Resumes, Recruitment and Racism

Posted on December 23, 2018

It is often said that first impressions count.  When we prepare for interviews or meeting new people, many of us prepare by dressing, grooming and presenting in a way that we think will help our cause.  We take care with the way we talk and our body language, so as not put ourselves at a disadvantage.

In the employment process, many perfectly competent candidates do not get that far.

As recruiters, we are often swamped by the volume of applicants and need to find efficient ways of ‘sorting the wheat from the chaff’.  The resumé, or curriculum vitae, is still the most common way of initially presenting for an employment opportunity, and therein lies the challenge.

When reviewing a resumé, the applicant’s name is often one of the first pieces of information we receive, an impression is formed and, consciously or otherwise, we filter the applicant in or out.

A 2003 US study found that applicants with African-American names needed to submit 50 per cent more applications than white applicants to get the same number of interviews.1

Similarly, an ANU study in 2009 based on sending 4,000 fake job applications for entry-level positions and reported by Fairfax Media2 found that a foreign or indigenous-sounding name gives people less chance of landing a job in Australia.

Chinese-named applicants needed to submit 68% applications to secure a response.  For Middle Eastern names the equivalent figure was 64% and Italian-named people needed to submit 12% more (except in Melbourne where it was 7% less!).

A small French study found a similar bias in favour of people with French names.3

The explanation probably lies in homophily – a tendency for people to associate with people who are most like themselves.

The headline of the French article, “Have a Foreign-sounding Name? Change it to Get a Job”, seems like a simplistic solution.  But, while few choose this option, there is a long history of people adopting a name from their host community to minimise persecution, discrimination and economic disadvantage.  Some with Jewish names did so when migrating to Australia in the 20th century.

Seonjae Kim, born in Korea but living in the US, relates the conflicting emotions of cultural identity she experienced in changing her name to Daphne but finally reverting to Jae so she could better connect with the values, traditions and memories of her Korean heritage.4

A sign of a mature multicultural society is where people do not feel the need to compromise their identity to increase their chances of acceptance or success.

Discrimination and Equal Opportunity legislation provides substantial protection from systemic discrimination on a wide range of grounds including age, sex, race, and religious or political affiliation.  But, for the law to be effective, allegations must be proven.  It would be near-impossible to run a case based on name-based discrimination.

While it is debatable whether employers’ behaviour amounts to racism, there is a real training need for recruiters to become aware of the subconscious processes at play, and devise ways of neutralising their discriminatory effect.

Whether knowingly or not, by discounting persons of diverse  background, employers are missing out on valuable opportunities.  See our previous reports on the benefits of a diverse workforce and its correlation to profitability.  Refer to:

1 Capital Ideas, vol. 4 No. 4, Spring 2003
2 Job Hunt Success is All in a Name, Canberra Times, 4 March 2013
3 Have a Foreign Sounding Name? Change it to Get a Job, Forbes Magazine, 13 June 2013
4 Why I Changed My Name and Why I Changed it Back, Jae Kim, 3 October 2014

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