Here’s a trick question: Two people of the same race apply for a job. Both have identical skills, education and experience. Both are referred by someone who already works at the company. Which one is more likely to be hired?
Answer: The one with the white friend.
Everyone knows it’s always good to have a white friend. As soon as they perfect android technology, I’m going to buy a Caucasian blow-up robot to keep in my glove compartment. Until then, I keep a notarized letter in my pocket signed by all of my white friends. I even take it on job interviews.
“The Strength of White Ties: How Employers Reward the Referrals of Black and White Jobseekers,” a new study by Fabiana Silva, confirms all of my ideas about keeping mayonnaise-adjacent compadres, and all of your ideas about racism in the workplace. The study takes a new approach to measuring the results of implicit bias by focusing on how employers treat people based on the employee referrals of different job applicants.
Silva, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, conducted an ingenious experiment to test whether or not the race of the person who refers an individual bears any weight on the hiring process.
To test her theory, Silva found 228 white, non-Hispanic people who are responsible for hiring at their respective companies. Before participating in the experiment, each person was tested for implicit bias. The testing didn’t eliminate anyone; it was simply used as a metric for later in the experiment. The participants didn’t even know that the implicit bias had anything to do with the experiment because Silva waited 60 days after they took the training to inform them that they were chosen for the research.
Then Silva randomly assigned each employer a résumé and a referral to evaluate equally qualified candidates. They were asked to indicate whether or not they recommended the potential employee and how strongly they felt about each applicant, and to suggest a salary for job seekers who fell into one of four categories:
- white job seeker referred by a white man
- white job seeker referred by a black man
- black job seeker referred by a white man
- black job seeker referred by a black man
Instead of explicitly revealing the race of the candidates, Silva assigned names that participants largely assumed were black or white. The black names included DeShawn, Tyrone, Terrell and Jamal. The names of the white candidates included Brad, Jake, Matthew and Connor.
Here’s what she found:
In first place were white applicants referred by white men. Black applicants referred by white men came in second place, and white applicants referred by black men came in third. In fact, a black person referred by an employee who actually worked at the job was an insignificant factor.
One startling finding in the report was that the hiring agents who were deemed most anti-black (according to bias testing) rewarded black referrals more than the nonbiased white employers. Still, overall, the word of white referrers meant more than anything, especially when it came to white applicants.
Silva’s research is important because most job referrals and networking in corporate America is intraracial. These kinds of studies explain disparities in hiring practices and show why black employees are sometimes reluctant to refer other people of the same race. Silva writes:
Given black job seekers’ tendency to rely on same-race job contacts (Mouw 2002), these findings suggest black job seekers are frequently unable to benefit from a key network resource: Referrers’ influence over hiring agents’ decision-making.
Not only were white applicants recommended for hire more often, but they were also recommended for higher salaries. In fact, Silva’s research showed that there were only two times when potential black workers had an equal shot: when they were referred by a white man, and the person hiring was not very prejudiced.
Good luck with that.