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Résumé Rejection

Are today’s employers more likely to treat all applicants the same?

Just over a decade ago, researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT sent two sets of fake résumés to businesses with openings advertised in the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe. Each set listed comparable credentials. But there was a twist — applicants’ names in one group were made to appear as “very white-sounding;” in the other “very black-sounding.” The study’s highly publicized, disheartening result? White-sounding names generated 50 percent more callbacks.

“I think most African-Americans already realize they need to work much harder than whites to get a job,” one of the study’s authors told a reporter at the time. “They will have to send more résumés and fight to get that first job interview.”

Subsequent studies confirmed that discrimination via résumé vetting was a serious problem, as was hiring bias in general. But the work of an MU scholar suggests things may be improving, at least for minority job seekers trying to get a foot in the door.

Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy at MU, recently led a team of researchers who revisited the role of race-and-gender bias in employer’s responses to résumés. They found scant evidence that employers were rejecting applicants based on race or gender. “The labor market is constantly evolving,” Koedel says. “To best understand why race-and-gender based gaps exist in the market, we need to understand at what point the gaps occur. Our analysis reveals little evidence to suggest that employers discriminate by race or gender in responding to résumés.”

Koedel and his team sent 9,000 fictitious résumés to employers. Unlike previous studies that used first names to “signal” to employers an applicant’s race and/or ethnicity, Koedel opted for last names — this to reduce the chance that socio-economic bias might enter the mix. First names were used to signify gender. The resulting analysis, he says, revealed “little evidence to suggest that employers discriminate by race or gender in responding to résumés.”

There are several possible explanations as to why. One is that Koedel’s study was free of those problematic socio-economic signals to employers. Another is that using last names may signal race less strongly than first names. (If this were the case, Koedel says, it would lead to less differentiation in employer responses, particularly between black and white applicants.) A third explanation, the study suggests, is that “racial discrimination during job application review may be less prevalent than when researchers conducted prior studies.”

Rajeev Darolia, assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs, co-authored the study with Koedel and other colleagues. It was published in the journal Applied Economics Letters.

Image of executive examining résumés

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