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Study: Hiring Managers Discriminate Against Candidates With Asian Last Names

Topics: Career Advice
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In the category of “why haven’t we gotten better about this,” a recent study shows that hiring managers could be discriminating against you, based on your last name.

Researchers from the University of Toronto and Ryerson University analyzed data from an earlier study based on nearly 13,000 computer-generated resumes, which were sent out to 3,225 job postings at large Canadian employers in Toronto and Montreal. Their findings showed that candidates with Asian last names (meaning those of Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani origin) were 28 percent less likely to get called for an interview than those with Anglo-sounding names.

“Some people still believe that minorities have an advantage,” study co-author Jeffrey Reitz told NPR. “These studies are important to challenge that and show that not only is this kind of discrimination happening, but it’s quite systemic.”

Researchers attributed the result to unconscious bias on the part of the people heading up job searches. However, given some of the responses the researchers received during their follow-up, we could argue that some of that bias is pretty explicit. Reitz told NPR that employers typically gave researchers an explanation along the lines of, “Well, you see an Asian name and you know that language problems are going to be there.”

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Where HR Robots Can Help

If humans are the problem, with our inherent biases and ill-conceived prejudices, maybe what we need is more robots in charge of sorting through job applications. A automated screening process, however problematic it may be, can avoid at least chucking out a perfectly qualified candidate purely because of their “ethnic” name. That doesn’t mean taking humans out of the equation — we’ll always need real, live people to handle the interview level of the hiring process. But using applicant tracking systems to create a name-blind search helps build up a list of candidates who are the most qualified, no matter their background or name.

The Bias May Not Arise Where You Think

When we spoke with one professional art director/interaction designer with an Asian first and last name, she remarked that she hadn’t received any overt comments on her name from hiring managers or in interviews, but some problems still arose from her name. Kim (we’ve used only her last name for this article) was born in Japan to fourth generation Korean-Japanese family. She has a South Korean passport, with permanent residency both in Japan and the United States.

“I’ve come to notice many hiring managers and recruiters hesitate calling me because they might be afraid to mispronounce my name. It’s taken me a while to acknowledge that and to do something about it,” Kim said. “Only since last year, I’ve put a pronunciation guide for my first name on the name section of my resume, my website, as well as my LinkedIn profile,” she said.

Fighting Bias Once You’re Hired

Of course, it’s one thing to fight stereotypes in the hiring process, and another to struggle against them once you make it through the interview maze and get hired. When Kim is at a new job, she finds she still has to win over her coworkers and new boss, in part because she was not born in the US. She thinks her mantra of hard work and being vocal about her abilities in the workplace breaks stereotypes of the “deferential Asian woman” that some seem to expect, but she’s not about to back down when it comes to being known for her high quality of work.

“I do think my personality and tendencies surprise people’s expectation for an Asian woman. Other than that, strictly in workplaces, I try to ‘prove’ myself by being great at work. That’s helped a lot and totally worked,” she said.

When it came to performing at work as not only an Asian employee, but also a female graphic designer, Kim said she found problems in surprising places.

“Interestingly, the most difficulty I’ve had in a workplace was with an Asian male coworker,” Kim said. “He was only slightly above my title, and we worked in the same small team. In the beginning, I immediately felt dominance from him as if he did not value my views, methods, and opinions. He’d start talking as soon as I open my mouth. He actually [did] that to other people [as well].”

“In time, we collaborated and exchanged ideas, working on multiple projects and spent more time together,” she said. “He finally saw what I was capable of. That’s when his attitudes towards me started shifting. In all honesty, I feel that Asian men tend to show more dominance over Asian women than non-Asian men do. That might be because in most Asian cultures, male dominance is still very common.”

What You Can Do to Fight Bias, Whatever Your Background

Getting past inherent prejudices isn’t just about hiring managers, it’s about all of us. We all contain a lifetime of experiences and influences that stack up to form our outlook on life, including how we assume our coworkers should act. Kim points out that a more balanced, productive workplace leads to more wins for workers as well as society itself. It all starts by hiring diversely.

“Focus on the talent’s experience, capabilities, and skills, rather than the foreign-sounding name,” Kim said. “Have not just Asian employees, but talented and diverse employees in general, so that their capabilities stand out more than presumptions and prejudice about them. And honestly, just have more empathy. We all need it.”

Tell Us What You Think

Have you experienced name-based bias at work or when applying for a job? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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