White job applicants are 2.5 times more likely to get hired, Northwestern study finds


Hiring discrimination is a rampant problem in America's workplaces, one that has barely improved in the past 30 years. But though qualified Black Americans can have a hard time getting called in for interviews, the problems don't ease once they meet in person with hiring managers: In fact, the further along candidates get in the hiring process, the more likely they are to encounter some form of discrimination that could keep them from getting hired, according to a recent study from Northwestern University. 

Applicants from majority groups were 53% more likely to get called in for a first interview than comparable minority applicants, and then they were also two and a half times more likely to actually get the job, the study found.

"There's a lot of discrimination that occurs after the callback [for the first interview]," says Lincoln Quillian, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and an author of the study. "If you just look at the callback stage, you're only getting about a half of total discrimination, because the other half seems to occur from the point of getting the interview to actually getting the job."

A focus on 'cultural fit' can hurt Black job candidates

"Non-White applicants who tend to have different cultural attributes (e.g., types of dress or presentation styles) but are otherwise equally qualified for the job may thus face additional disadvantages during the interview," the study says. In other words, hiring managers may reject applicants of color because they may dress or present themselves differently from typical White candidates.

"In the past, people were often more vocal and upfront about their racism, and now the racism is more covert," says Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist at the University of Ottawa and an expert on race and discrimination-based stress. "So, people may not tell you to your face, 'Oh, we didn't hire you because we wanted a White person,' but the result is still the same."

The concept of "cultural fit" comes up throughout the Northwestern study as one of the reasons for the problem.

Hack your next job interview to improve your odds of being hired

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While it may be rare for a candidate to be dismissed explicitly for being Black or Hispanic — a determination that would be illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — it's still possible for employers to discriminate along those lines by making hiring decisions based on more nebulous criteria, like "cultural fit." Hiring managers who place too much of an emphasis on "cultural fit" within a company can weed out qualified candidates from different backgrounds, consciously or unconsciously.

Hiring based on cultural fit without considering any racial dynamics can also play a significant role in defining a company's culture. If a company hires fewer applicants of color, there will be fewer Black employees who get promoted to leadership roles to do more hiring, so the problem can perpetuate itself.

Obscuring race on resumes doesn't help

Studies have shown that resumes with names that read as Black get candidates fewer interviews, so some candidates try making their race, on paper, less clear. That strategy, though, has limits, since discrimination and bias can still kick in once a candidate shows up in person. 

"It's not clear that then you don't just get a lot more discrimination when people actually show up at the interview, and they learn what rate the race or ethnicity of their applicants is," Quillian says.

Even if candidates don't actively take steps to modify their resumes for White hiring managers, the study also suggests that hiring managers could miss racial or cultural cues in a written application. Once the candidate and the hiring manager meet for an interview, those cues become harder to miss.

It's not clear that then you don't just get a lot more discrimination when people actually show up at the interview, and they learn what rate the race or ethnicity of their applicants is.
Lincoln Quillian
Sociology professor, Northwestern University

Why diversity matters, and how managers can change

The first parts of an interview process may be conducted by HR professionals who are educated and required to factor in diversity concerns while hiring. Latter stages, though, are often handled by managers who aren't trained.

At many companies, Williams believes this is a "matter of will" — meaning that some managers like to be able to cherry pick their own favored candidates, regardless of race, background, or even qualifications. Additional training for managers could be useful, especially if it makes clear the added values and benefits of a diverse workforce.

Studies show that companies with more gender and racial diversity in leadership roles tend to be more profitable.

It would be helpful for managers to better understand the importance of diversity in general, since the experience of working in an overwhelming White environment can be taxing for Black employees who do get hired. Black applicants frequently have to work "twice as hard" to get the job, Williams says, and once they have it, they often have to perform extra emotional labor to have a chance at success.

"This is nothing new for us. It's one more area where we have to put on the mask to fit in," she says. "We get trained in how to do that from an early age. So this one piece of it isn't necessarily the make or break kind of thing, but it is one more major piece of stress."

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