Two decades ago, a Black woman named Kalisha White applied for a team leader position at Target and worried that her application had been ignored because of her race.
So she sent it back in with a different name and slightly fewer qualifications. That application got her an interview. Eventually, she won a class-action lawsuit against the massive retailer.
Two decades later, a new study shows that not much has changed.
Economists from the University of California Berkeley and the University of Chicago sent 83,000 job applications to 108 Fortune 500 employers — half with traditionally white-sounding names, the other half with distinctively Black-sounding names.
Applicants with Black names were called back 10% fewer times across the board — and even less when it came to specific companies — despite having comparable applications to their white counterparts.
Berkeley economist Patrick Kline, one of the study's authors, says the applications looked realistic. Researchers crafted resumes and automated the process of filling out employment history and personality tests.
“To our knowledge, we actually have the highest response rate that's ever been garnered from one of these studies,” he says.
Some of the common white names used were Emily or Greg, he says, and distinctively Black names used include Jamal or Lakisha. The study’s authors used these names as a way of trying to understand discrimination in the employment application process.
The study’s authors have not yet followed up with the companies. Kline says he assumes these companies would have a difficult time answering why they favored one applicant over another.
The companies were chosen based on their national employment footprint, Kline says.
Ultimately, some human somewhere makes the final call on hiring, he explains, but many major companies’ hiring decisions are spread across the U.S. and utilize screening algorithms and third party technology.
Discrimination was more prevalent at decentralized companies where the hiring process is spread out, he says, as opposed to a company in one location with specialized human resource employees.
“What we think is going on here is that some places have different hiring practices than others. In some places, it's not very internally regulated by HR practices,” he explains. “So whoever's maybe working a shift at that restaurant that day can sift through the applications and just decide who they want to call in for an interview next week. At other places, there's more hoops that you have to jump through before you can decide to call someone back.”
A trained HR specialist may be more likely to recognize bias or specifically look for diverse applicants, he says.
The study’s researchers shared their findings with the Department of Labor. Testing for discrimination is arduous, he says, so the department was interested in looking over the study’s scientific measurements of discrimination.
Legal battles over discrimination are often based on a single complaint backed by the fact that a company employs a small number of people from a certain group, he says. But since a number of reasons could explain the disparity, it’s tough to prove that discrimination exists in these cases.
By keeping the external factors constant, the study was able to show that discrimination is more concentrated than previous research found, he says. For example, the top 20% of most discriminatory firms in the study were responsible for 50% of the callbacks lost to discrimination — which surprised researchers.
“It suggests that this isn't really a needle in the haystack problem,” he says. “And it seems possible that perhaps by imitating the best practices of the companies that are doing a good job in terms of bias, that the 20% of companies that seem to be doing a very bad job can get their act together and provide a more equitable and inclusive workplace.”
Discrimination against Black names was most prevalent in the auto services and dealership industry, the study found. Kline says discrimination was concentrated in customer-facing industries such as restaurants and retail and clothing sectors.
Industries without customer-facing roles, like jobs in freight and transportation industries, showed low discrimination levels against Black names, he says.
Not much has changed since Kalisha White’s own experiment with Target. But Kline says this study suggests HR policies — such as mandating that someone higher up than a local manager sign off on callback decisions — can help turn bad actors to the good side.
This segment aired on August 18, 2021.