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The Unintended Consequences of Diversity Statements


Army.ca Dinosaur
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Oh hell yeah....

Pro-diversity messages are everywhere, whether you’re searching for a job, playing soccer, or watching the Oscars. Their point is simple: Diversity is good and we need more of it. In the business world, for example, we know that more-diverse groups tend to be more innovative, creative, hard-working, and better at solving problems. Yet despite the proliferation of interest in diversity and costly initiatives aimed at increasing it, discrimination continues to be a major problem in the labor market.

In trying to address discrimination, many organizations now explicitly advertise their dedication to diversity, identifying themselves as “equal opportunity” or “diversity-friendly” employers. The thinking, presumably, is that such statements will increase the diversity of their applicant pool and ultimately of their workforce. We know a lot about how effective these diversity statements are, and, unfortunately, the answer is “not very.” They can even backfire by making organizations less likely to notice discrimination.

On the other hand, we know relatively little about the steps minority job seekers are taking to avoid anticipated discrimination. One way racial minorities may be trying to avoid discrimination is via a practice called “resume whitening” — concealing or downplaying racial cues on a job application to increase the chance of getting a callback for an interview. Resume whitening goes hand-in-hand with the desire to “tone down” or “downplay” race and to maintain a relatively “raceless” workplace identity.

To address this gap, we recently conducted three studies, which will appear in Administrative Science Quarterly, to learn more about whitening and how it is influenced by organizational diversity statements — and about how organizations respond to whitening.

In our first study, we interviewed black and Asian university students who were actively searching for jobs or internships. We found that roughly one-third of our sample had engaged in whitening, and two-thirds knew someone else who had. The main areas where this whitening occurred were with names (e.g., using a “white” first name such as Jenn instead of an Asian first name such as Jing) and descriptions of experience (e.g., dropping “Black” when listing membership in the “Black Engineering Students’ Association”). Among the motivations that interviewees mentioned for whitening, the main reason was to tone down their race in order to avoid discrimination. Importantly, interviewees indicated that they whitened less or not at all when applying to jobs for employers who explicitly state that they value diversity.

In our second study, we tested whether minorities do indeed whiten less when applying for jobs that include pro-diversity statements. We tested this by creating job ads that did or did not mention diversity, asking half of the participants to craft resumes for the pro-diversity jobs and half to craft resumes for the jobs that did not mention diversity. We then compared the resumes that participants created during the experiment with their full resumes that they submitted to us beforehand. Sure enough, participants were half as likely to whiten their resumes when job ads included pro-diversity statements.

Finally, we wanted to examine the consequences of this resume whitening for employment decisions. We created realistic resumes for black and Asian applicants that varied in how much racial information was apparent. We sent these resumes out to 1,600 entry-level jobs posted on job search websites across 16 metropolitan areas in the U.S. Critically, half of these job ads mentioned valuing diversity and the other half did not, which allowed us to see whether diversity statements actually make a difference when it comes to hiring decisions. We created email accounts and phone numbers for our applicants and observed how many callbacks they received.

We found that the whitened versions of both the black and Asian resumes were more than twice as likely to result in a callback as unwhitened resumes, even though the listed qualifications were identical — in line with other studies showing lower callback rates for minority applicants. Most importantly, the discrimination against unwhitened resumes was no smaller for purportedly pro-diversity employers than for employers that didn’t mention diversity in their job ad.

A critical implication of our studies is that to the extent that pro-diversity statements encourage job applicants to let their guard down and disclose more racial information, these statements may be doing more harm than good. If appeals to diversity encourage applicants to reveal racial cues to an organization that has not adequately addressed discriminatory hiring practices, then pro-diversity statements may effectively expose minorities to greater discrimination. Unless the biased evaluation of racial minorities in this critical step for entry into the labor market is addressed, pro-diversity statements may have the exact opposite of their intended effect.

So where do we go from here? Employers need to acknowledge that discrimination still exists and that bias is hardwired into the system. When we are asked to process large amounts of information quickly, cognitive biases such as prejudice and stereotyping tend to prevail. We need innovations in recruitment to disrupt the bias that exists in human brains. Technology may be able to help with this, as can policies such as blind recruitment, where information that could be a clue to any biasing characteristic including race, age, gender, or social class are removed from resumes before they reach the hands of hiring managers. Humans have limited cognitive capacity and naturally rely on shortcuts, so why not only provide the information relevant to the hiring decision?

Minority job seekers reading this might wonder whether they, too, should whiten their resumes, given that it seems to result in more callbacks. Although our results do indicate that whitening can lead to higher callback rates, it is important to remember that it can also mask an applicant’s potential value to a firm. Some of our participants reported deleting prestigious scholarships or involvement in nationally recognized professional societies because these achievements highlighted their racial identities. Masking such accomplishments hides the full value that applicants bring to a job. The only way to get the most from our workforce is for employers and policy makers to implement real initiatives that thoroughly combat biased hiring practices. Moreover, resume whitening won’t prevent employers from discriminating against job seekers during the interview process, or against new hires once they get in the door.

Organizations that put diversity initiatives into place do so with good intentions. They recognize that discrimination is a problem and that embracing diversity has substantial social and economic value. Simply advertising oneself as an equal-opportunity or diversity-friendly employer, however, does not solve the underlying problem of discrimination. Pro-diversity statements may give you a more diverse applicant pool, but it takes more to make workplaces truly fair and inclusive.