Race on your resume: An invitation for discrimination?

Resumes tell employers what you bring to the job. Job postings say what employers want. Often, it's flexibility. One ad: "Requires morning, afternoon and evening availability any day of the week."

The first contact most job seekers have with their potential employer is, of course, the resume. And that's where things can go wrong, right from the start. Veronica Wells experienced it first hand. A career counselor once told her that some places may be hesitant to hire her because she was involved in historically African-American professional organizations.

"It was shocking," says Wells. "When I went back and thought about it, I was kind of like this is not really what I'm about -- hiding such a big part of who I am. I thought, do I really want to work for a company who would not hire me based on race?"

Virginia Clarke, president and CEO of Talent Optimization Partners, is a career counselor who says she hears stories like Wells' pretty often. She thinks Wells made the right call. But these days, with so many workplaces now saying they are committed to diversity, wouldn't minority candidates want to feature their backgrounds?

"Diversity continues to be an issue. You can still question whether or not people are giving lip service, but at least many of the corporations -- large ones that I speak to -- they're trying to identify diverse candidates. That's part of the reason I encourage people to list it. It doesn't guarantee you anything, but it might get you a second look," says Clarke.

Clarke says companies that operate under Equal Employment Opportunity laws can't ask about a job candidate's background, but a potential worker can certainly offer. Then it becomes part of a job candidate's unspoken record. Companies that operate under EEOC laws have to be very careful about what they write down and put in front of a hiring manager, says Clarke. And it's not just race -- sexual orientation, religion, and gender can also be used to discriminate or fill quotas.

"Religion would probably be more of a sensitive issue. LGBT still, unfortunately, might be something that people downplay," says Clarke. "As a recruiter, I did work for some religious organizations and had to make sure that they understood that the candidates I was going to show them were going to be from a variety of religious backgrounds, so I was hoping they would be agnostic, so to speak."

Deciding whether to advertise one's background depends on a lot factors. How much does the job or type of company matter when deciding whether to advertise one's background? Clarke says it matters a lot. Some companies make judgments based on something as simple as someone's name.

"I've done exercises with recruitment teams that will say they are making a snap judgment based on the name, based on the resume and many, many other factors. In some ways there's even a class consideration -- if your name is pronounceable or if it's something that might be perceived as made up or if it's from a completely different language and culture," says Clarke.

While Clarke has never encountered Wells' issue, she does say that her race is apparent in her resume -- and she's proud to advertise it.

"It's part of who I am. It speaks to how I think. It speaks to what's important to me. There's some self-selection that goes on here. I want to be with an organization that is going to value all of me, including my ethnicity and race. I wouldn't want to work for an organization that wouldn't want me to bring my whole self to work," she says.

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.

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