Race, Class, and Bias in Hiring

At the start of a new year, a lot of people make resolutions for what they want to achieve in the next twelve months – and often those resolutions have something to do with work. The resolution could be to choose a new career, to get more education, or to look for a new job. So now is a particularly appropriate time to look at two recent studies about bias in employers’ hiring processes. The results of these studies demonstrate that job applicants can often be rejected for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their ability to do the job. And the studies also suggest that biased hiring has effects that go way beyond individual careers or workplaces.

These two studies used essentially the same methodology, which is called a “resume audit”. The researchers in both studies created sets of resumes that were virtually identical except for differences in a few key pieces of information, sent those resumes to employers who had posted jobs, and tracked whether employers responded differently to different resumes.

In the first study, the researchers sent resumes to 1600 postings for entry-level jobs. Half of these jobs postings included “explicit pro-diversity language”. The resumes had applicant names that were either black-sounding names (e.g. Lamar J. Smith), Asian-sounding names (e.g. Lei Zhang), or black- or Asian-sounding names that had been “whitened”, such as “Luke Zhang” instead of “Lei Zhang”. The researchers also “whitened” the experience listed on some of the resumes. For example, “Black Students Association” was listed as an activity on some of the resumes with the black-sounding name, but on some of the resumes with the “whitened” black-sounding name, the activity was listed as “University Students Association”.

The 1600 job applications resulted in 267 requests for a job interview. In the researchers’ words, “For blacks, the callback gap [whether or not the applicant was asked to interview for the job] between unwhitened résumés and those for which both the name and the experiences were whitened was 15.5 percentage points (a ratio of roughly 2.5 to 1). For Asians, the callback gap between these conditions was 9.5 percentage points (or a ratio of roughly 1.8 to 1).”  The researchers also observed that “partial whitening” –changing either the name or the experience, but not both – also improved the applicant’s chances of getting an interview request, although not as much as if both the name and the experience were “whitened”. The callback rates were not significantly different between the employers with pro-diversity statements in their job advertisements and the employers who didn’t include such statements.

(credit: xkcd.com)

(credit: xkcd.com)

In the second study, the researchers focused on hiring practices at large American law firms. They chose this setting because of the intense competition for employment among newly graduated lawyers, and also because there is relatively little research on bias in hiring for high-paying jobs. The researchers created resumes for graduates who had just finished law school, and altered key details that could be interpreted as signifiers of class and status. For example, in the “higher-class” application, the applicant’s personal interests were listed as “sailing, polo, and classical music”; in the “lower-class” application, the applicant’s personal interests were listed as “track and field, pick-up soccer, and country music”.  The researchers also used names on the resumes that clearly identified the applicant as male or female.

The resumes were sent to 318 law firms in 14 US cities; 22 applicants were invited for an interview. The “higher-class” male applicants received 13 interview requests, while the applicants in the other three categories collectively received nine interview requests. When the researchers looked at whether there was a joint effect of both gender and class, they found that being “higher-class” increased the chances of a callback for male applicants, but not for female applicants.

In both studies, the researchers also conducted interviews to get a more nuanced understanding of bias in hiring.

In the first study, prior to the “resume audit”, the researchers interviewed 29 black and 30 Asian university students about their job-seeking experiences. 36% of those interviewees said that they had personally engaged in “resume whitening” – such as omitting experience or activities that they thought might indicate their ethnicity – and two-thirds of them knew someone who had done the same thing.

In the second study, the researchers interviewed 20 lawyers involved with hiring at the firms that they had sent resumes to. The researchers gave the lawyers one of the four resumes distributed in the study, and asked the lawyers to describe their assessments of the information on the resume. The majority of interviewees who received the “lower-class” resumes raised the issue of “fit”, as in questioning whether the applicant would be able to project the right personal image, or be able to get along with the firm’s clientele. And almost all of the interviewees expressed concerns about the “higher-class” female applicant – specifically, whether she was truly committed to her career, or whether she was just “biding time” until she could get married and leave the workforce entirely.

Both of these studies have fascinating insights about how bias consciously and unconsciously affects employers’ hiring decisions. And both studies also raise bigger issues around the effects of that bias. The authors of the first study suggest that if employers are not truly committed to workplace diversity, making pro-diversity statements may actually do more harm than good – because those statements may encourage job applicants to present information that may then be used to discriminate against them. And the authors of the second study remind us that jobs have implications beyond just being work: “Jobs [as lawyers] serve as stepping stones to other elite positions, such as judicial and political roles…[so] these findings [of bias in hiring] have implications not only for the distribution of economic resources within the legal profession, but also for differential access to broader symbolic and political power in society.” As we move into 2017, and also into some significant legal and political changes in many areas of the world, the short-and long-term implications of biased hiring are definitely something to think about.

Shadow Work and Customer Service

In any organization, there are tasks that have to be done if anything is going to be accomplished or produced. So the organization has to decide which jobs in the organization are responsible for completing those tasks. In workplaces, this decision process is referred to as “job design” – putting different tasks together to create jobs.

Ideally, according to job characteristics theory, a job has skill variety, task significance (feeling like the task contributes something meaningful), autonomy, and the opportunity to get performance feedback. All of these make the job enjoyable for the worker who has that job. The organization also has to ensure that the tasks in one job don’t overlap with or duplicate tasks in other jobs, and that all the tasks in the organization are assigned to a job.

However, tasks in a workplace are not always easy to fully define, or to fit inside clear boundaries. Think of something like (more…)

Supreme Court of Canada Decision in the BC Teachers’ Federation Case (Part II)

On November 10, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered an oral decision in the legal dispute between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) – the union representing teachers in BC’s public school system – and the British Columbia provincial government.

That decision ended a 14-year legal battle between the two parties over the BC government’s decision to pass legislation that removed the language around class size and composition from its collective agreement with the BCTF, and that also excluded those issues from collective bargaining. The BCTF claimed that the government’s actions violated Section 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of association. Two previous Supreme Court of Canada decisions – in the Fraser case and the Health Services case – have established that in the context of labour relations, “freedom of association” includes workers’ rights to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining.

The Supreme Court decision on November 10 was remarkable because (more…)

Supreme Court of Canada Decision in The BC Teachers’ Federation Case (Part I)

This Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada held its hearing of an appeal by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the union that represents teachers in British Columbia’s public school system.

This ongoing case – which started in 2002 – involves several actions by the BC provincial government in its collective bargaining for a contract with the BCTF, primarily around the government’s decision to pass legislation declaring that some items would not be bargained, and removing those same items from the collective agreement that was then in effect. The BCTF opposed both of these changes. Later, there were also issues around the government’s conduct during bargaining.

The BC Supreme Court twice ruled in the BCTF’s favour, once in 2011 and again in 2014. The BC government appealed the 2014 ruling, and the BC Court of Appeal overturned that ruling. The Court of Appeal decision was the basis of the BCTF’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

I think it’s fair to say that all parties involved with this case expected that a case this complex would entail a lengthy hearing at the Supreme Court, followed by several months for the nine judges to review the arguments and write their decision. However, much to everyone’s surprise, (more…)

“How will we explain this to the children?” — Minding the Workplace

Around the world, people are waking up to an electoral reality that for many was previously unimaginable. I can normally deal with being on the losing end of any election — it has happened, a lot — but the behaviors and qualities of the man we have just elected President fill me with despair and alarm. […]

via “How will we explain this to the children?” — Minding the Workplace

Job Churn and Precarious Work

I wrote an opinion article for the Report on Business section of the Globe and Mail newspaper, responding to recent comments by Canadian politicians that workers should “get used to” job churn and precarious work. You can read the article here.

University Diversity

Diversity in the workforce is a challenging issue for many organizations, but it’s particularly critical for universities. This is partly because many universities are publicly funded, which might imply that they have a larger responsibility to represent the population that financially supports them. And universities that teach about inclusivity and equality should surely be expected to live those values in their own operations.

But another reason is that universities are large and very visible organizations. Unlike workers at companies whose operations are largely unseen, workers at universities interact with large numbers of people – students, communities, governments – every day. So if there is a lack of diversity in the workforce at universities, it will be far more noticeable than it might be in other types of organizations.

Statistics Canada collects data on gender diversity among post-secondary instructors, but it doesn’t collect data on racial, ethnic or international diversity in that occupation. So I was very interested in (more…)

How I Promise You One of the Most Meaningful Days of Your Life — Both Sides of the Table – Medium

An incredibly inspirational post from venture capitalist Mark Suster, about a program giving entrepreneurial opportunities to prisoners.

I know the title “I promise you one of the most meaningful days of your life” sounds grandiose but I mean it and I hope you’ll read through to the end and choose to take one small, totally free action, that will change your life and likely those of others.On September 10th of this year I…

via How I Promise You One of the Most Meaningful Days of Your Life — Both Sides of the Table – Medium

Pumpkins and Pomposity

Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper, isn’t known for having insightful or original perspectives on issues. Earlier this year, it was discovered that some of her columns were truly unoriginal – that is, they contained unattributed material taken from other sources. But the topics of Wente’s columns also tend to be recycled, and two weeks ago she returned to one of her favourite topics: the silliness of some academic research.

Since I’ve written about Wente’s attacks on academics before, I recognize that I’m also recycling topics by devoting a blog post to her latest anti-academic screed. But Wente’s reasoning and analyses in this column are so appallingly weak that they deserve to be called out.

Wente’s column starts (more…)