Kang, DeCelles, Tilcsik, & Jun (2016). Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market

Sonia K. Kang – University of Toronto
Katherine A. DeCelles – University of Toronto
András Tilcsik – University of Toronto
Sora Jun – Stanford University

Winnie (Yun) Jiang – Yale School of Management
Tianna Barnes – University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management

Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/61/3/469

Question 1. We are very interested in your paper as it focuses on an important and common experience of minority students in North America. Our first question is about the background story of your paper. Specifically, how did you decide to study this particular issue?

The idea to get started on this line of research came from one of our co-authors, Sora Jun. I think your student readers will be especially pleased to learn that Sora was an undergraduate student when we started this project and is now a PhD student at Stanford GSB. Sora had heard some anecdotes from her peers about whitening and had seen some stories about whitening in popular media, and she proposed the idea of doing some scholarly work to more deeply engage with and understand the phenomenon. From there, we set out to find out if it was happening, why it was happening, and how employers are responding.

Question 2. In reference to passing versus covering, there were distinctions made amongst the interview responses and behaviors of whitening. For example, omitting experiences from a résumé was considered by some students as more of a toning down or covering practice whereas changing a name to appear more American/Western or white might have been considered an attempt to pass. Do you have any data on which type of student appeared to do which practice (i.e. gender, year in school, opinions on whitening, etc)? Is there any distinction on who prefers which method if they do decide to whiten?

Our interviewees reported two main whitening techniques: changing the presentation of their names and changing the presentation of their experiences. Changing the presentation of names could involve altering one’s first name or using an additional name, and changing the presentation of experiences could involve omitting experience, changing the description of experience, or adding “white” experience. We found that of those who reported having engaged in résumé whitening, about one-half reported changing the presentation of their first names and more than two-thirds reported changing the presentation of their experiences. We found that changing the presentation of one’s first name was most common among Asian respondents and that removing race-related experiences was most common among black respondents, although members of both groups engaged in each of these whitening behaviors. It’s important to remember too that our studies show that some minority job seekers are engaging in whitening, about 30-40% of participants in our samples. We are not saying that all minority applicants will whiten, in fact, some individuals in our studies were very much against whitening, and some even did the opposite and played up their race, and we are definitely not saying that people should whiten. Whitening is a strategy that some minorities use to avoid discrimination, especially those who anticipate being discriminated against due to their race. Unfortunately discrimination is a reality in the workforce and this is one way that some people try to avoid it. However, the onus absolutely should not be on minorities to avoid discrimination. Instead, this type of research should be a call to employers and policy-makers to implement real diversity initiatives to combat discriminatory hiring practices.

Question 3. An important finding of Study 3 is that organizations adopting explicit pro-diversity statements compared to those that do not are no less likely to discriminate against minority applicants with unwhitened résumés. Why do you think this happens? How may organizations with pro-diversity statements be different from those without? Is it possible that the organizations with pro-diversity statements were even more discriminative before they started to adopt these statements?

As to why this might be happening, we have to be realistic about what’s going on at the résumé assessment stage. Hiring managers are dealing with huge numbers of résumés, and they have to make quick decisions about whose résumé to pay attention to and whose to drop from the pile. In situations like this, cognitive biases like stereotyping and prejudice take over, often despite our best intentions. Organizations that put diversity initiatives into place do so with good intentions. They recognize that discrimination is a problem and that embracing diversity can benefit them, and they think that advertising themselves as equal opportunity or diversity-friendly employers will bring them a big pool of diverse applicants and the problem will take care itself. Our findings add to research showing that this isn’t the case – just because your organization says that it is diversity friendly doesn’t automatically make it so. Yes, statements about valuing diversity will likely attract a pool of applicants who are transparent about their race, but the question is: how can you actually get minority applicants through the door? The knowledge that organizations who claim to value diversity and those who don’t even mention diversity discriminate at similar rates at the callback stage should be a wake-up call for organizations to try to actually address the problem of discrimination.

Question 4. One precondition of your research is that the types of jobs minority applicants are targeting implicitly favor or are dominated by white employees. Do you expect that white applicants would engage in similar résumé modification behaviors when they apply to jobs that implicitly favor minority employees (e.g., a white graduate tries to apply to a job at the National Museum of African American History and Culture)? And do you expect to observe similar outcomes for the white applicants?

This is an empirical question but my prediction would be that we would not see these kinds of résumé modification behaviors among white applicants, at least not nearly to the same degree. Résumé whitening is rooted in attempts to avoid anticipated discrimination, and without a lived history of systemic discrimination against one’s racial group, the likelihood of anticipating discrimination would be much lower.

Question 5. One of the highlights of this paper is its multi-method approach. Did you make plans to use the three different methods (i.e., interviews, lab experiment, and résumé audit study) when you were designing the research or it was a decision made as the research evolved? What were some challenges you encountered in conducting multi-method research? And do you have any advice or tips for young scholars interested in conducting multi-method research?

This was something that evolved as the study progressed. Each step naturally flowed into the next, and we found that answering our questions required a diverse set of methods. The interviews shed light on why minority job seekers engage in résumé whitening, the experiment allows us to examine how job seekers change their résumés in response to different job postings that do or do not mention diversity, and our résumé audit study explores how employers respond to whitened and unwhitened résumés. A major theme that emerged from our interviews is that minorities reported whitening less when applying to pro-diversity employers. However, we needed our experiment to conclusively confirm that in a controlled way. Our next question—is submitting racially-transparent résumés to ostensibly pro-diversity employers actually a good idea?—could résumé only really be answered via an audit study, so that’s what we did next. That last question actually came up during the review process. My advice to young scholars would be to be open to a variety of different methods and to the feedback you receive on your work from advisors, peers, reviewers, etc. Talk to others about your work and be open to different perspectives and really listen to the questions people are asking—they could very well lead you to your next study.

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