How to Cope with Bias in Hiring

6 min read

I’ve been delving into the experiences of immigrants and refugees in the context of employment and integration. As part of my research, I reached out to Christian Schlaerth, a department chair at Waldorf University, who shared with me two valuable insights.

First, he emphasized the inherent difficulty in proving instances of racism and other forms of bias during job searches, though they undoubtedly occur. Second, he recounted his own encounters with discrimination while working alongside white hiring managers who made hiring decisions based on the applicants’ zip codes. If the applicants hailed from predominantly Black neighborhoods, Schlaerth recalls, these hiring managers were less inclined to initiate contact with them.

In reviewing the pertinent literature, I came across research that seemed to corroborate Schlaerth’s experience, finding that hiring managers tend to be less responsive to applicants with Black-sounding names but were more responsive to those with white-sounding names. Subsequently, I decided to conduct my own experiment.

I devised two resumes—one bearing my authentic name (Abdulrahman Mohammed Bindamnan) and the other featuring a fictitious name that I believed was more likely to be seen as white (Allen Benjamine). All applications were identical, except for the variation in the names; I crafted identical cover letters for each. To gather a good amount of data, I submitted applications to over 70 job openings.

I was astonished by my own findings: Allen Benjamine fared considerably better than Abdulrahman Bindamnan. Allen had numerous applications accepted for review, whereas Abdulrahman had multiple applications rejected.

Abdulrahman applied for positions for which he seemingly met the eligibility criteria; in some cases, he reached out to hiring managers to let them know that he exceeded them. One talent acquisition member responded to Abdulrahman’s application by stating, “Your application was determined to not meet the minimum requirements.” Yet this was perplexing, because this very same person had readily accepted the application of Allen Benjamine, which was identical to that of Abdulrahman from the outset.

I was surprised by the results of my own experiment. As noted above, prior research has uncovered bias against Black names in job applications—for example, a classic 2004 study entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” found that applicants named “Emily” and “Greg” received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews compared to “Lakisha” and “Jamal.” Another more recent paper, titled “Systemic Discrimination Among Large U.S. Employers,” conducted a comprehensive analysis of over 83,000 fictitious applications and again found discrimination against Black names.

My informal experiment suggests that discrimination may also be prevalent against names that sound Arabic or Islamic. As in the study cited above, in my own experiment, the white name garnered significantly more callbacks than the Arabic-sounding name.

Another study, entitled “Is Your Accent Right for the Job? A Meta-Analysis on Accent Bias in Hiring Decisions,” argues that having a nonstandard accent and nonnative prose could also expose a job applicant to bias and discrimination. A related study, titled “Sounding ‘different’: The role of sociolinguistic cues in evaluating job candidates” begins with a strong statement: “Despite the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race- and ethnicity-based employment-related discrimination, hiring and wage disparities between whites and minorities persist.”

The researchers introduced the term “modern racism” to describe the current bias and discriminatory practices directed at applicants who sound different. They also proposed a nomenclature of “aversive racism,” a concept akin to what Ibram X. Kendi refers to as “antiracism” in his book, How to Be an Antiracist.

Yet another study, from 2013, entitled “Political skill: Explaining the effects of nonnative accent on managerial hiring and entrepreneurial investment decisions” highlights that despite legislation prohibiting national origin discrimination in the United States, a nonnative accent remains a significant liability that can subject applicants to bias and discrimination. These particular researchers recommended that non-native English speakers should strive to acquire native fluency in the language—yet they also acknowledged that this endeavor may come with social penalties within their respective social groups and is further complicated by the inherent difficulty of changing one’s accent.

These findings suggest that various forms of bias persist. I wondered, though, about the apparent lack of attention given to immigrants in employment discrimination discussions. When I reached out to the University of Minnesota’s Paul Sackett to discuss the topic with him, he responded, “U.S. employers primarily focus on discrimination related to legally protected groups, which include race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Immigrant status per se does not fall under this legal protection, and this likely contributes to the limited attention on this issue.” (It’s also important to note that some of the challenges facing immigrants may not be due not solely to bias but also to the legal issues related to employment—some immigrants may not be authorized to work in the U.S. or may require sponsorship, for example.)

All in all, the research suggests that bias and discrimination still persist in hiring decisions. These findings have taken me by surprise, as I personally considered the United States a nation founded on principles of liberty, fairness, and meritocracy. But there may be some actionable strategies job applicants can employ to mitigate bias in the hiring process.

What Can Job-Seekers Do to Reduce Discrimination in Recruitment?

An article titled “When ethnic discrimination in recruitment is likely to occur and how to reduce it: Applying a contingency perspective to review resume studies” reinforces the notion that minorities do face bias and discrimination from hiring managers. But it also offers actionable strategies for minority applicants to navigate and mitigate such bias in the recruitment process.

First, broaden the scope of your job search. If you belong to a minority group, consider expanding your application efforts beyond a limited number of job openings. Instead of applying to just 20 jobs, for example, aim for perhaps 200 or more. Some research has found that African-American applicants who apply to a larger number of positions are more likely to receive multiple job offers.

Second, consider incorporating volunteer work into your resume. Studies conducted with Turkish immigrants suggest that including volunteer experience can be beneficial, particularly for minority applicants. This addition to your resume signals to recruiters that you are actively engaged within your local community, which can be viewed positively during the hiring process.

Third, it may be worth considering whether you should change your foreign name, if you have one. Research has found a positive correlation between name changes and increased earnings. In a specific study titled “Giving up Foreign Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings,” researchers discovered that individuals who changed their foreign names to local names experienced a 26 percent boost in their earnings. (Should I choose to implement this strategy, I think I would opt to change my surname from Bindamnan to Benjamine.)

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