‘Whitening’ and Self-presentation in the Labour Market
Job candidates who ‘whiten’ their résumés to avoid racial discrimination have a better shot at getting a callback — even among diversity-centric organizations.
Job candidates concerned about discrimination are ‘whitening’ their résumés. And they have good reason to.
in perpetuating economic MODERN ORGANIZATIONS PLAY A KEY ROLE inequality in society. Despite the proliferation of equal opportunity and diversity initiatives, discrimination on the basis of race remains particularly pervasive in North American labour markets.
Résumé audit studies — experiments that submit résumés in response to actual job postings — consistently show evidence of race-based discrimination: Résumés containing minority ‘racial cues’ — such as a distinctly African American or Asian name — lead to 30 to 50 per cent fewer callbacks from employers than do otherwise-equivalent résumés.
Although the research demonstrates persistent discrimination, one of the ways in which candidates attempt to proactively avoid anticipated discrimination has been largely overlooked: Changing how they present themselves — especially in relation to racial cues — when applying for jobs. We recently set out to investigate the phenomenon of ‘résumé whitening’ and how selfproclaimed ‘diversity-friendly’ organizations respond to them.
The Phenomenon of Résumé Whitening
The first stage of our study consisted of interviews with young job applicants. Using email lists from university campus residence halls, we recruited black and Asian participants (55.9 per cent women) for a study of minority job seekers’ experiences. Participants were undergraduate students in their junior or senior year or were enrolled in professional degree programs. Each had a recent experience applying for jobs or internships. Our sample represented a range of targeted career fields, including finance (16.9 per cent), science and medicine (13.6 per cent), law and government (13.6 per cent), consulting (10.2 per cent), education (8.5 per cent) and information technology (5.1 per cent).
Our first key finding: 36 per cent of these individuals (31 per cent of black respondents and 40 per cent of Asian respondents) reported engaging in résumé whitening. In addition, two-thirds reported knowing friends or family members who had ‘whitened’ their job application materials. Clearly, awareness of this
phenomenon was common, even among those who did not personally engage in it.
Job seekers described two main techniques for whitening their résumés: Changing the presentation of their name and modifying the description of their extra-professional experiences. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Nearly one-half of participants who had PRESENTATION OF NAME. engaged in résumé whitening indicated that they changed the presentation of their first name. Among Asian respondents, a frequent change was to adopt a first name that was different from their legal first name. One Chinese-american college senior — who has lived in the U.S. since she was a toddler — described switching to a more ‘American-sounding’ name when applying for finance jobs. This change was consistent with advice she had received from career advisors at her university:
In freshman year, I put my legal name on my résumé, which is very Chinese-sounding. Then I went to Career Services, and they told me to put my American nickname on it instead. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you definitely need to do this’. It was more like, ‘This is just a suggestion’. I think it’s just more relatable if you’re more American sounding.
After making the change, this interviewee noted a substantial increase in the rate of callbacks from employers: “Before I changed it, I didn’t really get any interviews, but after that, I did.”
The majority of Asian respondents mentioned that this practice was widespread among their Asian friends and was seen as an imperative in some industries. Several reported using a ‘white’ or ‘English’ first name but noted that they used this name in addition to their ‘real’ name. As one Korean-american student explained: “In my freshman year, when I was applying [for internships], I just put my full name, but now I put my [English] nickname first and then my real name in parentheses.”
Though modifying first names was most common among Asian respondents, several black participants also reported altering their first name—albeit in different ways. The most common technique for them was to use their middle name, rather than first name, if the former sounded more ‘white’ or ‘neutral’ than the latter.
More than two-thirds of participants PRESENTATION OF EXPERIENCE. who reported some form of résumé whitening mentioned changing the presentation of their professional or extra-professional experiences. These changes took three main forms:
1. OMITTING EXPERIENCES THAT SIGNAL MINORITY STATUS OR ARE AS
The omission of exSOCIATED WITH NEGATIVE RACIAL STEREOTYPES. periences that could provide ‘racial cues’ was particularly common among black respondents. In some cases, these omissions allowed job seekers to ‘pass’ — that is, to appear white, or at least not necessarily black — on their résumé. As one black female student explained: “I’ve been involved in a lot of black [campus] groups and even though I’ve had leadership in them, [I took] them off my résumé so you really couldn’t tell that I was black.”
More frequently, participants reported omissions that, rather than allowing them to appear white, made their race less salient by ‘toning down’ racial signals. One black female college senior explained:
When I was looking for teaching jobs, I was concerned, because I’m very involved in black organizations on campus, like the Association of Black Women, Black Students’ Association and Black Christian Fellowship. I was a little hesitant about having so many black organizations on my résumé, so I did remove a couple of them. To me, it was about trying to tone down the blackness”.
Some Asian participants described similar actions. Several, for example, reported removing involvement an Asian student groups from their résumé and described how they concealed ‘stereotypically Asian activities.’ Such omissions affected not only extra-professional activities, but work experiences, as well. As a female college student of Chinese descent noted: “If I’m applying for a position in the Attorney General’s Office, I’m not going to bring up the fact that I once worked in Chinatown.”
An important feature of these reported omissions is that they imply the concealment of potentially-relevant and valuable human capital.
2. ALTERING ACTIVITY DESCRIPTIONS TO MAKE THEM MORE RACE-NEU
Participants also reported techniques for removing racial TRAL. cues without completely discarding the associated experiences.
A black male college senior with a career interest in medicine noted: “When you’re whitewashing your résumé, you can phrase racial activities in ways that are still conducive to you getting a job”. Typically, this type of ‘spinning’ involved changing the description of experiences to render them racially neutral.
A female college student of Korean descent who had applied for government jobs explained: “My volunteer work has been exclusively with Korean organizations. Sometimes I take out the word ‘Korean’ and just put the generic [organization name] on my résumé.” Respondents explained that these more generic or race-neutral descriptions of activities would seem ‘more prestigious’ or ‘more official’ to employers.
Several respon3. EMPHASIZING ASSIMILATION INTO WHITE CULTURE. dents also mentioned trying to change the ‘feel’ of their résumé by adding ‘white’ or Americanized extra-professional experiences and interests. A male college student of Bangladeshi descent, who was born and grew up in the U.S. and had work experience with a federal government agency, explained:
There’s usually a miscellaneous or ‘interests’ category on a resume, and that’s where you want to kind of Americanize your interests. A lot of people will put hiking or snowboarding — things that are common to Western culture.
The Mitigating Factor: Diversity-friendly Organizations
For the next phase of our study, we recruited participants for a résumé workshop described in generic terms. Our sample included 119 undergraduate business students (41 men and 78 women; 87 East Asian, 18 South Asian, and 14 black participants). Before coming to the lab, they were asked to submit a copy of their résumé via email to a research assistant and to indicate the field in which they were most interested (finance, marketing or consulting).
Once at the lab, participants were given an envelope containing a hard copy of their résumé and a job posting, which advertised a position that matched their selected field. They were then randomly assigned to one of two conditions: In the ‘treatment condition’, the job posting included a statement and an image that presented the employer as an organization that values diversity; while in the ‘control condition’, the posting included a more generic image and did not mention diversity.
Participants prepared a tailored résumé for the job posting by typing information into a standard résumé template on a computer. The position was full-time and based in the area; salary was ‘to be negotiated.’ In the treatment condition, the job posting included the following statement: ‘ Accenture/the Parthenon Group is an Equal Opportunity Employer, and strongly values fairness, diversity and justice.’ Consistent with this statement, a small image of a diverse group of four people (two women and two men; two white persons and two racial minorities) appeared beside the company logo. Neither this statement nor this image appeared in the control condition, which featured instead a standard image of a jigsaw puzzle with a pencil on top and simply noted that the employer ‘values high performance and efficiency.’ Aside from the job title, a few bullet points related to the specific area of interest, and our treatment versus control manipulation, the advertisements were identical in every way.
The primary goal of this experiment was to test whether minority job seekers would react to employers’ pro-diversity signals by constructing more racially-transparent (i.e., ‘less-whitened’) résumés. The result: The proportion of those who engaged in résumé whitening was about 1.5 to 2 times lower when the employer was presented as an organization that values diversity.
It is not surprising that some degree of résumé whitening occurred in both conditions. As our interviews indicated, when purposely tailoring a résumé to a particular position, a non-trivial proportion of minority job seekers consider omitting or altering racial cues. What our experiment tested and confirmed, however, was the hypothesis that minorities would engage in significantly less résumé whitening when targeting a job posting with pro-diversity signals: Nearly 39 per cent of participants engaged in some form of race concealment in the control condition, while only 21 per cent did so in the treatment condition.
As indicated, the résumé-screening stage of the hiring process powerfully shapes individuals’ subsequent access to opportunities and can serve as a major barrier to employment for minorities. As the third and final element of our research, we conducted a randomized résumé audit study to explore the consequences of résumé whitening. This involved sending applications from fictitious but realistic job seekers in response to actual job postings. We then examined how randomly-assigned résumé content, such as a name or an experience, affected the probability that an applicant would be contacted for a job interview.
Résumés containing minority ‘racial cues’ lead to 30 to 50 per cent fewer callbacks from employers.