dealing with possible racial discrimination when interviewing

A reader writes:

I have a general question regarding minorities and employers. I am an African-American female, who like many Americans is out of work and looking, which means continuously applying for jobs. I can say with full confidence that I fit the requirements, but when it comes to filling out voluntary EEOC questions that ask one’s race and sex, I hesitate.

I understand that the question is optional, but I have talked to other minorities who were greeted with mild shock when hiring managers meet them. I have been on a few interviews where I didn’t get the job, and although I can never prove it, I felt that race may have been a factor. ( Example: I had 2 previous phone interviews, the position sounded promising and when they met me in person, I could sense their shock and mild disappointment.) The majority of these positions were/are at executive levels.

This is somewhat frustrating, and I sometimes feel like I should somehow inform all employers beforehand. As much as I would like to believe that racial bias wasn’t involved, I am also aware that America has more growing to do in that area. As a female, I’m sure you might be able to relate to this type of discrimination. I am familiar with EEOC guidelines, but since there is no way to prove that a job wasn’t earned because of race, there is no way to make a case.

I guess my general question is: Is it better to let the employer know that you are a minority beforehand to save time for the both of us, or is it better to ignore the question, hope for an interview and then prove why you are a minority that would fit in? If you could give me some insight, it would mean everything.

Hmmm. If we were going to look at this strictly logically, if you think that you’re encountering hiring managers who are discriminating against you because of race, and you just want to avoid them altogether, then I suppose you could argue that you should fill out the EEOC questions in the hope of screening out companies like that.

But that doesn’t feel very good. It might be a practical answer in the very short-term, but it’s not an effective one in a larger sense, because it allows those people to go on comfortably practicing something odious.

But yet I don’t know what a good answer is. I want to say that you should write those people off as someone you don’t want to work for/with anyway, just like you’d write off people who were jerks in other ways … but this is different, because it isn’t really just jerkiness; it’s something more sinister and damaging. And I don’t want to make it easy on them.

What do others think a good answer is here?

(And also, here’s a plea for people reading this to take the opportunity to be extra aware of this kind of thing and do what we can to counteract it if we suspect it’s at work in our colleagues or ourselves.)

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Clare*

    In the UK, undercover researchers found widespread race bias against candidates with African or Asian names. (I commented on this in a blogpost

    The researchers found that public sector employers were generally less prejudiced against ethnic minority applicants than smaller, private companies. Still, the research makes for uncomfortable reading.

    But should individual candidates be responsible for "re-educating" companies which have racially-biased hiring methods? That seems unfair, and probably unnecessary. Excluding qualified candidates on race alone will surely only hamper a company's aspirations to long-term growth and success.

  2. Danny Iny*

    I would say leave it blank, and let them find out when they meet you. That way if they're on the fence (have preconceived notions that are different from what you would really bring to the table), you have an opportunity to show it to them.

    There's no guarantee, and racists will continue to be racists – this just gives you a chance with those who are borderline. The only consolation is that you probably don't want to work for a company who has this sort of hiring practice anyway…

  3. Kerry*

    Man, this is a tough one.

    I have a gender-neutral first name, so sometimes people are surprised when I turn out to be female. I don't think I've ever had one I perceived to be *disappointed,* but I've seen people look surprised (and even say, "Oh, I thought Kerry was a boy's name." Maybe they WERE disappointed…it's hard to tell.

    To be honest, my own personal approach to things like this is to throw stuff out there up front, so as to weed out the people who won't want me. I wear pants to interviews, talk like my regular self, etc. so that I'm sure to avoid hiring people who won't like a chick who wears pants, says the word "suck" a lot, etc.

    But AAM is right in that it's not so helpful in solving the larger problem.

    For what it's worth, I almost never fill out those forms either. I hate them. It wasn't so bad back in the days of paper when you got them after you'd interviewed, but now that everything is online and you have to put yourself in a box before you've even met these people…ugh. Hate that.

  4. Amanda*

    I read this interesting article last week about this very subject:

    It appalls me that this continues to go on, being reaffirmed in practice by HR and hiring managers who would rather not deal with it. I see this every. single. freaking. day. at work, a small, majority white male company with a meaningless diversity policy, worthless annual training classes, and non-white people on website graphics (as if!). As long as managers hire people just like themselves and executive management never address this issue as one of significant social (and business) interest, this is never going to be solved. As a non-manager, I feel powerless to have even have this discussion at work, let alone affect change. The best thing I can do for myself and my convictions at this point is to leave and not continue to be a part of it.

    There also is an ongoing discussion of all things race at this blog:

  5. Abby*

    I don't hire in my current job but at organizations where I have worked int he past, the EEOC form was kept separate from the hiring manager so that while HR may have known, the hiring manager would not know the race. The information was simply used to track the race of applicants and verify that those selected for interviewing reflected a diverse group. So, at organizations where I have worked, completing the EEOC form would not have had an impact on an interview (although sometimes HR tells a department to interview an underrepresented person). So I am not convinced that it makes any real difference such as you stated.

    However, I agree with others that this type of discrimination does exist so I am not sure that you are reading the interviewers incorrectly once you come in. I also understand (as someone who is only recently employed after a long period of unemployment)that being rejected after an interview is demoralizing and that you may have the desire to give an organization the chance to reject you before you actually meet them. I just don't think that the EEOC form makes any difference in that process. I think that you difficulties in getting a job may be influenced by your race but are still reflective of the overall job climate right now. Especially since I am now employed and viewing the hiring process from the other side. The number of qualified applicants these days is enormous. But some unethical and odious employers may be eliminating you because of your race. That is morally reprehensible and should not be tolerated.

    I don't know everything that can be done to fix it on the individual level or as an outsider trying to get hired.

    I wish you the best of the luck in this process.

  6. Anonymous*

    I was wondering if this was the case at all. I mean it is hard not to get paranoid after going to interviews after interviews and see no results. I am a foreign born asian woman, and I have an accent. So sometimes it crossed my mind when I didn't get a second interview, that was because of my accent, and the perception that I'm not 'real american'. In fact, I met with a recruiting agency who recently told me so!

    There were also times when I thought my old employer badmouthed me and that's why I didn't get the job.

    I thought about other possibilities as well, like oh, probably I look like the woman whom the HR director's husband cheated with. This happened when the HRD, who asked me to come in after a phone interview, saw me for 10 minutes before finishing the interview quite abruptly. I actually could see a surprise look on her face when she first saw me.

    I am not saying that what the original poster's feeling is not valid, because it could be. But this is a difficult market, and sometimes it triggers all kinds of things in our minds, which is not necessarily true.

  7. HR Godess*

    I actually hate that there are "optional" EEOC questions. I believe they should be left off altogether and the hiring decision should be made just on qualifications.

    Unfortunately, that isn't realisitic for everyone. There are people who discriminate. It's sickening but it exists.

    There are also people who claim racial discrimination because they are a different race when there isn't any. Those people taint the water for others, just like those that discriminate taint the ones who don't.

    There isn't a clear cut answer but I agree with AAM. You don't want to work for those people if what they are doing is discrimination.

  8. Anonymous*

    Two things:

    @Kerry: I got bounced after an interview for using the word "suck". That, and I wasn't a morning person. (That was exactly the feedback I received from the HR person.)

    @In general: I guess those EEOC forms really do suck… as a white male, I'm paranoid that companies are looking to increase their minority presence, so putting that down would minimize my "chances." OTOH, I'm a math geek, which is a field heavily dominated my non-native English speakers. (Communication is a *huge* deal in my field. What good are all of those fancy equations if you can't translate them into actionable items or coherent presentations?) So who really knows.

  9. Unemployed Gal*

    @Amanda: Thanks for the article. I knew that discrimination existed, but I had no idea that it�s hitting Ivy Leaguers. What bigoted moron turns away a Yale grad?

    When I imagine the companies that use �cultural fit� to discriminate, this is what I picture: An office full of mediocre, white, married, 30- and 40-somethings with photos of two kids and a dog on their desks, chatting about the Packers game and Billy�s soccer trophy.


    This is why I never answer the EEOC questions (and I�m a white female). I don�t want to work in that office. Diversity is a good thing, and not just because multiracial photos look good on the website. It creates a diversity of ideas and prevents companies full of the-way-it�s-always-been cookie-cutter minivan zombies.

    And no, I don�t want to see Billy�s trophy.

  10. Rebecca*

    "What bigoted moron turns away a Yale grad?"

    Many white people assume that nonwhite people get into elite colleges only because of affirmative action or similar policies.

  11. Anonymous*

    I never fill out the EEOC information, but I assume that my name and the historically black university I attended give HR and hiring managers an idea anyway. The NYTimes article was a bit annoying in that way–I can't simply scrub my resume of my name or my alma mater in order to overcome HR or hiring manager bias.

    In any case, I've been fortunate to get more interviews than my unemployed, white and/or perceived as white compatriots, but have yet to get an actual job. I consider myself lucky for getting the interviews, but I can't help but wonder if other interviews and/or an offer have been absent due to bias. Then again, as AAM repeats often, the job market is terrible.

  12. Anonymous*

    We do seem to be talking about discrimination as if it's always conscious, and there's considerable evidence to suggest it very often isn't. That's a much harder battle to fight, unfortunately, and I think the more abstract a candidate is the tougher that battle is. To that end, I'd be inclined toward Danny Iny's answer–don't fill out the optional form, and then when they see your full wonderfulness in the interview, you're an actual person, not just a paper possibility.

  13. Anonymous*

    Most employers keep EEOC information separate from the rest of the application (many paper applications have tear off sheets for this purpose; online applications tend to hide this information from recruiters and hiring managers and only make it available for reporting).

    As an HR Manager, I say report your race/gender. This is not so that the hiring manager or recruiter will know but so that if there is an Affirmative Action Plan in place, the company will have a better chance of being nailed for hiring practices that adversely affect minorities.

  14. Colleen Swanger*

    As a hiring manager at a Fortune 500 company, I never get the EEOC info along with submitted resumes. It's possible that HR does know, but I don't (although sometimes I could guess based on affiliations or schooling). I also never hear whether a candidate filled it out or left it blank.

  15. Anonymous*

    Just fill the EEOC saying that you are a white male and see if you get the interviews.

    If the hiring manager say something to you about it, then you know they had the information and might be discriminating.

  16. Anonymous*

    My EEOC info does not reflect that I am not American. Only my BA degree does on my resume.

    After some unsuccessful interviews this past summer and fall I had the same thoughts as the Asian Anonymous commenter. I also have an accent and it did cross my mind that Americans would have a priority at being hired in this economy. The worst part is, that I am in a field that mixes IT and Communications. Really, it is impossible to tell if discrimination is really the case or it is just a bad case of paranoia after the interview, as I scramble to figure out why I did not get picked. Of course, I don't debate that discrimination is alive and well, but I also realize that if I walk into my next interview worrying about my accent or ethnicity, I would unconsciously undermine the quality of that interview.

  17. Anonymous*

    I've experienced the same in reverse. I'm mixed race and ethnicity (multiple American Indian, black, white, Latino) and I have a demonstrably ethnic name (that's easy to pronounce and shorten to something more "Anglo" if I feel it necessary). But I look white so often the shock is palpable. I always fill out the forms though so I can check that mixed race box; I'm tired of people assuming any one person is only one thing. I know two things about race and ethnicity:

    1. Every single person on the planet has the genetic markers for being black (i.e. from Africa)

    2. We're all pink on the inside.

  18. Jonathan Hyland*

    I agree with one of the Anonymous comments: Report the information so it can later be demonstrated that these companies have adverse hiring practices. If they've been rejecting you based on your race, well, it'll come back to bite them in the ass.

    Discrimination stinks, and like other posters here have said, you wouldn't want to work for these folks anyway. And for the record, I'm a white male, but I'm also openly gay.

  19. melch*

    One thought is that you should NOT tell your race in advance and you should be prepared for the interviewer to seem disappointed. Humans are hardwired for xenophobia and to many whites, your color is enough to trigger a visible reaction. Just pretend it did not happen and try to make the interview easier for the person, who will undoubtedly be aware of their faux pas and will often be very embarrassed (creating a negative situation).

    Your intelligence and personality will come through in person if you can find a way to make your nasty experience into a good experience for the interviewer.

    Seems unfair, but you have a goal and only by achieving that goal can you do anything about the larger issues of employment and racial intolerance.

  20. Anonymous*

    *****I haven�t been on in a while, but when I was with a friend who was recently searching for a job the application requested a picture to be included with your resume. I found this to be unnecessary and potentially discriminatory. So now instead of reviewing your resume for skills and qualities, an employer can view your picture and automatically ignore your resume because he/she doesn�t like your look. My friend who is a very tall black male, but highly intelligent could easily be past upon because he might look intimidating. Am I thinking too much into this? *****

  21. Anonymous*

    I've been in the recruiting side of the house for over 10 years, worked at small and large companies and have never heard of such a thing in my life. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but I've never witnessed it.

    Any firm I've worked at the EEOC info is collected, but it goes into a data base for reporting purposes – not to the hiring manager.

  22. Anonymous*

    To add the experience at my office…discrimination goes both ways. On our department's recent list of 95 candidates, there were no last names that weren't male and Indian or Chinese (and the ones that were hired make 20K more than us white women who were here before.)

  23. Anonymous*

    I can tell you one company "Cartus" in Irving, Texas. I witnessed it first hand myself concerning employment. They say that they are a diversified company but, the hiring managers are very racist. I you want to be treated fair, do not apply to this company.

  24. Anonymous*

    There is no reason not to tell them your race. If they drop you because of your race before the interview, they'll drop you after the interview. Why waste your time to get an interview.

    If you get the job, on excecutive level, you can always try to change this practice.

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