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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Discrimination in hiring

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Sonia Kang

Despite decades of research and despite the millions of dollars spent every year to combat it, discrimination is still a very real problem in hiring. Resumes of minority racial queues like Black or Asian names get 30 per cent to 50 per cent fewer callbacks than otherwise equivalent resumes.

Think about this. If you send out a resume with a name on it like Tyrone or Jada or Wei or Ming, it’s 30 per cent to 50 per cent less likely to get a callback than a completely equivalent resume with a name on it like Emily or Hannah or Scott or Logan.

I know a lot of you right now are like; thank God we live in Canada. She must be talking about the U.S. But unfortunately, this is an effect that’s been shown in Canada just as much as it has been in the U.S. Even in cities that we hold up as beacons of diversity, like Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. Of course many organizations will tell you that they’re immune to this kind of discrimination, emphasizing that they are diversity-friendly employers. Many companies now have diversity statements and explicit value statements that they hold up to tout their dedication to equity and inclusion.

In recent research I conducted with my colleagues, Katie Aselles, Andres Stiltric, and Sora Jung, we focused in on these kinds of statements, specifically asking do diversity statements translate into real actions? Do the words contained within these diversity statements reflect reality, or are they simply an ideal?

One way we looked at this question was when it was in a field experiment where we examined whether minority applicants actually fare better when applying for jobs at organizations that advertise how diversity friendly they are. The resumes we sent out were either completely transparent about race, or we changed some things, like first names and experiences, to make it harder and harder to tell that the applicants for the resumes that we were sending out were Black or Asian.

We used the resumes that we created to apply for actual jobs, half of which we sent to organizations that said they were diversity friendly and half of which didn’t mention diversity at all.


Our main finding was that the resumes that we changed to make it harder to tell that the applicants were Black or Asian to make it seem more and more that they were white, were twice as likely to receive a callback than un-white resumes. Remember, these were the exact same resumes, but when it’s obvious that an applicant is Black or Asian they are much less likely to get a callback for an interview than when it’s less obvious.

Now, some of you might be thinking but wait; you told us that you sent half of those resumes out to employers who said they valued diversity. They must have done better right? No. The callback we observed was no smaller for pro diversity employers than for employers who didn’t even bother to mention diversity at all. The less white applicants seemed, the less employers liked them, no matter what aspirational statements they put on their job ads.

So, if diversity initiatives like these diversity statements aren’t affecting minority hiring rates, what other effects might they have? We know from other research that diversity initiatives can have some unexpected effects. It can make high status people less sensitive to discrimination. It can create an environment in which people who claim to have experienced discrimination are not believed. And it can create resentment and rebound effects, where we sometimes see higher rates of discrimination after exposure to diversity statements and training programs than we did beforehand.

We wanted to test whether diversity statements also have an effect on minority applicants, specifically do these diversity statements create a false sense of security for minority applicants, encouraging them to let their guard down and be open about their identities.

We tested the question of what effect diversity statements have on job applicants in two ways; first with a set of interviews, then with a lab experiment. We interviewed Black and Asian university students from two large and well respected universities, asking them whether they had ever made their race more or less obvious when applying for jobs buy managing their racial queues; things that might be contained within their names ore educational background or their experiences.

These interviews taught us that whitening is relatively prevalent. Roughly a third of our sample said that they personally whitened their resume. Two thirds told us that they knew someone else who had.

One of the most powerful examples of whitening for me was the example of a student who won a prestigious scholarship from the Gates Foundation but who felt that it was tainted because it was a scholarship that only Black students were eligible for. He told us that he left the scholarship off of his resume because it would reveal to employers that he was Black. The value that the scholarship could add to his resume wasn’t strong enough to counter the value that being identified as Black would subtract from it.

We heard this again and again and it was heartbreaking. Students who had made it to a great university, done amazing things along the way, ready to take their first steps out onto the job market, felt that their experiences were cheapened or rendered worthless if they were attached to a racial queue.


When we asked people why they whitened, their answers weren’t surprising. One hundred per cent of those who whitened told us that they did it t avoid discrimination, to get a foot in the door, to make it into an interview where they might have the opportunity to speak for themselves rather than having their resume just tossed aside.

When we asked people why they might choose not to whiten, we got a mixture of responses but one kept on coming up again and again. Interviewers told us, if I see a diversity statement or I see any kind of language in a job ad that suggests that the employer is pro diversity, I’m going to showcase my diversity. I’m going to use my real name, list all my awesome diverse experiences. I feel like I can be me. And he verified this in a lab experiment. We invited participants into the lab and asked them to craft resumes for job ads that would be of interest to them.

We randomly assigned them to two conditions; control condition where they saw a job ad with a generic statement about value and performance and efficiency, and a neutral picture of some office supplies, or a second condition or a diversity condition. And in this condition participants read about a job with an equal opportunity employer who values fairness, diversity, and justice, or their standard picture of a diverse group of business people. We found that participants were half as likely to write in their resumes when applying for the jobs that were touted as diversity friendly.

So participants in our interviews told us and our lab experiment showed us, that they were less likely to whiten when responding to a pro diversity employer. They used their real names; they’re transparent about their experiences. What we know from our field experiment though is that this puts them at a disadvantage. Those diversity statements have set up a false sense of security among these minority applicants.

Diversity statements encourage applicants to reveal racial queues in a context where we know discrimination is widespread. For some people, then these diversity statements have the exact opposite of their intended effect.

So you’re probably wondering, why does this happen? Why would companies invest time and money into crafting diversity statements and then not make sure that they’re following through and turning those words into actions. I don’t think that these are just empty words. Of course, there are going to be companies out there who are just scared of lawsuits and dong this stuff for show, but I think most of the statements and related initiatives, like training programs, are put into place with good intentions. They just haven’t gotten us very far.


There is a disconnect between our values, the ideals that we hold in mind for the ways that we want to act, fairly, equitably without bias, and our behaviours, the way that we do act. Making decisions about who to hire is complex. It requires a lot of attention. There are so many factors to consider. There’s time and resource pressure, there’s social conformity pressure, there’s so much information to process. Under all of these circumstances, we’re likely to fall back to unconscious or implicit or unintentional biases.

So what can we do? I’m going to end my talk with some ideas for helping us to take diversity from words to actions. A good example is how symphony orchestras inadvertently started to make progress towards gender equality. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, orchestras started noticing that they had a nepotism problem. The only musicians that they seemed to hire were either their own students or their friends.

In order to fix this problem some orchestras started to hold auditions behind a screen. Over time they found that this not only helped the nepotism problem but it also significantly boosted the number of women that they ended up hiring. And I love this story because a bunch of men got together and said, hey, we should give other men a shot, not just the ones that we already know, and then accidentally ended up helping women too.

Auditions behind the screen have now become the norm in North American symphony orchestras. So whereas around 1970 only 10 per cent of orchestra musicians were women, this number is at or much closer to 50 per cent today. What really strikes me about this screen is not just these amazing results but the simplicity and physicality of the solution It’s a concrete, tangible change to the structure of the audition process. A simple but powerful adjustment made to the system itself using a tool that already existed in that environment. When I talk about our research on whitening and diversity statements the most common question I get is should minorities whiten their resumes? Discrimination is such a big problem we can’t trust organizations even when they tell us that we should, so shouldn’t everyone who’s not already white just whiten?

This is a great question.


But in a lot of ways, this is the wrong question. It’s not a question that we should have to ask. It’s definitely not a question that I want my students, or my son, or anyone else’s child to have to ask. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of minorities or women or anyone else to have to figure out how to navigate the system in order to avoid discrimination.

The only way we can solve the problem is if we change the structure of the system itself. When we think about that screen a big curtain that comes down on a stage, it feels very different from the kinds of diversity initiatives and training programs that we’re familiar with in the business world today. Instead of structural changes we see initiatives aimed at changing attitudes, or implicit biases, or simply managing public impressions. Research that’s examined 30 years of data on these kinds of diversity training initiatives has found that across the board they either have no effect, or as our research suggests, can actually backfire.

The screen on the other hand is a change to the structure. It doesn’t ask musicians to play louder or better or stand up straight or be more assertive or power pose or stand on their heads. It doesn’t ask the judges to be less biased or to act more fairly or to hire a certain percentage of people from one group or another. It doesn’t ask anyone to do anything at all. It simply but powerfully changes the fundamental structure of the situation in which the decision about who to hire is being made.

Most of us won’t have the opportunity to audition for an orchestra or to judge musicians from behind a screen. But we all spend a lot of time in front of another type of screen; our computer screens. And in many ways our computers screens are a window into a world of innovations that have been created to change the structure in which hiring decisions are made, using a tool that’s already ubiquitous within this environment.

So your company can try a tool like Textio to identify gendered language in job advertisements. You can try a tool like Unbiased to automatically anonymize LinkedIn profiles by removing pictures and names. And you can even take advantage of Applied, an entire recruitment platform that’s designed to help you hire fairer and faster by doing things like anonymizing resumes for you, sharing them across independent reviewers to avoid bias, and even help you to conduct skills assessments so that you don’t just rely on credentials alone.

These are just three examples of a huge number of innovative solutions that have been developed to change the structure of the hiring decisions space. It’s not asking applicants to work harder to prove themselves, and it’s not asking the recruiters to overcome their biases, which we already know from decades of research is basically impossible to do in any sort of sustained or reliable way.

Instead, they’re just setting up the system in such a way to make information processing easier so that our own biases are less likely to interfere. I’m not saying here that we should just let computers take over and choose who we should hire because we already know that computers of course fall victim to many of the same biases that humans do. They are programmed by humans after all. What I’m saying is that we should off load some of the information processing that’s required to make hiring decisions so that we are less likely to fall back on our biases.

For more than 30 years now we’ve been trying to fight inequality by changing people’s minds and it just isn’t working. We’ll only change the conversation on diversity and inclusion when we shift our focus to the specific organizational structures and practices that benefit one group at the expense of another.

[14.09 minutes]

headshot of Sonia KangSonia Kang is an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management in the department of management at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and holds a cross-appointment to the organizational behaviour and HR management area at Rotman. Her research has been published in journals including the Journal of Personality and Social PsychologyPsychological ScienceAdministrative Science Quarterly,and the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and has been featured in media outlets such as The Globe and Mail and The Atlantic.