Is your resumé ‘white’ enough to get the job you want?

By Iman Sheikh - Published on July 14, 2016
a resume with a paint brush wiping over it in white
A 2016 study found resumés with minority racial cues got far fewer callbacks than otherwise equivalent ones. (Illustration by Michael Lehan)

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Chloe, 23, remembers the exact moment last year she wanted to quit her job as a beauty advisor at a Toronto drugstore. A woman came in looking for work and, unable to find the store manager, left her resumé with Chloe instead. Upon finding her manager in the back room, Chloe handed him the paper, which she remembers had a Middle-Eastern-sounding name on it.

“He looked at the resumé for about two seconds and said, ‘I’m not hiring a terrorist,” she says.

When she objected, her manager told her to lighten up because it was just a joke—but the jokes didn’t stop. After 18 months with the national retail chain, she resigned in the spring of 2016.

Indian-born Badri, 22, had another problem. As a Ryerson journalism student living in Mississauga — where he also attended elementary, middle and high school — Badri was surprised when he received no response at all to countless job and journalism internship applications during his undergraduate career. That is, until he changed the name on his resumé to Brad.

“I was surprised because it was the first and only time I changed my name and I got a call back right away,” he says. “Even then, I felt a little icky about it.”

Resumé whitewashing, in which people of colour conceal or downplay racial cues in job applications, is not uncommon in Ontario. Martin Hauck, owner of Toronto placement firm The Forge and a former recruiter with headhunter Lock Search Group, says he interviews an average of 800 job-seekers every year and often runs into this phenomenon.

“Many applicants said, ‘I changed my name, I changed my address, I alter things on my resumé in order to get seen,” he says.

In March 2016, a two-year-long study by the University of Toronto and Stanford University found that 36 per cent of interviewees reported personally engaging in resumé whitening. For black respondents, 31 per cent admitted to the practice along with 40 per cent of Asian respondents. In addition, two-thirds of all interviewees reported knowing others who whitened their job application materials. This included the omission of experiences that could provide racial cues, and was particularly common among black respondents, the study found.

Recently, one job seeker from Waterloo filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario after receiving an email from Kitchener-based Integral Wealth Securities Limited declining his job application because he was of Somali descent.

"I have read stories about how Somalia has a culture of resistance to authority,” the rejection email read.

‘The store manager looked at the resumé for about two seconds and said, “I’m not hiring a terrorist.”’

There are good reasons to change hiring practices for organizations. A 2015 report by McKinsey & Company found that companies ranking high in workforce diversity were 35 per cent more likely to outperform companies towards the bottom of the list. Despite this, the employment landscape remains largely unaltered.

“I think the startling thing about this kind of study is that the results that we’re seeing now are pretty much the same that we’d expect 15 to 20 years ago,” says Sonia Kang, lead author of the study. “Unfortunately, I think it’s something that hasn’t really changed a lot.”

Author and employee engagement consultant Ryan Coelho says the problem is that employers are using the wrong metrics when looking for talent. He says companies need to find the right talent in a way that takes into account more factors than the static information seen on a LinkedIn profile and resumé, so job seekers don’t feel forced to try to manipulate the process.

“What I saw with millennials was that they wanted to know how to put the right keywords to get their resumé through the computer and in the right hands,” he says. “It just became this competitive game of who could game the system the best.”

But while change is slow, knowing that whitewashing exists has led some industry veterans to try to make the game fairer. Hauck and Coelho joined forces to develop a blind recruiting platform called Game On, which aims to provide a wider range of experience and information so that people aren’t hired on factors such as race and gender.

Blind recruitment, a strategy also recommended by Kang in which names and cultural identifiers are removed from applications, was used by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to increase diversity among employees. In 1980, the TSO began auditioning musicians by putting them behind a screen so the hiring committee could hear their performance but not see what they looked like. In order to muffle the sound of high heels, they even placed a carpet in the audition area. The results were overwhelming. Compared to the 1970s when the orchestra consisted almost entirely of white males, the current one is nearly half female and much more ethnically diverse.

But not everyone agrees with efficacy of the blind approach. Nathaniel Sibi, founder of startup job platform Ziversity, which helps companies figure out how to hire more diverse talent without tokenization, says scraping identity from the equation does not help the cause of workplace inclusivity.

“They’re now telling everyone to hide who they actually are when applying for a job, and that’s not how it works,” he says. “Suddenly to take diversity out of the equation doesn’t make any sense. How will someone be comfortable talking about their identity? How do you foster an inclusive workplace if you tell someone to hide who they are?”

A non-inclusive work culture — which is associated with not feeling valued, secure, supported or respected — often leads to employee disengagement, which is costly. A Harvard Business Review report cites studies that say disengaged workers had 37 per cent higher absenteeism, 49 per cent more accidents and 60 per cent more errors and defects than those who reported high engagement. It also says organizations with low employee engagement scores experienced 18 per cent lower productivity, 16 per cent lower profitability, 37 per cent lower job growth and 65 per cent lower share price over time.

But in spite of the evidence showing the benefits of a diverse work culture, resistance is strong. Sibi says one reply he kept getting from human resource managers after he’d pitch Ziversity’s services was that the company’s mandate was to hire the best candidate. He found this response frustrating.

“I didn’t say hire a moron,” he says. “I said hire the people who you’ve been overlooking who are just as qualified.”

The perfect solution isn’t clear, but Kang emphasizes that when looking at something like whitening, systemic societal change is the only thing that will decrease discrimination.

“It’s not really the job of those who are applying for these positions to try and make it better for themselves,” she says. 

This story has been updated with additional attribution. 

Read more:

How your name can determine your destiny

'What kind of name is that? What are you?'

Watch The Agenda in the Summer with Duana Taha, author of The Name TherapistWhat's in a Name

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