Optus’ awful job ad, and racism in recruitment


An Optus job ad that made headlines is atrocious, but the real racial bias in recruitment is more sinister and less obvious.

A now removed Optus ad for a casual retail consultant position listed a preference for “candidates who are Anglo Saxon”. It was put up last Thursday and taken down after media organisations became aware of it on Friday.

In a statement Optus vice-president of human resources Vaughan Paul said “This error is completely unacceptable and a clear breach of our advertising standards and commitment to equal opportunity employment.”

He emphasised how the company believed in diversity and that it already hires staff from over 70 nationalities. “We have removed the advert, and will be investigating how this occurred with a view to taking disciplinary action against those involved,” he said.

A StandOut or Premium option

The ad, which got wider attention after being posted about on Twitter, is so obviously shocking it has many people wondering how it got posted in the first place. It seems to have used Seek’s “StandOut” or “Premium” ad option, which allows for a company to include their logo.

The racial preference is also listed first in the one of three “selling points” job advertisers get to highlight in order to entice submissions. That the other two points are about compensation and opportunities make the inclusion of a racial preference particularly odd.

It seems that this wasn’t just the poor ethics and judgement of the employee or employees who wrote and posted the ad, but also a failure of the company’s review process.

The exception, not the rule

It is obviously illegal for Australian employers to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. There are federal, and state and territory laws covering this. Under the Fair Work act, for instance, the maximum penalty for a single contravention of unlawful discrimination protections is $63,000 for a corporation and $12,600 for an individual.

The reaction to the job ad shows that it’s not just our legal system, Australia’s culture does not allow for open racism in recruitment.

However, that doesn’t mean racial bias’ doesn’t play a factor in recruitment. HRM has written about name-blind recruitment, and why language has a big impact on job ads, but just as interesting is what candidates are doing to try and overcome racial bias.

Whitening your resume

One of the more consistent tests of racial bias in the recruitment process is when different fake resumes are sent out, each identical except the ethnicity or gender of a candidate. Inevitably the “whiter” the job application, the higher the likelihood of a callback. (Here’s an Australian example, and one from the UK.)

A famous 2010 Australian study found that people with white sounding names were far more likely to get an interview than any other ethnicity tested. But there are other ways to whiten a resume.

A 2016 US study revealed that minority candidates have a variety of tactics to increase their chances of getting a job, including:

  • Omitting experience – if they worked for a Korean student organisation, for instance, they would not put that on their resume.
  • Changing the description of experience – a Chinese-American person taking part in the study explained how they removed the Chinese name of an art centre they took classes at, opting for the school’s generic name.
  • Changing interests – in the interests section of a resume, candidates try to diminish anything multicultural, opting instead for generic Western answers such as hiking and traveling. As one candidate explained “I kind of want to distinguish myself and not just be the perfect cookie-cutter Asian”.

One of the study’s more interesting findings was that not only does whitening your resume help you get callbacks, it even helps you with companies that are actively signalling they’re pro-diversity.

Racial bias graph

From Administrative Science Quarterly

One of the researchers talked to Forbes about why this was so troubling. “This is a major point of our research — that you are at an even greater risk for discrimination when applying with a pro-diversity employer because you’re being more transparent,” said Katherine A. DeCelles, the James M. Collins Visiting Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Even if this isn’t true in Australia, there is more than enough evidence that we have our own problems with racial bias in recruitment. An openly racist job ad, immediately taken down by the company that posted it, is an aberration. But it’s also an opportunity to look at the problems we do have.


Learn more about discrimination and other issues affecting inclusion at the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference in Sydney on 3 May.

Leave a reply

9 Comments On "Optus’ awful job ad, and racism in recruitment"

avatar
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Gauri
Australia has ongoing problems with racial and ethic prejudice. I faced it when I moved to Australia in 2000 – comes in the guise of “great background but no local experience”! More recently, after 16 years leading HR in global Australian Corporations, I was asked to sit for an English test to be granted admission for the Master of Science in Coaching Psychology program. It was only after I wrote to the vice chancellor that this requirement was withdrawn and I was accepted!!!! Optus has got caught out with this very blatant language, however, despite best intentions, prejudice seems very… Read more »
Skevi

This is also happening on the other side of the fence. It is known that some Asian real estate agents, job agencies and the like will only build a database of same ethnicity and won’t even talk to you if you can’t speak their language. I have seen pop up kiosks at shopping centres of property developers with the marketing in Chinese and they will only stop and talk to you if you’re Chinese.

Christina

The clue to who wrote the add is in the level of spelling and language used. It should be “Preferred” not “Preffered”. And who approved the ad? Just a thought but maybe it would help to ensure that those who write ads and approve ads have the right knowledge and skills.

Felicity Collard

I am utterly disgusted by Optus. I understand when job opportunities are seeking only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Poor judgment but nothing surprising about Optus.

Robert Compton
This looks most unusual. The section on ‘whitening’ your resume is nothing new. People have ‘enhanced’ their resumes for many years. The Optus advert seems indefensible but there is further discussion on the illegal nature of ethnic based job advertisements. This section is a little misleading. It has always been possible to place job ads based on ethnic background as long as this requirement could be shown as a valid and genuine occupational requirement. As a case in point, Koreans are mentioned in the story. Is there an issue with a Korean restaurant advertising for a Korean chef/s. Or Korean… Read more »
More on HRM

Optus’ awful job ad, and racism in recruitment


An Optus job ad that made headlines is atrocious, but the real racial bias in recruitment is more sinister and less obvious.

A now removed Optus ad for a casual retail consultant position listed a preference for “candidates who are Anglo Saxon”. It was put up last Thursday and taken down after media organisations became aware of it on Friday.

In a statement Optus vice-president of human resources Vaughan Paul said “This error is completely unacceptable and a clear breach of our advertising standards and commitment to equal opportunity employment.”

He emphasised how the company believed in diversity and that it already hires staff from over 70 nationalities. “We have removed the advert, and will be investigating how this occurred with a view to taking disciplinary action against those involved,” he said.

A StandOut or Premium option

The ad, which got wider attention after being posted about on Twitter, is so obviously shocking it has many people wondering how it got posted in the first place. It seems to have used Seek’s “StandOut” or “Premium” ad option, which allows for a company to include their logo.

The racial preference is also listed first in the one of three “selling points” job advertisers get to highlight in order to entice submissions. That the other two points are about compensation and opportunities make the inclusion of a racial preference particularly odd.

It seems that this wasn’t just the poor ethics and judgement of the employee or employees who wrote and posted the ad, but also a failure of the company’s review process.

The exception, not the rule

It is obviously illegal for Australian employers to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. There are federal, and state and territory laws covering this. Under the Fair Work act, for instance, the maximum penalty for a single contravention of unlawful discrimination protections is $63,000 for a corporation and $12,600 for an individual.

The reaction to the job ad shows that it’s not just our legal system, Australia’s culture does not allow for open racism in recruitment.

However, that doesn’t mean racial bias’ doesn’t play a factor in recruitment. HRM has written about name-blind recruitment, and why language has a big impact on job ads, but just as interesting is what candidates are doing to try and overcome racial bias.

Whitening your resume

One of the more consistent tests of racial bias in the recruitment process is when different fake resumes are sent out, each identical except the ethnicity or gender of a candidate. Inevitably the “whiter” the job application, the higher the likelihood of a callback. (Here’s an Australian example, and one from the UK.)

A famous 2010 Australian study found that people with white sounding names were far more likely to get an interview than any other ethnicity tested. But there are other ways to whiten a resume.

A 2016 US study revealed that minority candidates have a variety of tactics to increase their chances of getting a job, including:

  • Omitting experience – if they worked for a Korean student organisation, for instance, they would not put that on their resume.
  • Changing the description of experience – a Chinese-American person taking part in the study explained how they removed the Chinese name of an art centre they took classes at, opting for the school’s generic name.
  • Changing interests – in the interests section of a resume, candidates try to diminish anything multicultural, opting instead for generic Western answers such as hiking and traveling. As one candidate explained “I kind of want to distinguish myself and not just be the perfect cookie-cutter Asian”.

One of the study’s more interesting findings was that not only does whitening your resume help you get callbacks, it even helps you with companies that are actively signalling they’re pro-diversity.

Racial bias graph

From Administrative Science Quarterly

One of the researchers talked to Forbes about why this was so troubling. “This is a major point of our research — that you are at an even greater risk for discrimination when applying with a pro-diversity employer because you’re being more transparent,” said Katherine A. DeCelles, the James M. Collins Visiting Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Even if this isn’t true in Australia, there is more than enough evidence that we have our own problems with racial bias in recruitment. An openly racist job ad, immediately taken down by the company that posted it, is an aberration. But it’s also an opportunity to look at the problems we do have.


Learn more about discrimination and other issues affecting inclusion at the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference in Sydney on 3 May.

Leave a reply

9 Comments On "Optus’ awful job ad, and racism in recruitment"

avatar
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Gauri
Australia has ongoing problems with racial and ethic prejudice. I faced it when I moved to Australia in 2000 – comes in the guise of “great background but no local experience”! More recently, after 16 years leading HR in global Australian Corporations, I was asked to sit for an English test to be granted admission for the Master of Science in Coaching Psychology program. It was only after I wrote to the vice chancellor that this requirement was withdrawn and I was accepted!!!! Optus has got caught out with this very blatant language, however, despite best intentions, prejudice seems very… Read more »
Skevi

This is also happening on the other side of the fence. It is known that some Asian real estate agents, job agencies and the like will only build a database of same ethnicity and won’t even talk to you if you can’t speak their language. I have seen pop up kiosks at shopping centres of property developers with the marketing in Chinese and they will only stop and talk to you if you’re Chinese.

Christina

The clue to who wrote the add is in the level of spelling and language used. It should be “Preferred” not “Preffered”. And who approved the ad? Just a thought but maybe it would help to ensure that those who write ads and approve ads have the right knowledge and skills.

Felicity Collard

I am utterly disgusted by Optus. I understand when job opportunities are seeking only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Poor judgment but nothing surprising about Optus.

Robert Compton
This looks most unusual. The section on ‘whitening’ your resume is nothing new. People have ‘enhanced’ their resumes for many years. The Optus advert seems indefensible but there is further discussion on the illegal nature of ethnic based job advertisements. This section is a little misleading. It has always been possible to place job ads based on ethnic background as long as this requirement could be shown as a valid and genuine occupational requirement. As a case in point, Koreans are mentioned in the story. Is there an issue with a Korean restaurant advertising for a Korean chef/s. Or Korean… Read more »
More on HRM