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.


Address bias in your organisation with AHRI’s corporate in-house training course, Managing unconscious bias. Book by 30 June and save $200.

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12 Comments
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Max Underhill
Max Underhill
3 years ago

Yes I am surprised the advertisement got that far before it was detected. We were handed a job description recently for a recruitment and noted the date In the footer 1977. “It probably hasn’t changed much” was so far from the truth as we converted it to a competency position description. I am surprised at the focus on the applicants personal details versus the demonstrated competence which should be what goes to the client (int or ext). Some clients like international agencies only want to see applicant report and ranking (sometimes with names hidden). Rarely should the application as such… Read more »

Helen
Helen
3 years ago

The ad was clearly written by an inexperienced recruiter. But draws me to many times when I have been told by hiring managers that they would only consider applicants with a certain background/race. This is the real racial discrimination that happens in recruitment. And I do wonder if this recruiter was told to only present cvs of those with an “Anglo Saxon background” and was too inexperienced/careless to leave that part out of the ad.

E
E
3 years ago

I think they apologized after it went viral, Optus is second largest telecommunication company in Australia and leading brands are doing racism is awful.The job ad, for a casual retail consultant, has since been removed. In a statement, Optus’ vice president of human resources Vaughan Paul said it was “unacceptable”

Daravy
Daravy
3 years ago

I am a Cambodian national. In my home country, I have more than 10 years of experience working with international humanitarian and development agencies including the United Nations Science and Cultural Organisation, United Nations Development Programme and CARE International. I have an MBA majoring in Management. I went with my husband to the Hays Recruitment offices in Liverpool, hoping that if I could submit my resume in person that I might be able to develop a relationship. When we walked into the reception a young woman came out to meet us. My husband said that I had come to speak… 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.


Address bias in your organisation with AHRI’s corporate in-house training course, Managing unconscious bias. Book by 30 June and save $200.

guest
12 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Max Underhill
Max Underhill
3 years ago

Yes I am surprised the advertisement got that far before it was detected. We were handed a job description recently for a recruitment and noted the date In the footer 1977. “It probably hasn’t changed much” was so far from the truth as we converted it to a competency position description. I am surprised at the focus on the applicants personal details versus the demonstrated competence which should be what goes to the client (int or ext). Some clients like international agencies only want to see applicant report and ranking (sometimes with names hidden). Rarely should the application as such… Read more »

Helen
Helen
3 years ago

The ad was clearly written by an inexperienced recruiter. But draws me to many times when I have been told by hiring managers that they would only consider applicants with a certain background/race. This is the real racial discrimination that happens in recruitment. And I do wonder if this recruiter was told to only present cvs of those with an “Anglo Saxon background” and was too inexperienced/careless to leave that part out of the ad.

E
E
3 years ago

I think they apologized after it went viral, Optus is second largest telecommunication company in Australia and leading brands are doing racism is awful.The job ad, for a casual retail consultant, has since been removed. In a statement, Optus’ vice president of human resources Vaughan Paul said it was “unacceptable”

Daravy
Daravy
3 years ago

I am a Cambodian national. In my home country, I have more than 10 years of experience working with international humanitarian and development agencies including the United Nations Science and Cultural Organisation, United Nations Development Programme and CARE International. I have an MBA majoring in Management. I went with my husband to the Hays Recruitment offices in Liverpool, hoping that if I could submit my resume in person that I might be able to develop a relationship. When we walked into the reception a young woman came out to meet us. My husband said that I had come to speak… Read more »

More on HRM