Last week, a two-year study led by University of Toronto researchers reported that up to 40 per cent of minority job seekers in North America engage in a practice called “resume whitening.”
That people adopt Anglicized names or erase work experience with ethnic groups came as news only to non-minorities.
Around the world, I’ve seen dominant social groups — be it whites in North America, Chinese in Singapore, Brahmins in India (of which I am one) or privately schooled aristocrats in Britain — look at a playing field that’s tilted in their own favour and perceive it to be level.
Study after study shows it to be anything but.
Yet, if I had a dollar every time a white male — the least discriminated human on earth — said to me, “If you and I walked into a job interview, you’d be the one to get it,” I wouldn’t need that job.
The idea that skills are a bonus if you are a minority is purely anecdotal and speaks more to white insecurity in Canada rather than reality. The Canadian self-image of unique multicultural inclusiveness also allows many to dismiss discrimination as a trump card of the overly sensitive or a refuge of the mediocre.
A 2004 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. found that a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience compared to black names.
A similar 2011 study of 7,000 hypothetical resumes by University of Toronto researchers showed resumes with English-sounding names are 35 per cent more likely to receive callbacks than resumes with Indian or Chinese names.
The callbacks established this hierarchy by employers:
1. English-sounding names with Canadian education and experience (read: white people).
2. Ethnic-sounding names with Canadian education and experience (or, second-generation immigrants or older).
3. Ethnic-sounding names with international degrees and Canadian experience (or, first-generation immigrants).
4. Ethnic-sounding names with international degrees and foreign experience (or, new immigrants).
It would be interesting to see a further breakdown within these groups based on gender.
The reason the recent report does not shock minorities but simply validates their experience is that it studied Group 2, which is already cushioned by Groups 3 and 4, who do not even have the option of resume whitening, for whom the concept of “blind recruitment” — resumes without names or gender — would make no difference.
These are people who cannot “pass off” as white or “cover up” their experiences with ethnic groups. Without it, their resumes would be threadbare.
Sometimes even the most innocuous skills are giveaways. A resume that lists, “English, French, Arabic” or “English, Mandarin” under “Languages Spoken” will hardly leave any room for doubt on ethnicity or “the otherness” of the candidate.
The reason the recent study is significant, however, is that it exposes bias as the root of that preferential treatment, not uncertainty over language skills or quality of skills, as employers often claim.
So how do you systemically root out bias — conscious and unconscious — and solve this problem?
Laws against discrimination, diversity drives, studies on higher profitability have mixed results that depend largely on the manager at the top. More often than not, they simply lead to correctly written but toothless policies.
Quotas can lead to more diversity but come at a cost when employees are perceived as lacking in quality.
There is, however, a simple solution for corporate diversity: meritocracy.
Employers can invite all applicants to take written tests. These tests can be a mix of multiple choice, documentation skills, and essay-style questions based on the job requirements. The effort exerted for the test will help employers gauge interest and filter out those without the required job skills. The tests can be labelled with a unique ID that is matched to the resume before an interview.
Reviewing tests takes time and effort, but organizations that hire the best fit also save through higher productivity and lower attrition rates in the long run.
There will be other solutions out there. But we need to look at fresh approaches to make Canada as exceptional as we say it is. The time is now.