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A Research Surprise on Hiring Bias

New research finds companies may be engaging in racial bias in hiring less than before, but some experts are skeptical about the results.

Monday, May 23, 2016
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In a famous experiment more than a decade ago, economists found strong evidence of racial bias in how companies responded to fake resumes. New research now suggests the problem may be easing.

Many experts are skeptical, though. They say unconscious bias is as big a problem as ever, hurting workforce diversity. And it's increasingly on the mind of top human resource executives.

"It's a very big issue, even globally," says Margaret Regan, president and CEO of The FutureWork Institute, a Brooklyn-based workforce consulting firm. In workshops for employers that her company provides around the world, the topic of unconscious bias is "probably our most requested session," she says. 

The issue gained attention in 2004 with a study by a pair of economists.  Marianne Bertrand at University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan, now at Harvard University, answered more than 1,300 job ads with about 5,000 fake resumes.

While qualifications listed on those resumes were the same, the names were different.  Some resumes carried names like "Brad Kelly," suggesting they were from white applicants.  Others — with names like "Darnell Jackson" — signaled the applicants were black.

The results were startling: Employers were 50 percent more likely to call on resumes with white names. Applicants with black-sounding names needed eight years more experience to get the same call-back rate, researchers concluded.

Is bias receding?

A recent experiment using similar methods has reached a different conclusion. Researchers at the University of Missouri and elsewhere sent out nearly 9,000 fake resumes. This study found little evidence of racial bias in company responses.

But the new experiment was different in several ways, most notably in the names put on fake resumes. To suggest an applicant was black, researchers used two last names that are especially common in African American families: Jefferson and Washington. But they paired them with first names that are not: Chloe and Ryan.

Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy at University of Missouri, says he and other study authors took this approach to limit the influence of socioeconomic status. Many first names common only among African Americans indicate family income and education as well as race, he and other researchers say.

This change in the experiment introduced "a little bit of ambiguity" into the results, Koedel acknowledges. With only last names as an indicator of race, were companies simply missing the signal that would have allowed them to discriminate?

Some experts say that's exactly what happened, and they doubt that the study shows hiring bias is receding.

One is John M. Nunley, an associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who has worked in this area. He recognizes the challenge of separating race and socioeconomic status.

"I get that concern," Nunley says. "But I also suspect that [employers] are not picking up race" without first names that distinguish between black and white applicants.

Nunley says his own 2014 study, which otherwise confirmed the original 2004 research, did find the gap between callback rates for white and black resumes had declined to 14 percent. So he's cautiously hopeful that researchers are seeing changing behavior by hiring managers.

"It appears that -- maybe -- things have improved," he says.

Nunley notes that his study found bias largely in hiring for customer-service jobs. This, along with other research, suggests some managers may be anticipating what customers will think about a potential employee. This effect was especially pronounced in cities where the population is largely white, he says.

Driven in part by research results like these, unconscious bias in hiring has become a hot topic in recruitment circles. Many companies have launched training programs to help hiring managers counter unconscious bias.

Among many common recommendations, consultants suggest that recruiters use structured interviews, asking the same questions of each candidate in the same order. This can reduce the influence of extraneous influences, like a school, mentor or company in common between candidate and interviewer.

Several new ventures also aim to help HR departments by providing new tools to reduce the opportunity for bias in hiring.

Textio, a Seattle-based startup, for example, offers software for analyzing job ads that -- among other things -- identifies phrases that will send unconscious signals to applicants. That can help hiring managers craft job postings that encourage a diverse applicant pool.

Another new firm aimed at engineers,, lets job hunters interview with recruiters anonymously -- no names or video, just voice. Only if both sides are interested do things move to the next stage.

GapJumpers, also meant for technical workers, takes it a step further by allowing applicants to participate in a "blind audition" in which they can show their skills before revealing name or resume details that might get them screened out.

Addressing unconscious bias at any one point in the application process may not solve the problem, however. Unconscious bias can creep in anywhere, says Joelle Emerson, CEO and founder of the diversity consulting firm Paradigm.

"We've found that bigger disparities often emerge after the resume-review stage of a hiring process, when identity becomes more salient," Emerson says. And it can reflect employer prejudices about not only race, but college or previous employers.

"Essentially, bias can come into play throughout the hiring process," she says. "Even if you solve for bias at one stage, you can expect it will still affect the others."


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