Does resumé whitewashing work?

If Lamar J. Smith and L. James Smith have the same qualifications and apply for the same position, who is more likely to get called back for an interview?

In order to combat perceived job market discrimination, study find racial minorities alter resumés

Zeeta Maharaj conducted her own experiment in resumé whitewashing. (Zeeta Maharaj)

Real Talk on Race is CBC Montreal's special series exploring personal conversations and experiences around race in the city.

If Lamar J. Smith and L. James Smith have the same qualifications and apply for the same position, who is more likely to get called back for an interview?

Candidates with anglicized names are twice as likely to get that call, according to a new study out of the University of Toronto. 

The study also found that "whitening" resumés can lead to more success on the job market for racialized minorities. 

Researchers submitted the same resumé to several different employers in 16 different U.S. cities. They found that resumés with distinctly black names and experience — such as involvement with a black students' association — had a callback rate of 10 per cent.

When both name and experience were "whitened" (the experience referred simply to a students' associations), callback rates increased to 25 per cent. 

The two-year study, published in the current issue of the Administrative Science Quarterly Journal, suggests "resumé whitewashing" is a common tactic used by racialized minorities to combat discrimination on the job market. 

In a laboratory phase of the study, they found as many as 38 per cent of participants in a control group engaged in some form of "resumé whitewashing," that is, changing names, education or experience to disguise signs of race. 

That number dropped to 21 per cent, however, when the participants were applying to a company that made explicit a commitment to diversity. 

A personal experiment

Zeeta Maharaj is a Trinidadian-Montrealer who works in freelance media and modelling. While looking for work, she conducted a micro-experiment of her own, and was shocked by what she discovered.

"I needed to be my own social experiment," she said.

"I was finishing up my education and I lost my position. So I was looking for work in media and education and I applied to a company with [my name] Zeeta Maharaj. And I didn't get any callbacks."

Feeling frustrated, Maharaj resubmitted her original resumé under the name Lisa King. The results were very different.

"I got a call back. Same exact resumé," she said. "I asked why they called me back, and they said, 'Your resumé sounds like its a perfect fit for the team.'"

A common experience?

The lead author of the University of Toronto resumé study, Sonia Kang, said Maharaj's experience is more common than previously thought.

"We had a series of interviews with people just like Zeeta who are looking for jobs, who are really highly qualified and were having problems getting into the job market," said Kang, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and HR management.

"When they changed their resumés, so that you couldn't connect them to any particular racial group they started getting more call backs."

She attributed the result to, among other things, racial discrimination, desire for fluency in English and underlying prejudice. 

"As an employer, when you see a whitened resumé, you couldn't ever tell that there is material there that has been taken out," Kang said.

"We have to be really realistic about what's happening at the resume assessment stage. You have to make decisions quickly, [you] usually have a pile of resumés on your desk. Personal prejudices will play a role."