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.
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.