‘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.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Sonia Kang, Kather­ine De­celles, An­dràs Tilc­sik and Sora Jun

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:


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.


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.

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