Racism in recruitment is against the law but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And it’s not always unconscious, sometimes it’s overt.
In April this year, telecommunications giant Optus came under fire for posting a job ad on employment site SEEK that noted a preference for ‘candidates who are Anglo Saxon’. The ad was swiftly removed after accusations of racism began circulating on social media.
While the union representing Optus workers described the ad as “blatantly racist”, others noted that it simply put into words the unspoken desire of many hiring managers to recruit people who look and sound just like them.
Despite many studies pointing to the business case for diversity and federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of attributes such as ethnicity, the fact remains that racist attitudes – whether unconscious or overt – influence many of the hiring decisions in companies. It manifests in different ways, from explicit racial preferences, such as in the Optus case, to overlooking applicants with non-Anglo-Saxon sounding names and coded messages in job ads, such as a requirement for ‘perfect English’.
“There’s often an assumption that people can only speak a high-level of English if they come packaged in an Anglo-Saxon body,” says Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia. “To be honest, this is not always the case.”
What’s in a name?
Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Robin Scott knows too well the racial preferences that can influence recruitment decisions. Scott’s wife, Shaojie, has often used the Anglicised version of her Chinese name while job hunting to avoid the potential for bias.
“What we found was that when she sent out her CV for employment opportunities, there were greater responses when she used the name ‘Jade’, which is the Anglicised version of her name,” he says.
Scott launched the Victorian government’s Recruit Smarter initiative in February last year, which aims to counter potential bias during recruitment. The program is a response to the findings of a 2009 study by academics at Australian National University, which sought to identify any labour market discrimination against ethnic minorities. Authors of the study sent out 4,000 fake job applications to Australian employers advertising for entry-level hospitality, data entry, customer service and sales jobs. They changed only the racial origin of the phoney applicants’ names. “We wanted starting-level jobs that would appear gender-neutral and jobs that didn’t rely on previous experience that might be gender-specific,” explains Alison Booth, professor of economics at ANU and one of the study’s authors.
The study showed applicants with Chinese names were least likely to be invited for an interview – just a one-in-five chance – while the chances of applicants with Anglo-Saxon names exceeded one-in-three.
Do the findings suggest hiring managers in Australia are racist?
“Yes,” says Booth. “Possibly unconsciously.”
Recruiting your reflection
Helen Green*, an HR professional with more than 20 years’ experience, says racial bias in recruitment is often explicit rather than unconscious. Green specialises in recruitment in industries such as engineering and information technology and says hiring managers often wish to recruit a specific race.
“This level of discrimination really exists in the market and it’s generally [coming from] white men of a certain age,” says Green. “They don’t want applicants who are accented, even if their English can be clearly understood. They’re like, ‘well, at least sound like me if you’re not going to look like me’.”
Green adds that ‘cultural fit’ is often used as a code for racial preference. “People often use reasons like ‘they wouldn’t be a good cultural fit’, when in fact they mean ‘we don’t want you on our team’,” she says.
“They don’t understand that people qualified for jobs today don’t always look like them anymore. White Anglo-Saxon males aren’t necessarily the ones achieving top marks in engineering, and women aren’t just doing nursing and teaching. I’ve seen roles empty for two years because they weren’t interviewing anyone other than white males or females, but generally males. ‘Cultural fit’ is often code for you must like booze and NRL.”
Annese says that while it is reasonable to expect applicants to speak a specific language, problems arise when hiring managers make decisions about someone’s English skills based of their race. “An employer might be very happy to hire a Canadian or someone with a Scottish Brogue but feel uncomfortable with an accent from Pakistan or India, even though they might be equally understood,” she says. “I think the vast majority of this is a result of bias that is unconscious and people feeling uncomfortable with things that are not familiar.”
Removing recruitment racism
Anonymous job application procedures may assist in reducing racial bias in recruitment. “Trial removing names from CVs for jobs where this would be possible, such as at the stage before obtaining references, and don’t include photos either,” says Booth. “I think this is a good way forward.”
While Green believes blind recruitment is a valuable way of tackling racial bias in hiring practices, she says it may not go far enough. “You can remove names [from CVs] but how do you try to increase diversity when you’ve got hiring managers who just say, ‘I won’t hire anyone with overseas experience or overseas university qualifications’?,” she says.
The Victorian Government’s Recruit Smarter initiative includes trialling anonymous job applications, training in unconscious bias and education about biased language in job ads. More than 40 organisations are participating in the program, including Australia Post, Deloitte and Westpac. Scott says data from the program is currently being analysed by researchers at the Centre for Ethical Leadership and that findings are expected to be released later this year.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll have a pretty good line of sight on what has worked and what is good practice,” says Scott. “It’s not as if you’re going to completely remove biases from any process, but this is about minimising and reducing it. I think that’s got to a positive thing.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the August 2018 edition of HRM magazine.
Support change and improve diversity outcomes by raising awareness of conscious and unconscious bias in your organisation, with AHRI’s corporate in-house training course ‘Managing unconscious bias’.