Research: How Subtle Class Cues Can Backfire on Your Resume
So, we all know content and presentation matter when it comes to resumes but what happens when there are hundreds of candidates who all have relevant skills, education, grad average and a perfectly formatted resume?
Ever wondered how a recruiter makes a choice if the only thing differentiating you and other candidates are job-unrelated qualities, such as: gender, class, religion or marital status?
What is the exact impact of these seemingly irrelevant personal traits? How important is recruiters’ persona in this whole process?
In the last couple of years, a few studies strived to provide answers to these exact questions.
To put it plainly, researchers tried to inspect whether and to what extent personal traits of a candidate can affect a person reviewing his/or her resume (i.e. his/her job application).
This article will deal with results of these studies: whether class cues on a resume affect recruiters’ decision-making process and if so, what can be done to prevent potential negative effects thereof.
RESUME: NECESSARY BUT POTENTIALLY TRICKY TOOL
One thing is sure: a well-written resume is crucial for a successful job hunt!
Being aware of the incredibly competitive global labor market, it is completely logical that high-quality self-promotion became more significant than ever.
Resume is an essential part of every job application and an extremely valuable self-marketing tool which should be used to highlight one’s skills, experience and qualities.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies!
A good resume is a piece of work and its drafting requires time, commitment and effort.
Most importantly, just as there are not two identical candidates, there should not be two identical resumes.
A resume should reflect your specific background, qualities and why exactly you would be the best fit for the respective position (bold text is intentional).
This is not an easy task!
And nowadays, it is not unusual for people to hire a professional to help them draft a perfect resume.
In my opinion, this only highlights the significance of this tool in today’s extremely competitive professional environment.
A recent research has shown that an average recruiter spends approximately 8-10 seconds to screen a resume and decide whether a candidate will proceed to the next step of the recruitment process.
If you think about it in real time, this is an extremely fast call, hence, every detail in your resume should be exactly on point.
And yes, this also applies to the personal information you decide to disclose there. Let us kick off this topic by first reflecting on the concept of a personal information…
PERSONAL INFORMATION AND EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION
This category includes (not exclusively) one’s:
- name, address, email address, phone number,
- race, nationality, ethnicity, religious or political beliefs
- age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status
- health care history including information on physical/mental disability
- educational, financial, criminal, employment history etc.
Depending on local laws and regulations, some of this information can be considered private and confidential.
If applicable, such classification protects you from the obligation to disclose it or talk about it, even if explicitly asked by the interviewer.
And although there is an obvious tendency towards stricter legislation in this field, there is still a visible discrepancy between legal regulations and reality.
The biggest practical problem with discrimination on the work place and especially, discrimination of candidates during the recruitment process, is the apparent lack of evidence.
It is extremely difficult to prove you haven’t been hired for a specific discriminatory reason unless this has been explicitly brought up and you have it somewhere on record.
Unfortunately, recruiters are rarely that naive…
Numerous studies have been conducted, motivated by a desire to inspect the exact range of employment discrimination.
The goal was to see whether this kind of behavior can be tracked to resumes pre-screening phase already.
All experiments were usually conducted in a comparable way, by sending fake resumes to real employers.
These resumes were seemingly identical when it comes to education, experience and skills but differed in specific class cues, such as: gender, religion, class, sexual orientation etc.
Some of these cues were obvious and could be identified immediately, e.g. gender (obvious from the candidate’s name).
The others, such as class, religion or sexual orientation were only subtly indicated or could only be presumed from certain details in the tested resumes.
Let us start by reviewing effects disclosure of class and background cues had on the recruitment process…
CLASS AND BACKGROUND CUES
A number of studies (published in American sociological Review) examined effects of class and gender cues in a resume. Resumes used were pretty much identical and the only thing differentiating candidates was either their gender or class/social status.
Gender could be determined from a candidate’s name, while social class position has been indicated via common and generally accepted categories, e.g. hobbies, awards and extracurricular activities.
You are probably thinking to yourself: How does one indicate his or her “class” on a resume? Are we still in the 16th century?
Indeed, I also found the idea of class indications on a resume slightly disturbing. I will try to explain the way in which this has been done:
Higher-class candidates participated in traditionally “upper class” sports and activities, e.g. polo, sailing, badminton or played classical music. Lower-class candidates engaged in activities with lower financial barriers, such as: football, basketball, athletics or local music club.
Regardless of how subtle these indications were, results demonstrated significant differences in the treatment of four relevant categories: higher- and lower-class male candidates and higher- and lower-class female candidates.
Higher-class man did extremely well in comparison to all other categories: he received more invitations to an interview than all other applicants in the whole study combined!
Tragically, he did significantly better than higher-class woman, whose resume was identical to his except for a name…
Yet, none of these findings surprised me as much as this one: Higher-class women had the worst treatment of all categories, including lower-class women!
I neither saw it coming nor understood the logic behind such results.
Fortunately, researchers behind these studies took additional efforts and tried to provide explanations for these results.
Higher-class men are perceived as a better fit to other people working in high-rank firms, firm’s clientele and a general image these firms usually strive to uphold.
They are presumed to come with some typically “high-class” assets such as, network of high-class peers, family connections or wealth.
Naturally, all of this does not apply to categories of lower-class male and female candidates.
When it comes to higher-class women, it is not exactly clear what are presumed advantages of their status, probably the same as for higher-class men.
On the other hand, studies did explain why they are the least desirable of all categories.
Higher-class women are generally considered unmotivated for demanding jobs!
Their status is associated with wealth or, at least, financial stability. And if money is not a motive, how are these women to be expected to compete, grow and do long hours? Well, they are not…
Furthermore, “family” is a risk factor frequently attributed to candidates from this category.
Namely, there is a wide-spread belief these women tend to abandon their well-paid but demanding jobs to be able to dedicate themselves to raising a family.
On the other hand, such reasoning does not apply to lower-class female candidates.
Career wise, they are considered more dedicated, driven by a wish to secure their, otherwise uncertain, financial situation.
Finally, one important remark must be made: test sample of these studies is limited, for only several law and audit firms in the US have been included in the testing.
Nonetheless, one can easily presume that similar studies in different branches and/or locations would result in comparable findings which is why these results shouldn’t be disregarded easily.
Personally, I found them intriguing albeit extremely disturbing.
A clear demonstration that, in some respects, we really have not advanced much since the 16th century! Class segregation and stuck up attitudes towards women may not be that openly talked about today but are still very, very real.
And while this study only tackled the issue of gender discrimination, there have been many studies and experiments dedicated to inspecting the range of gender discrimination on today’s labor market in a lot more detail…
Discrimination based on Gender and Family Status Cues
Gender as a ground for discrimination
Much has been said about gender discrimination which is why I won’t state the obvious and dwell on this topic too long.
Salary gap, bias towards women in leadership and limited possibilities for women are all real issues and unfortunately, we are still far from reaching tangible solutions in this field.
Nevertheless, in this article, I was rather interested to see how far-reaching gender discrimination is when it comes to stages of the recruitment process.
Let’s put it this way: can it really be that a recruiter looks at my resume and throws it away simply because I’m a woman?
A recent research (Derous, Ryan & Serlie, 2015) explored how characteristics of a job and specific biases of a recruiter, e.g. ethnic prejudice or sexism, combine to influence the subsequent decision regarding a concrete candidate.
Unfortunately, the effect of sexism proved to be substantial…
When the role was traditionally more male or female oriented, it dictated perceptions of fit.
To give an example: women were presumed to be better at client relations and interpersonal exchange. Unsurprisingly, they were considered worse fitted for “high demanding” jobs than men.
But having a recruiter consider your fitness for a position and judge it poorly is not even the worst-case scenario…
Imagine being turned down for a fantastic job, you would be excellent for, based solely on your name!
This is not a myth and numerous academic papers already demonstrated the significance of one’s name (male or female) by a decision who will proceed to the next stage of the recruitment process.
The case of a woman changing her name from Erin to Mack and boosting her resume response rate from 0 to 70 went viral and backs up the statement that “name bias”, which is actually just another name for gender discrimination, still affects too many female candidates worldwide.
Marital and family status
Another personal information which may appear innocent but can heavily affect your job hunt, is the information about your marital/family status.
In the past, this was a common information to be included on a resume but those times long passed.
Nowadays, it became quite uncommon, if not even harmful, to disclose this information, for it leaves a lot of room for discrimination.
Divorced, separated, widow, single or married…
Depending on a person reviewing your resume, each of these can be considered wrong, bad or unrepresentative.
I can easily imagine a recruiter thinking to him- or herself: “You failed in marriage so why should we expect you to succeed in your career here?”
On the other hand, you are happily married with two children. Who cares? Are children a feature which will help you do your job better?
Especially for female candidates, the sole mention of marital/family status can open door to major discrimination!
A woman with a family is considered demotivated for work…Engaged woman is expected to have a family at some point and that is a clear minus.
Finally, a single woman may be considered unfit for the corporate “family” culture.
The list of possible prejudices is never ending…
Sounds harsh and demotivating, I know.
Yet, people do tend to hold certain ideas, prejudices and biases and these inevitably affect their decision-making processes (at times, without them even being aware of it).
Therefore, if not specifically required, it may be better to leave your marital/family status out of your resume…
Discrimination based on Religion, Race & Ethnicity
Religion as a ground for discrimination
Being a believer may be honorable and price-worthy but note that your future employer may have a completely different attitude when it comes to this topic.
Multiple studies have confirmed the following: Religion on your resume can severely hurt your employment chances!
In one of these studies, researchers from the University of Connecticut sent 3,200 fake applications to 800 jobs (South of the US). E
ach employer received four resumes of applicants with comparable job qualifications.
The sole difference between these four resumes consisted in their affiliation with a certain religious organization, such as: atheist, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim organization. A control group mentioned no religious affiliation.
It turned out that religious affiliation on a resume is a major no go!
Applicants who expressed a religious identity were 26 % less likely to receive a response from recruiters.
The only group which did not experience any discrimination whatsoever, were those candidates affiliated with Jewish religion and some recruiters even favored them in comparison to other candidates.
Muslims were least likely to be contacted by employers, receiving 38 % fewer e-mails and 54 % fewer phone calls than the control group.
Overall findings of this study confirmed that even very subtle cues indicating one’s religion can affect the recruitment process heavily.
You may be wondering about the legal perspective of this issue:
Religious freedom protects from any kind of discriminatory treatment based on a person’s religion or belief and this protection stretches (at least in theory) to include the recruitment process as well.
That be said, nobody should be denied employment based solely on his or her religion.
The problem is that job candidates rarely learn religious indications on their resumes took them out of the run for a position. And even if they doubt it, to get an evidence to support such a claim is very hard if not even impossible.
Occasionally, job experience or a volunteering position at a certain religious organization may be worth mentioning, for it constitutes a valuable experience and a recruiter may appreciate the knowledge you gained from it.
Also, you may be applying in other religiously affiliated organizations and your previous experience is a clear plus.
However, more frequently, work experience affiliated to a specific religious organization will not be relevant for a position you’re applying for and in such cases, you may want to consider taking it down from your resume.
In any event, you should make sure to know the exact requirements for a desired position and be aware of consequences the sole mention of your religion could have on the application process.
Race & Ethnicity
Race and ethnicity have been a common ground for discrimination since the old times. Therefore, it is no wonder researches wanted to test effects of race and/or ethnicity on the hiring process as well…
Researches were conducted in a comparable way: Identical resumes were sent to employers, the only difference being the name of a candidate. Chosen names clearly indicated belonging to a certain race or ethnicity.
Results of these studies only confirmed what we all suspected… Candidates with names which sounded “white” experienced a much higher call rates for interviews in comparison to candidates whose names “sounded black, Hispanic or Asian”.
Another study specifically tested two groups, “white” and “black” candidates, and reached the following results: White names received 50 % more callbacks for interviews!
These studies also revealed prevalence of what’s called unconscious bias, hence, a scenario in which people screening resumes do not realize they are stereotyping.
When put it in the context of racial stereotyping, this scenario looks something like this: non-white candidates are considered less-qualified for a job without the existence of any real evidence to support such conviction.
All that be said, it is no wonder that many people who fall into a racial or ethnic group that is likely to experience negative bias realized the risk and decided to downplay racial and ethnic associations as much as possible.
And yes, in some cases, this even involved changing a name on a resume to sound more “white”!
Unfortunately, candidates frequently fear that there is a good chance they could experience judgement and discrimination based on their race or ethnicity and results of above-mentioned studies clearly demonstrate such concerns have a solid ground.
STRONG SEPARATION OF BUSINESS AND PERSONAL: PROS AND CONS
Bearing in mind all that has been stated previously and somewhat disturbing results of studies and research conducted in this field, one cannot help but wonder: Is there any personal information that does belong in a resume?
Indeed, nowadays there is an overall tendency to include as little personal information as possible when applying for jobs.
While researching, I noticed that there is an overall preference to not include age, marital status and address in a resume.
The general tendency seems to be in favor of the complete separation of business and personal. A good resume should include your name, email address and telephone. If your place of residence is in the same country, even this information is considered irrelevant.
One of the apparent pros of such an approach is that you’re only including relevant work-related information, hence, are not burdening a recruiter with what he/she doesn’t need.
The second obvious advantage is that such an approach leaves a lot less room for discrimination and potential biases recruiters may hold.
Following up on the above-mentioned studies and research, it is obvious that revealing less may at times be saving you a lot of unnecessary trouble!
On the other hand, not revealing anything personal may leave your resume looking blank and dull. Recruiters love stressing out the importance of a personal touch and diversity… And this makes sense. Imagine yourself reviewing some 80 resumes a day… You would also be looking for something which catches your attention!
Also, not including some relevant experiences, e.g. job in a religiously affiliated organization, may leave gaps in your resume and leave you appearing less experienced than you actually are.
And who would want that? Especially for a young professional, every experience counts!
Finally, not revealing relevant personal data may be considered misleading or even fraudulent.
So, what is it that you can do? What is considered permitted when it comes to adjusting personal information and revealing class cues in a resume?
POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS AND WAYS TO AVOID THESE SUBTLE CUES
It depends…It depends on the information you wish to neutralize and the effect you want to achieve.
For example, in the case of age, address and marital status, you would be well advised to simply skip these information, for they are probably not relevant for a position you are applying for.
Note that there could be a few exemptions to this general rule, e.g. physically intense job.
In this case, it may actually make sense to note your age on the resume. Or a job including frequent travel… In this specific case, being young, single and without children may in fact bring you some advantage.
Furthermore, religion also does not necessarily belong in your resume: chances are that religious affiliations will open door to discrimination while being completely irrelevant for a job you are applying for.
Exception to this general claim are jobs and positions in other religious organizations/institutions, where your previous experience will be an obvious advantage.
When it comes to other class cues, other cases may be less clear and more problematic, e.g. the fact that you are a woman and have a female name.
Is it worth trying to shorten it or put a more masculine version on your resume?
The same dilemma applies to names which can be associated with a specific race or ethnicity. Should you consider modifying your name so that it sounds less “black”, Hispanic, Arabian, Jewish or Muslim?
Unfortunately, there is no single “right” answer to these questions.
You can try some of the above-mentioned strategies.
You may end up facing a fairly surprised, annoyed or even a very mad interviewer. If this happens, you again won’t achieve the desired result.
If the difference in names is small and can be reasonably justified, this strategy may end up working out.
However, if you are considering a real name change, you may want to undertake this in a more formal way (official name change).
This dilemma also has another dimension.
Are you sure you wish to downplay your personal qualities which in many ways determine your identity and persona?
How would you feel if invited to an interview after a name change, knowing that with your real name, that same company failed to consider you?
It is difficult to say and the answer varies depending on specific circumstances of a particular case.
One thing is clear: The issue of discrimination is still very real.
The issue is real in our everyday lives and apparently, on the job market as well.
Perhaps a name-change or a clearance of a resume from all personal information can provide short-term solution for some but this is not what we should be striving for!
What is needed is a complete shift in the perception, more talk and long-term solutions in this field. Recruiters need to become fully aware of all biases they hold and how this affects their everyday job.
On the other hand, we must become fully aware that differentiating between two equally qualified and skilled candidates solely based on their names or social status is not acceptable in the 21st century! And it is only after we realize this, that we can hope for some actual results and improvements.
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