When Resumes Are Made ‘Whiter’ to Please Potential Employers
Professors and researchers have been warning about the practice of resume whitening for a while now! It is not myth, it is very real, and the practice is continuing to spread.
Candidates belonging to minority groups noticed the apparent discriminatory treatment by many employers and decided to do something about it. They modify their names, experience and generally, shape their appearance on the resume so that it sounds more ‘white’!
In the past couple of years many studies and researchers have been conducted to explore this specific phenomenon and a lot has been discovered.
When it comes to inclusion and diversity in the workplace, all of this may be just a facade and the reality for many minority candidates looks entirely different.
Candidates are still struggling with apparent employment discrimination and not wanting to take any more chances, they decide to give the employer exactly what he wants…
And if judged by experiences, this tends to be a ‘whiter’ candidate.
Let us look at the very concept of employment discrimination, resume ‘whitening’ and the methods in which “whitening” can be conducted.
RESUME AND CLASS CUES
We all know it: a good resume is an absolute must when it comes to successful job hunt.
And if you are still unsure whether your resume reflects your education, background and skills in the best way possible, you may consider dedicating some time to make it perfect.
You probably think drafting a good resume is a no brainer, but it is astonishing just how much time and dedication this task may end up requiring.
Every detail matters! This means you need to pay attention to the content and formatting. Furthermore, you may want to consider which information you actually wish to disclose there.
Less is more and not just because you have limited place to deliver a desired content (a good resume should not be longer than two A4 pages).
On an average, a recruiter will dedicate some 5-7 seconds to your resume, before deciding whether your application will be processed further. A fast call!
Therefore, you may want to reconsider what your most important achievements and skills are, hence, what should be the key takeout from your resume.
So, that is one thing.
There are certain technical challenges when it comes to drafting a good resume.
On the other hand, there is an issue of self-presentation. You will want a recruiter to see the very best of you!
So, what happens when your best is not good enough? And I am not talking about the lack of experience or skills. I am talking about your personal qualities, class cues and personal traits…
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).
As it turns out, certain class cues, e.g. gender, race or ethnicity, can and frequently do, affect the recruiting process significantly.
Being aware of this fact, candidates belonging to certain frequently discriminated groups tried to find solutions and minimize their unfavorable treatment.
They realized that downplaying relevant class cues may help them land desired interviews more successfully.
This article will deal with this phenomenon and explore tactics and strategies frequently used to avoid discrimination in the resumes prescreening phase, especially in cases of employment discrimination based on race.
We will kick off the topic by exploring the very concept of racial discrimination…
DISCRIMINATION DURING RECRUITING
Race, stigma and collective image
“Employment discrimination is a form of discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity by employers.”
We all know this kind of behavior is unacceptable and can trigger severe legal consequences.
However, this is just theory and in practice, rules tend to be more flexible.
Numerous studies report and warn that employment discrimination continues to be a big issue. Evidence for this kind of behavior is very hard to provide, which is why it frequently ends up without any consequence whatsoever.
When it comes to racial discrimination, it has been an ongoing issue for centuries and unfortunately, still shapes the reality of many individuals belonging to specific minorities.
This form of discrimination substantially influences labor market by blocking racial minorities’ access to career opportunities in many fields (Pager, 2007). To put it plainly: equally skilled candidates experience constant rejections, due to no other reason, other than their race/ethnicity.
But why does ones’ race/ethnicity matter?
Shouldn’t we all be judged by our individual character, appearance and achievements?
The answer is yes but unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t always work in such a sophisticated way and our decisions may frequently be affected by our sub-conscious perceptions and biases.
Let me try to explain this…
Racial minority status can arouse a kind of collective stigma based on real or imagined attributes associated with a specific racial group. Influenced by this collective image, recruiters start to believe all members of this racial group have same specific attributes (e.g. Asians are smart and hard-working).
Inevitably, this ends up affecting decisions regarding all candidates belonging to this minority group. The outcome may differ, but this kind of bias can certainly limit ones’ chances and opportunities significantly.
Tragically, recruiters are often not even aware they are discriminating against a certain candidate owing to his/hers race or ethnicity…
How can one not realize he/she is discriminating? I have been wondering myself the same thing…
This kind of behavior has been noticed and observed by researchers intensively and the phenomenon has become known as ‘unconscious bias’.
Recruiters are affected on a completely unconscious level and this bias is a result of ones’ specific perceptions, ideas and experience.
It’s a quite simple, actually: How we are and what we know affects how we see other people. This is a general wisdom which, apparently, applies to the recruiting process as well.
A simple example: You had a set of bad experiences on your trip to Spain… Chances are you may not only have bad memories and negative associations related to Spain, but you may also realize you hold a certain grudge towards Spanish people in general.
Being a recruiter in this scenario, you would unconsciously want to eliminate a Spanish candidate from the run for a position. And you could be completely unaware of such intention!
‘Unconscious bias’ is relevant to employment discrimination, for it may trigger a discriminatory behavior without recruiters even being aware of it.
This may happen because people tend to hire people who resemble them or people they feel safe around.
On the other hand, it may simply be that recruiters hold some deep grounded believes or ideas about a certain group and these inevitably affect their decision-making process.
You probably heard these or similar statements: Germans are less talkative than Spanish; Brazilians are crazy about football; women take more days off, men are more resistant and take fewer sick leaves; Muslims are extreme when it comes to religion etc.
These may seem ridiculous, but such beliefs can actually build a basis for discriminatory decisions.
Understanding ‘unconscious bias’ and the way it works is extremely beneficial, for it makes you more sensitive to the information which could potentially work against you.
In fact, many candidates already realized their class cues may work against them in the recruitment process which is why they began searching for ways to downplay these as much as possible…
CONCEPT OF RESUME ‘WHITENING’
This practice has first been noticed by students belonging to minority groups who were actively looking for jobs or internships (predominantly on US and UK colleges).
These students felt frequently discriminated against by potential employers owing to their race/ethnicity.
As it turned out, they were right…
Different studies detected drastic discriminatory behavior by employers, and this is only one of the obtained results: resumes containing minority racial cues, e.g. distinctively African or Asian name, lead to 30-50% fewer callbacks from employers than otherwise equivalent resumes without similar cues!
In their attempts to cope with such reality, minority job applicants decide to ‘whiten’ resumes by deleting references to their race or ethnicity. All this in hope of improving chances of getting a desired job…
The ‘whitening’ may be conducted in the following manner:
- name modification
- work/volunteering experience modification
- failure to mention a current address or place of birth etc.
Some candidates even went so far as not to mention their Bachelor studies or High school, for these could be strongly affiliated with a certain minority group (e.g. typically “black college” or a high school in a predominantly “Latino” neighborhood).
Now, I know what you are thinking… Can it really be that omitting a major part of education or work experience can be beneficial for anyone?
As a recent graduate, I went back to use my high school volunteering experiences so that my resume would not seem empty! How beneficial can it be to skip a whole part of your college education on a resume?
Sadly, altering or omitting certain information proved to be extremely useful and even necessary for the members of specific minority groups.
More precisely: researchers showed that companies are more than twice more likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit ‘whitened’ resumes, as opposed to candidates who reveal their race.
And to make it even worse, such discriminatory practice is just as present in companies which claim to value diversity as in those that don’t.
Following a rapid growth of success rates in a job hunt of those candidates who gave in to these strategies, the trend continued to spread.
Nowadays, resume ‘whitening’ is no longer considered uncommon and this practice is something many people are familiar with, be it directly or through other people who did it.
A recent study reported that two-thirds of all interviewees said they know others (typically friends or family members) who whitened their resumes/job application materials.
But how exactly does a ‘whitened’ resume look like?
How is ‘whitening’ conducted?
DIFFERENT MINORITIES, DIFFERENT WHITENING TECHNIQUES
The reason why this practice of resume modification is called ‘whitening’ is self-explanatory.
By doing this, members of specific minorities try to present them self as less black, Asian or Hispanic, at least on their resumes… They try to appear more ‘white’.
As previously mentioned, this practice has been mostly observed and researched on territories of the US and UK which is why the focus lies on certain minorities and their discrimination.
Still, I think it is safe to say that this and similar practices follow employers’ discriminatory behavior, and unfortunately, discrimination is not something limited to a specific territory!
That being said, depending on a territory or region, different minorities may expect different scale of discriminatory treatment.
In some countries, there is an actual belief that Asian people are smarter and more hard-working than all others, hence, when looking for a job, they find themselves in a better position.
In the US, this group frequently faces a discriminatory treatment by employers… So, it really depends on many factors.
Depending on a person and a minority group this person belongs to, the way in which he or she conducts the ‘whitening’ may differ.
I already mentioned a few ways in which ‘whitening’ can be conducted.
Here, I will focus on two most frequently used strategies: name and experience modification.
Of participants who reported personally engaging in resume ‘whitening’, nearly 50% indicated they changed the presentation of their first name on their resume.
In some cases, this includes the usage of a name entirely different from ones’ legal/official name.
To give an example from one of the relevant studies: One Asian student reported she commonly switched to a more “American-sounding” name on her resume when applying for jobs.
Other study participants engaged in somewhat subtler techniques, such as:
- using shorter/alternative version of a name (Aleksandra to Alex)
- using middle name (Luis Felipe to Philip), and most frequently
- modification of the writing (Ana to Anne, Filip to Philip, Marko to Marc etc.)
- putting both versions of the name on a resume.
In some minorities circles, this practice is considered as a must if one is aiming for a successful career (Asian candidates).
These candidates are frequently advised to change the name by the very members of that same minority group!
Name modification proved to be a widespread practice among Asians, however, many black and Hispano candidates also stated they presented their name differently at some point.
More than two-thirds of participants who reported some form of resume whitening mentioned changing the presentation of their professional experiences or extracurricular activities.
Such modifications predominantly take one of these three forms:
- omitting experiences that might be associated with a minority status or negative racial stereotypes (e.g. omitting to volunteer in “Black women organization”)
- altering the description of such activities so they would have a more race-neutral tone (e.g. not mentioning specifics of a position or an organization, or giving a generic or English name to an organization instead of stating a genuine name)
- emphasizing experiences that signal “whiteness” or a connection with “white culture” (usually done with hobbies or extracurriculars, e.g.: mention of specific clubs, hiking, snowboarding, sailing etc.).
As already mentioned, I long dwelled on how such practices can be advantageous for potential candidates.
How can an employer dislike your volunteering experience which entails a fantastic cause and engagement?
How can it matter if that experience happened to be in an organization predominantly engaged with “black” people?
Unfortunately, it matters…
Many people who reportedly engaged in the resume ‘whitening’ claimed other members of their minority group specifically advised them to take such experiences off their resumes for everything even remotely related to ones’ racial identity, can be harmful for a career.
For example, being a holder of a community scholarship can work against a candidate.
A recruiter could think a candidate has been given an advantage and special treatment only because of his/her race and may not like this “special treatment”.
Furthermore, an engagement in racially affiliated organizations could be considered too extremist or even political. And naturally, a recruiter will not like this focus on your racial identity for it may be disturbing for other people working in the firm…
So basically, very few information turned out to be completely safe if interpreted in a racial context.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION AT A WORK PLACE
Nowadays, many companies insist on their inclusion policies and practice.
Obviously, discrimination is no longer acceptable and big companies know very well that affiliation with such practices may destroy their image and success rates in a second.
Everyone is striving to be inclusive, liberal and finally, a desirable employer. Inclusion promotion, initiatives, open discussion about racial discrimination…These are just some strategies engaged with the purpose of achieving the above-mentioned goals, hence, inclusion and diversity.
But it is not only about creating inclusive environment for those already working in such companies.
It is also about potential candidates considering whether to apply for positions therein as well.
Companies invest a lot of time and money to promote their “inclusive” image and attract candidates of all “shapes, sizes and colors”.
But do these strategies actually work? Are they real? And the most important question: Do they actually prevent racial discrimination and secure inclusion?
Unfortunately, the answer to the last question is a simple no. They do not prevent racial discrimination and some recent researchers proved that this inclusive image may in many situations be nothing else but a facade and even more, a trap.
As a matter of fact, this kind of image may end up being very tricky, for potential candidates who see job postings stating: “variety appreciated” or “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”, tend to feel more secure and feel they can be opened about themselves, hence, their race/ethnicity.
They decide to disclose more, emphasizing their racial/religious/cultural “identity”, with the hope companies with such inclusive environment may come to appreciate it.
Unfortunately, the desired result rarely occurs.
In reality, these companies have same discrimination rates as other, “less inclusive” ones.
By disclosing more, candidates just become more vulnerable to the discriminatory treatment they would otherwise face.
In the end, it is no wonder many decide to give in and try different methods of resume whitening…
RESUME “WHITENING”: A PROBLEMATIC PRACTICE?
So here we are…Studies have shown that the practice of ‘whitening’ exists and continues to exist owing to its successful results.
Nevertheless, regardless of short-term results and several success stories, can we really say resume whitening is a good practice?
While reading about these studies and different cases of people who actually engaged in this practice, I felt very amused but also, slightly saddened.
It could be a wise thing to do, no doubt about that. Discrimination is real, and biases are something each and every one of us has. Pretending this is not the case would be plain stupid.
Growing up, we are frequently told: If you cannot change the situation you are in, change the way in which you perceive it and ultimately, change your behavior and reaction towards it.
So, realizing it may be necessary to ‘whiten’ your resume and background a bit may even be considered wise, right?
Yes, maybe… But imagine getting an interview and getting a job. Imagine getting a job at a company following the ‘whitening’ of your resume for that very same company.
They will probably notice you are black/Asian or Latino by the time you get a job offer, so one can say it’s not such big of a deal you had to ‘whiten’ your resume here and there… No big deal, right?
Depends… How inclusive do you expect this company to be on an everyday basis?
If a company tends to engage in discriminatory behavior at the recruiting level already, chances are that it will not have an inclusive treatment towards minorities overall.
Therefore, you may get a desired job but end up being ignored, left out or mistreated.
It may not end up being so drastic, but you may recognize yourself “covering” and continuing to pretend in one way or another…And trust me, this can be a living hell as well!
But ok, all of this may not happen. You may end up getting a desired job, happy end.
Or is it?
There is a thing called “collective identity” and although the extent of it may vary from one person to another, every one of us has it.
Collective identity may be grounded in ones’ race, ethnicity, religion, nationality or even school, college or neighborhood.
As humans, we have an urge to belong to a certain tribe, group, nation… And this belonging inevitably shapes our individual identity.
To ‘whiten’ your resume means to leave out an important part of your identity unmentioned and/or covered.
It means that you are, in a way, afraid or ashamed to show your true self. And rare are those, who can be completely unaffected by this realization.
Finally, by omitting to such practices, one in a way admits or acknowledges that it may be bad to be different from the majority.
In a way, if even indirectly, one chooses the easier way and ends up encouraging discriminatory practice and behavior.
Far-fetched or too harsh? Maybe, but not entirely unrealistic…
Therefore, there are multiple problematic aspects of the “whitening” practice: practical, ethical and psychological.
In any event, it would be naïve to think that not revealing a big part of the identity can leave you completely untouched and the same. By changing your appearance on paper, you are, to some extent, obliged to change it in real life as well.
Finally, problematic or not, it is of the utmost importance to understand the logic and reasoning behind the resume ‘whitening’.
This practice is nothing else but a direct consequence of recruiters’ discriminatory behavior and rather than judging one for engaging in it, our focus should be on the very issue of discrimination and how we can fight it.