African American and Asian students who find ways to erase evidence of their race from their résumés are more likely to find jobs, according to a new study reported by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
Katherine DeCelles, a professor at Harvard Business School, along with colleagues from the Stanford University and University of Toronto, recently studied this phenomenon in “Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market” “Discrimination still exists in the workplace,” said DeCelles. “Some applicants were willing to lose what could be seen as valuable pieces of human capital because they were more worried about giving away their race.”
Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, they examined racial minorities’ attempts to avoid anticipated discrimination in labor markets by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” Interviews with racial minority university students reveal that while some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques.
In the first phase of their investigation, the report explored résumé whitening through interviews, focusing on black and Asian university students who were actively searching for jobs or internships. This approach offered several advantages, the researchers said.
“First, the interviews provided an opportunity for an in-depth exploration of the subjective interpretations that shape résumé whitening, allowing us to identify the issues that were most salient to active job seekers,” they said. “Second, the focus on job-seeking university students illuminated résumé whitening at the first, critical point of entry into relatively highly paid job tracks—an important mechanism in economic stratification. Third, the focus on black and Asian job seekers was informative because, although these groups experience different challenges in North American labor markets, scholars have documented employment discrimination based on racial cues in résumés against both groups.”
“Whitening” is an all-encompassing term for when prospective employees scrub their résumés of anything that might indicate their race. Applicants with cultural names will sometimes use their initials, for example. Community or professional work with African-American fraternities, sororities or other organizations are deleted. One student omitted a prestigious scholarship he was awarded because he feared it might reveal his race.
“Racial inequality in labor markets persists despite organizational and individual efforts to reduce bias,” the researchers reached in their conclusion. “Our paper provides new insights into the nature of employment discrimination and job seekers’ attempts to adapt to it. We find that decisions about racial concealment and transparency continue to play a crucial role in contemporary labor markets, with powerful and potentially paradoxical consequences for minority job seekers. While research on employment discrimination has traditionally focused on the demand side of the labor market, our findings highlight how the interplay between supply-side and demand-side processes — the self-presentational choices of both job seekers and employers — shape labor market inequality.”