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White-sounding names get called back for jobs more than Black ones, a new study finds

A sign seeking job applicants is seen in the window of a restaurant in Miami, Florida, on May 5, 2023.
Joe Raedle
/
Getty Images
A sign seeking job applicants is seen in the window of a restaurant in Miami, Florida, on May 5, 2023.

Twenty years ago, two economists responded to a slew of help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers using a set of fictitious names to test for racial bias in the job market.

The watershed study found that applicants with names suggesting they were white got 50% more callbacks from employers than those whose names indicated they were Black.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago recently took that premise and expanded on it, filing 83,000 fake job applications for 11,000 entry-level positions at a variety of Fortune 500 companies.

Their working paper, published this month and titled "A Discrimination Report Card," found that the typical employer called back the presumably white applicants around 9% more than Black ones. That number rose to roughly 24% for the worst offenders.

The research team initially conducted its experiment in 2021, but their new paper names the 97 companies they included in the study and assigns them grades representing their level of bias, thanks to a new methodology the researchers developed.

"Putting the names out there in the public domain is to move away from a lot of the performative allyship that you see with these companies, saying, 'Oh, we value inclusivity and diversity,'" said Pat Kline, a University of California, Berkeley economics professor who worked on the study. "We're trying to create kind of an objective ground truth here."

The names that researchers tested include some used in the 2004 study as well as others culled from a database of speeding tickets in North Carolina. A name was classified as "racially distinctive" if more than 90% of people with that name shared the same race.

Applicants with names such as Brad and Greg were up against Darnell and Lamar. Amanda and Kristen competed for jobs with Ebony and Latoya.

What the researchers found was that some firms called back Black applicants considerably less, while race played little to no factor in the hiring processes at other firms.

Dorianne St Fleur, a career coach and workplace consultant, said she wasn't surprised by the findings showing fewer callbacks for presumed Black applicants at some companies.

"I know the study focused on entry-level positions. Unfortunately it doesn't stop there. I've seen it throughout the organization all the way up into the C-suite," she said.

St Fleur, who primarily coaches women of color, said many of her clients have the right credentials and experience for certain jobs but aren't being hired.

"They are sending out dozens, hundreds of resumes and receiving nothing back," she said.

What the researchers found

Much of a company's bias in hiring could be explained by its industry, the study found. Auto dealers and retailers of car parts were the least likely to call back Black applicants, with Genuine Auto Parts (which distributes NAPA products) and the used car retailer AutoNation scoring the worst on the study's "discrimination report card."

"We are always evaluating our practices to ensure inclusivity and break down barriers, and we will continue to do so," Heather Ross, vice president of strategic communications at Genuine Parts Company, said in an email.

AutoNation did not reply to a request for comment.

The companies that performed best in the analysis included Charter/Spectrum, Dr. Pepper, Kroger and Avis-Budget.

Several patterns emerged when the researchers looked at the companies that had the lowest "contact gap" between white and Black applicants

Federal contractors and more profitable companies called back applicants from the two racial groups at more similar rates. Firms with more centralized human resources departments and policies also exhibited less racial bias, which Kline says may indicate that a standardized hiring workflow involving multiple employees could help reduce discrimination.

When it came to the sex of applicants, most companies didn't discriminate when calling back job-seekers.

Still, some firms preferred one sex over another in screening applicants. Manufacturing companies called back people with male names at higher rates, and clothing stores showing a bias toward female applicants.

What can workplaces — and workers — do

Kline said the research team hoped the public would focus as much on companies doing a bad job as those doing a good one, since they have potentially found ways to remove or limit racial bias from the hiring process.

"Even if it's true, from these insights in psychology and behavioral economics, that individuals are inevitably going to carry biases along with them, it's not automatic that those individual biases will translate into organizational biases, on average," he said.

St Fleur said there are several strategies companies can use to cut down on bias in the hiring process, including training staff and involving multiple recruiters in callback decisions.

Companies should also collect data about which candidates make it through the hiring process and consider standardizing or anonymizing that process, she added.

St Fleur also said she often tells her job-seeking clients that it's not their fault that they aren't getting called back for open positions they believe they're qualified for.

"The fact that you're not getting callbacks does not mean you suck, you're not a good worker, you don't deserve this thing," she said. "It's just the nature of the systemic forces at play, and this is what we have to deal with."

Still, she said job candidates facing bias in the hiring process can lean on their network for new opportunities, prioritize inclusive companies when applying for work and even consider switching industries or locations.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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