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Researchers examine effect of race on callback rates for job interviews

St. Olaf College student Britt Letcher ‘14 (right) and Assistant Professor of Sociology Ted Thornhill are examining the effect of race on callback rates for job interviews.
St. Olaf College student Britt Letcher ‘14 (right) and Assistant Professor of Sociology Ted Thornhill are examining the effect of race on callback rates for job interviews.

Matias Garcia finishes his resume and sends in the seventh job application he’s completed this week. The very next day, he once again receives a polite notice that he has been declined. But what’s wrong with him? He has done well in high school, graduated, worked odd jobs afterward, and is even bilingual in English and Spanish — something that he was sure employers would love.

There’s just one issue.

Garcia* is a fictitious man, one of many created by St. Olaf College student Britt Letcher ‘14 and Assistant Professor of Sociology Ted Thornhill.

As a part of the McNair Scholars summer research program, Letcher and Thornhill are using a correspondence study to examine the impact that Spanish-English bilingualism and race have on callback rates for job interviews.

“Correspondence research involves fictitious individuals who are similar in all respects except for the variables of interest communicating with organizations, typically employers, via email or postal mail in an effort to assess whether they receive equal or disparate treatment,” Thornhill says.

This means that Thornhill and Letcher are spending most of the day creating professional-looking resumes and cover letters, each with a “racialized” name, to apply to job listings across the nation.

What’s in a name?
To determine those “racialized” names, last spring Letcher and several other student researchers handed out surveys with randomly generated names and had respondents guess the associated race/ethnicity: white, black, Asian, or Latino. The results for the top five names for each of these respective racial/ethnic groups became the applicants’ names.

“What was interesting was that our top four or five Asian names had above 90 percent agreement — which is really unusual for surveys. Black names had lower levels of agreement on average; however, we were able to identify names that the vast majority of respondents identified as black,” Letcher says.

A few names with the same pronunciation were associated with different racial/ethnic groups depending on the spelling — something Letcher says shows that people are not as color-blind as they claim. Color blindness describes the purported “inability” to see differences in race and ethnicity but has the problematic implication that racism no longer exists.

“There was a name that people thought was black or white, but if we changed the spelling one way, everyone said it was black,” Letcher says. “For Hispanic names, if we kept the original spelling or if there were any accent marks, then people always guessed Hispanic or Latino.”

The resumes that Letcher and Thornhill are sending out each have the same qualifications, with the only differences being name, gender, and the ability to speak English and Spanish. Their sample includes about 40 names with all the possible combinations of white, black, Asian, Latino, male or female, and bilingual or not.

This study would reiterate the idea that racism is still prevalent in deciding who is offered job interviews and would additionally be able to showcase how employers respond to bilingual Spanish-English applicants.

“We expect that whites who say they’re bilingual will have more callbacks than whites who say they’re not bilingual, but minorities who say that they are bilingual won’t. We believe that if you’re a minority and you say you’re bilingual, it might actually hurt your chances since potential employers assume that English is your second language,” Letcher explains.

Letcher also adds that there are stereotypes that come with being a minority and bilingual — such as immigrant status and legality.

“Before I started studying this topic, I thought racism was all in my head and that’s what people told me, too: ‘It’s not that bad out there for brown kids. You’re doing fine,’” says Letcher. “But previous research results show, ‘No, there’s a startling disparity in equal candidates in every which way and form based on their race.'”

Being able to show that this problem still exists is just one step in a long process to fixing it, Letcher says.

“You have to prove discrimination exists to fight it.”

*Name not part of research sample.