion of diversity that might end up making things worse for minority applicants.”

How minority job applicants ‘whiten’ their resumés:

Unwhitened: Name of a black applicant on resumé appears as “Lamar J. Smith”;

Whitened: Changed to “L. James Smith”;

Unwhitened: Name of an Asian applicant on resumé appears as “Lei Zhang”;

Whitened: Changed it to “Luke Zhang”;

Unwhitened: Lists involvement as vice-president of Aspiring African American Business Leaders and peer counsellor of Black Students’ Association;

Whitened: Removes those organizations and replaces with causes such as “Give Kids a Smile Day” and first-year student orientation;

Unwhitened: Lists volunteer experience and interests that are exclusively within Korean community organizations;

Whitened: Removes them and replaces with hiking, snowboarding and activities common in Western culture;

Unwhitened: Being the political action chair of Black Students Association;

Whitened: Changes that to member of a generic minority business and entrepreneur group;

*Only 10 per cent of the fictitious black job applicants received callbacks for job interviews if they stuck to their African names and experience with black organizations. However, the callback rate went up to 25.5 per cent if their names were whitened and black experience was removed from their resumés.

**Only 11.5 per cent of the Asian job applicants received callbacks for job interviews if they used their Asian-sounding names and experience with Asian groups. However, the callback rate went up to 21 per cent if their names were whitened and Asian experience was removed from their resumés.