Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Whiter Lamar and Lei: Resume “Whitening” Happens and Gives Success

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump labeled President Obama “Kenyan” and claimed he was born outside the US, and has also tweeted a picture of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton with the text “Corrupt” and a red (not yellow) David’s star. What does that have to do with the title of this blog? Well, people’s perceptions are colored by associations, and many have negative views of Africans (and African Americans) and Jews. And Asians (and Asian Americans).

So how to get a job if you belong to any group that is subject to discrimination? Discrimination is well known, and both individual students and university career service employees know the answer. A resume can be “whitened” by removing signs such as a distinctive African American or Asian name, and by removing work experience or volunteering naming (or even entire activities) that gives out racial signs. I know people who have done it. It is disturbing both to them and to their friends, not least because any kind of resume tampering has ethical implications, and the idea that one can improve the odds of getting a job by removing mention of volunteer work is so obviously wrong, even if it is correct.

In a paper forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly, Kang, DeCelles, Tilcsik, and Jun examine both how and why people whiten resumes, and the effects it has. Let me start with the most shocking finding. Not only does whitening work, by giving higher likelihood of a callback (we knew this from prior research), but it works equally well for firms that signal a commitment to diversity. So, firms that say they value diversity are not truthful. But, students believe them, so they will engage in less whitening of their resumes when the employer has job listings that signal that they value a diverse workforce. Ironically, this turns statements on the value of diversity in job listings into a trap for job seekers, who will not whiten their resumes and suffer discrimination.

The study also provides insight into the thinking behind whitening through a series of in-depth interviews on how it was done, and why students would or would not whiten resumes. First, it was clear that whitening meant breaking a barrier: students believe in meritocracy, and value their own identity and experience. Doing it is as unpleasant as it sounds. But still, many (not all) students knew the risk of not getting callbacks if their resumes were not white enough, and chose to do it. The techniques used were largely truthful: A “white” hobby could be added, and “Black” or any Asian markers could be removed from voluntary organization names. More radically, an Asian student could replace the given name with a chosen whitened one, or use both, and an African American student could pick the least black-sounding name even if it was a middle name not normally used.

The findings are remarkable and discouraging because they are from the USA, which is one of the most diverse and meritocratic job markets in the world. One might hope that time will work against the discrimination that gives a need to whiten, but then again, political and social signals are currently not encouraging.