Uncovering bias: A new way to study hiring can help

Research has shown how easy it is for an employer’s conscious and unconscious biases to creep in when reviewing resumés, creating an uneven playing field that disproportionally hurts women and minority job candidates.

cartoon of two hands holding two resumés, one with a small bio photo of a white person and one with a small bio photo of a black or brown person

It’s an issue that’s top of mind for researchers as well as job candidates: Labor economists have long struggled to find effective ways to study the hiring process. One widely used method involves sending out fake resumés and drawing conclusions based on how employers react to them. Known as an audit study, this method can be problematic because it limits the type of industries and positions that can be studied, and also has the potential to draw the ire of HR specialists who may encounter the fake CVs while trying to recruit real candidates.

New research by Wharton business economics and public policy professors Judd B. Kessler and Corinne Low and doctoral student Colin D. Sullivan aims to pioneer an innovative way for researchers to study hiring without subterfuge. While testing this new method—incentivized resumé rating—with companies recruiting Penn students, they uncovered evidence of how bias seeps into the hiring process of some of the world’s top firms, many of which have a stated commitment to diversity. One example: They found that for jobs in STEM fields, women and minority candidates with 4.0 GPAs were treated the same as white male candidates with 3.75 GPAs.

Incentivized resume rating was inspired by a previous study of Low’s about online dating. Using this method, hiring managers knowingly review and rate fake resumes and are then matched with real-life candidates based on their expressed preferences.

“We didn’t have to trick employers into doing this,” Low says, contrasting the team’s study with the audit methods. “That might not be worrying when it’s just one researcher sending out a couple thousand resumés. Some employers spend 30 seconds reviewing each resumé, so it’s no big deal. But in the last 10 years or so, 90 of these studies have been published. If each takes a couple of thousand resumés, that’s a large cost you’re imposing on employers—you’re wasting their time.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.