Rotman Management

‘Whitening’ and Self-Presentation in the Labour Market

MODERN ORGANIZATIONS PLAY A KEY ROLE in perpetuating economic inequality in society. Despite the proliferation of equal opportunity and diversity initiatives, discrimination on the basis of race remains particularly pervasive in North American labour markets.

Résumé audit studies — experiments that submit résumés in response to actual job postings — consistently show evidence of race-based discrimination: Résumés containing minority ‘racial cues’ — such as a distinctly African American or Asian name — lead to 30 to 50 per cent fewer callbacks from employers than do otherwise-equivalent résumés.

Although the research demonstrates persistent discrimination, one of the ways in which candidates attempt to proactively avoid anticipated discrimination has been largely overlooked: Changing how they present themselves — especially in relation to racial cues — when applying for jobs. We recently set out to investigate the phenomenon of ‘résumé whitening’ and how selfproclaimed ‘diversity-friendly’ organizations respond to them.

The Phenomenon of Résumé Whitening

The first stage of our study consisted of interviews with young job applicants. Using email lists from university campus residence halls, we recruited black and Asian participants (55.9 per cent women) for a study of minority job seekers’ experiences. Participants were undergraduate students in their junior or senior year or were enrolled in professional degree programs. Each had a recent experience applying for jobs or internships. Our sample represented a range of targeted career fields, including finance (16.9 per cent), science and medicine (13.6 per cent), law and government (13.6 per cent), consulting (10.2 per cent), education (8.5 per cent) and information technology (5.1 per cent).

Our first key finding: 36 per cent of these individuals (31 per cent of black respondents and 40 per cent of Asian respondents) reported engaging in résumé whitening. In addition, two-thirds reported

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