‘Whitened’ Résumés Fare Better, Even at Diversity-Conscious Employers

In a recently published study, Sonia Kang, Katherine DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun examine how job applicants from racial minority groups “whiten” their résumés by removing or downplaying racial cues, whether “diversity statements” on the part of employers make them less likely to do so, and whether those employers are actually more likely to hire minority applicants with “unwhitened” résumés. The researchers discuss their findings in the Harvard Business Review:

We created realistic resumes for black and Asian applicants that varied in how much racial information was apparent. We sent these resumes out to 1,600 entry-level jobs posted on job search websites across 16 metropolitan areas in the U.S. Critically, half of these job ads mentioned valuing diversity and the other half did not, which allowed us to see whether diversity statements actually make a difference when it comes to hiring decisions. We created email accounts and phone numbers for our applicants and observed how many callbacks they received.

We found that the whitened versions of both the black and Asian resumes were more than twice as likely to result in a callback as unwhitened resumes, even though the listed qualifications were identical — in line with other studies showing lower callback rates for minority applicants. Most importantly, the discrimination against unwhitened resumes was no smaller for purportedly pro-diversity employers than for employers that didn’t mention diversity in their job ad.

A critical implication of our studies is that to the extent that pro-diversity statements encourage job applicants to let their guard down and disclose more racial information, these statements may be doing more harm than good. If appeals to diversity encourage applicants to reveal racial cues to an organization that has not adequately addressed discriminatory hiring practices, then pro-diversity statements may effectively expose minorities to greater discrimination. Unless the biased evaluation of racial minorities in this critical step for entry into the labor market is addressed, pro-diversity statements may have the exact opposite of their intended effect.

Résumé whitening is hardly something new, nor is the unconscious bias against which it is meant to defend: A study from 2004 found that applicants with “white-sounding” names received 50 percent more callbacks than those with “black-sounding” names. The New York Times‘ Michael Luo covered the phenomenon of whitening as part of his reporting on racial disparities in hiring back in 2009, and one high-profile example went viral in 2014, when José Zamora revealed to BuzzFeed that he had turned around a luckless job hunt by putting his name down on applications as “Joe” rather than “José.”

That’s why sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield tells the Atlantic’s Bouree Lam that she isn’t at all surprised by the results of this new study:

“[This] is consistent with much of the research about the covert, informal ways that companies often marginalize workers of color and undermine the organizational goal of building a more diverse workplace,” she says. She added that “[whitening] may help these employees get a foot in the door, but it also is indicative of the sorts of challenges that will likely remain present for workers of color once hired in these spaces. Rhetorically speaking, if these workers have to ‘whiten’ their resumes to be considered for the job, what happens when they’re actually employed there?”

Dave Mayer, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, finds this troubling. Speaking to Sarah Grant at Bloomberg, he observes that Kang and her colleageus’ findings speak to the subtlety and insidiousness of racial bias in American society:

“Micro-aggressions are extremely ambiguous forms of prejudice, like not making eye contact or calling someone by an Americanized version of their Chinese name: It might mean nothing, or it might signal something else,” he said, adding that because everyone uses cognitive shortcuts it can be hard for organizations and individuals to parse their hiring practices for hidden biases and prejudices.

But résumé-whitening, while an understandable response to these biases, can take a toll on one’s identity and self-esteem. “When I heard the term it makes me think of physical whitening, and … the deluded believe that lighter colors are better and have higher status,” he said. Companies should be held accountable for diversity, he added, “because public statements of ethics codes and diversity initiatives have no correlation with actual behavior.”

These latest findings further illustrate why public statements in support of diversity and inclusion are necessary but not sufficient for building a genuinely inclusive workplace, and that the solution to unconscious bias may lie in developing discrimination-proof systems rather than trying to make hiring managers and other key decision makers less biased.