Inside The Complicated Mess Of Discrimination And Diversity In Hiring

Recent studies show that we're backsliding when it comes to inclusiveness. But the reasons might be more complicated than discrimination.

Got diversity? If you believe the headlines, not so much.

A spate of recent studies delivered some troubling findings related to how race, religion, sexual orientation, and even your name can determine whether you get that call for an interview or job offer.

A recent study by the Equal Rights Center (ERC) and Freedom to Work (FTW) found that fictitious applicants’ resumes which included a leadership role in an LGBT organization were 23% less likely to be called back for interviews.

Two studies by University of Connecticut researchers—one published in the December 2013 issue of Research in Social Stratification and Mobility and one published in the March 2014 issue of Social Currents—found that identification with some religions could be a setback, too. Overall, applicants who identified a religious organization on their resumes received 26% fewer calls and email responses from prospective employers. Muslim applicants received one-third fewer responses from prospective employers. The studies also showed that atheists, Catholics, and pagans faced discrimination as well.

A July 2012 study published in PNAS found that, in a randomized, double-blind study, students’ application materials for entry-level lab manager positions were randomly assigned male and female names. Female students were less likely to be hired because they were viewed as less competent.

And if your name gives you away, you could be in trouble, too. People with hard to pronounce names are less likely to get hired.

Was all of that diversity awareness and training for naught?

Not really, says Corecia J. Davis, J.D., director of legal compliance at Palmer Kazanjian, an employment law firm based in Sacramento, California. She says the people at her firm pore over employment data "all the time" to discover how they can help their clients be more diverse, she says. While you can’t entirely discount the study data—discrimination still exists, of course—the she says the results can be misleading.

"There are so many factors that you can’t judge accurately. Were you the first resume that came in or the 100th—that could affect your call-back chances? Were your skill sets viewed differently? You never know why people decide to call you in or not," she says.

She says a more telling factor is whether a company actively resists recruiting people of color, LGBT employees, older workers, or people with disabilities. If you see a homogenous workforce and leaders, that’s more indicative of a bias issue than a study that may have many mitigating factors.

Recruiter Kenneth L. Johnson with Philadelphia-based East Coast Executives also cautions about reading too much into isolated studies, especially those based on small samples. He says the more frequent use of automated applicant tracking systems, which rank prospective employees based on factors like experience and education helps mitigate bias. In addition, employee resource groups are more prevalent and help attract people from various races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and with other attributes. However, there’s still less diversity as people rise through the ranks, he says.

"That’s where some candidates may be getting shot down because of bias at the higher levels," he says.

Davis also makes a distinction between racism and other forms of malicious bias and people who are simply uncomfortable with people unlike themselves.

"There are fewer ‘racist’ hiring managers than people who just aren’t sure about how a person of different culture might fit into the workplace. Those are things, societally, that we need to work to improve," she says.

[Image: Shutterstock]

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13 Comments

  • Did the study say anything about age discrimination? These days, "experience" can be used to screen you in... but more often, it's used to screen you out! I'm... a certain age... and have worked mostly in the tech industry my whole career. I used to think, "Age discrimination is old-school -- our generation won't do that. It's a meritocracy now, and as long as you can do the stuff, you'll get hired." Uh, not so fast. Nowadays, with the Wall of HR preventing anyone from getting past the automated screening tools (even if you know people at the company), no matter how good you are, you still have to get past the HR never-worked-in-the-business screeners. And they are convinced that anyone over, say, 35-40, is "elderly" and not hip enough for today's tech.

  • These studies are always interesting...most people don't have the time or the interest to spend with coworkers outside of work, making the "is he/she like me" bias all the more frustrating and ridiculous--especially for people well into adulthood and their own life. A coworker needs to be competent, friendly, flexible, and dependable. These needy hiring decision makers who must be surrounded by people like them are the worst. Coworkers and subordinates aren't there to be one's dude, bro, buddy, wingman, or chica.

  • stevevinson1

    No mention here of age discrimination. With employment participation down significantly my bet is there are thousands of baby boomers who were downsized during the recession and still on the sidelines. Many have given up seeking meaningful employment. I believe companies look at people over 50 and think they will not be "a good fit," the new code phrase (and recycled code phrase) for discrimination.