How Racism Affects BIPOC Individuals on Career Networking Platforms

Two people walking a tightrope

Posted by Delvin Edmond on Dec 8, 2020

This article is a part of The Human-Centered Work Project, a hub of research-based insights and resources on redesigning work. The following insights come from research illuminating ways that white supremacy culture may be expressed in the remote workplace to provide tools and guidelines to help allies move forward with impactful cultural workplace change.

"I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within” - India Arie

In our research, we learned that BIPOC participants were very aware of the ways their online presence or identity management might affect their career prospects.

Nearly all the professionals we spoke with felt it was important that they represented their “real” self and chose pictures they felt authentically captured this realness. Yet, they too were keenly aware how systemic biases could impact how they were perceived — which in turn affected how they present themself online. Many we talked to were vigilant about avoiding racial stereotypes that could cast them in a negative light with recruiters.

Just as they do in other areas of life, BIPOC participants “code switch” when presenting themselves online. They wanted to be sure they showed values that were core to conventional corporate culture while also presenting their true personality. This was not always easy, and sometimes led to an experience of diluted authenticity. We found there were several elements of their identities they carefully navigated.

Negative stereotypes affect Black employees’ expression in the workplace
Ethnic sounding names are often the targets of bias
Narrow definitions of professionalism exclude people with natural hair styles
acial hair can invite bias in the recruiting process

Negative stereotypes affect Black employees’ expression in the workplace

Many Black people said they were aware that white people were likely to interpret their appearance as angry, so they put special attention into smiling.

Participants were aware that Black employees are often described as angry, intimidating, controversial, or “not a team player” — whereas white peers are described as displeased or passionate when behaving similarly. When choosing a picture for professional online recruiting sites, our participants took special care to smile and appear approachable to specifically address the “angry Black man” or “angry Black woman” stereotype.

“I want my coworkers to see me smiling or having a sense of humor. This does somewhat tie into the “Angry Black man” persona that I hope to deter from when interacting with new coworkers.” - Al*

“For a long time, this was my Linkedin/go-to professional photo [...] It’s a professional photo that still has some color, so It feels like there’s some personality being shown. Also I am smiling, which helps make (Black) women look less threatening.” - Safiya*

The list of racial injustices and perpetuation of this negative angry Black person stereotype goes on and on. For those who use their privilege to racially terrorize Black people, it’s easy to scapegoat someone who is portrayed in the media as having no empathy. This racist thinking bleeds over into corporate America. Several Black participants experienced this as they explained why smiling was important in identity management.

Ethnic sounding names are often the targets of bias

What’s in a name? Our names are core to our identities, a visual and auditory expression of who we are. Many non-BIPOC professionals have the luxury to never think about how their name influences a job hunt, and many may have unknowingly benefited from their name. Yet, this is not the case for everyone. Some participants commented on their awareness of how their given name might cause bias and impact their career prospects.

“My parents wanted my name to look [white] on a stack of resumes. [They] wanted my name to look as white as possible [states full name]. They weren't anti-black but they weren't necessarily pro black, they were definitely, ‘Oh, white is right, and the closer we can get you to whiteness, the more well off you're going to be in life.’ During that time, that is what you had to do.” – Al

A couple of participants conducted experiments while job searching to understand how two identical profiles, containing the exact same content, would perform if they omitted their profile picture or only used their first and middle initials instead of their full ethnic-sounding name. They found that the fewer ethnically identifiable traits they shared the more successful they were at getting contacted by recruiters.

Before LinkedIn and other online career sites, most people would create a digital or physical resume to hand to someone or upload directly to the company website. One of the people we spoke with, Rashad*, was growing increasingly frustrated that he was not being contacted for interviews or phone screens. In a post 9/11 job market, he figured it may be because of his ethnically Arabic name, Rashad. His increasing frustration led him to use his nickname or use only his initials.

Rashad told us how he inadvertently resubmitted his resume using only his first and middle initials and non-ethnic sounding surname to companies he had previously applied to using his Arabic name. He started omitting his given name to address the bias he suspected may be linked to his given name.

“Sometimes I really debate on whether or not I should replace my [nick]name [Ray], instead of my full name […] I did try with my resumes and there have been a couple times where I accidentally applied to the same place twice and [Ray] got a response [but Rashad did not]. It’s funny because the name is Arabic. I don't know if it [was] a post 9/11 thing, [and] I don't know what the job market was like pre 9/11. My name is Arabic, and [I suspected] that [recruiters] just threw out [my resume]. I don't have my picture on the resume, but I do on my LinkedIn. I thought I had a great header, really relevant experience. I started doing management roles. I have a proven track record of moving up. I never had any lateral moves or anything. My last name is Scottish, so it's not something that would give away my ethnicity. It sounds American, so I was like, maybe it's my name and I just tried R.D. [last name] and literally [received responses] about three or four times, not a bunch of times, but if you get a response after changing your name, do you really want to work there?” - Rashad

What does a name on a resume signal to a recruiter or hiring manager? Can something as trivial as a person's name evoke bias that reinforces and upholds systematic white supremacy? There is a plethora of scientific literature and scholarly articles that support what Rashad experienced. Sometimes Black applicants are not included in the labor market simply because of discrimination at the top of the candidate funnel that may systematically exclude applicants based on name bias or other ethnically identifiable traits. 

Man walking a tightrope with statements on either side. One side of the tightrope shows statements of pride and hope about his identity and qualifications. The other side voices questions and concerns about experiencing bias.

Career sites provide a platform for professionals to curate their online presence or identity management. This can often mean including things like a resume, employment history, and optional things like a profile picture. As with Rashad, when racial profiling was the suspected cause of another participant, David’s*, inability to get responses, he decided to remove his profile picture and rely on using just his non-ethnic, Caucasian-sounding name.

“I don’t use a photo on my LinkedIn because I found that in 2011 I ran a 3-month experiment to see what would drive the most recruiter intro messages, me with or without a photo. Without a photo won and based on what I learned, sometimes it works well in my favor to “hide” behind my white-sounding name.” - David

Neither story speaks to how qualified either of these people were. In fact, because of their skill and experience, they were both allowed to proceed through the funnel but only by stripping away very critical parts of their identity that define who they are. Through making their ethnicity invisible they were able to normalize the playing field, and at least in the recruiters eyes, make them on equal footing.

Narrow definitions of professionalism exclude people with natural hair styles

Our research continued to reveal the deep and insidious biases related to Black women’s hair. Black women told us they took special care with their hair to ensure they conformed to a narrow definition of professionalism that excluded people with natural hair styles.

“I remember the first time I wore braids. I was concerned, just hearing all these instances [in the news] of a Black woman being harassed or even fired for their hairstyles. I didn't necessarily think I was going to be fired or reprimanded for it, but I was afraid of how that perception would be on me which didn't stop me from doing it, but it was just something that was kind of in the back of my mind. 

When I first started, there were only 2 black women in the office. Both were in a different department. So, I didn't work directly with either of them. But just because of the lack of representation, I was just afraid that hairstyle that was seen as more black was going to raise negative attention. I did have people comment on [how] it looks nice, which was a little bit more affirming.”  - Imani*

Imani went on to share a story of a conversation she had with another BIPOC employee outside of work that further emphasized how white supremacy has shaped the way the BIPOC employees show up in professional settings.

“I still remember something that one of my close friends and co workers said because she's Latina and she has naturally curly hair, but she always straightens her hair for work. I asked her the second time I saw her with her natural hair, ‘Oh, your hair is so nice. Why don't you ever just leave it like this?’ She [replied], ‘No, it's too curly and it just doesn't look as professional.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean, it looks completely fine.’ So I realized that coming from her, she's a person of color with curly hair that straightens her hair, the idea that even a non-white person can see a more ethnic hairstyle as being unprofessional [and] being negative in a way. So it just made me that much more aware.” - Imani

We heard similar stories shared by the Black women who participated in the study how wearing their natural hair was often the cause for internal strife. Eurocentric beauty standards often dictate what is deemed acceptable with regards to how hair should be worn in a professional or corporate setting. Although Imani was more maverick in her approach in wearing a more ethnic hairstyle, many Black women feel they must achieve this Eurocentric standard of straight hair to fit into corporate culture. 

Woman walking a tightrope with statements on either side. One side of the tightrope shows statements of pride and hope about his identity and qualifications. The other side voices questions and concerns about experiencing bias.

Facial hair can invite bias in the recruiting process

Facial hair was something some participants were mindful of sharing on their professional pictures. In some cases, it was regarded as professionally acceptable and a positive way to convey their personality. For others, facial hair was something that could invite bias. Arav shared how his LinkedIn photo does not fully represent him.

“This is my professional photo that I use at work and on LinkedIn. I took this picture while studying for my MBA. To be totally honest, it only represents a part of me because I have a much longer beard [now] and I always wanted to grow it because my religion recommends having a longer beard. I chose not to because I thought it would jeopardize my chance of getting recruited in the US.” - Arav*

Arav’s concern is real. He is aware of the bias that having facial hair coupled with a Muslim surname invites. Wearing a long beard on his LinkedIn profile is a privilege not afforded to Arav due to negative stereotypes of Muslim men. Though he proudly wears his beard currently, he understood the pitfall of showing a beard for his professional online profile.

Hair is a very personal decision. It carries so much more than style. People’s ethnic identities, religion, and personalities are intertwined and interwoven in the hairstyles and facial hair they choose. Many we spoke to, from all backgrounds, said it was important they appear authentic in their professional online photos but some, like Arav, struggle with how authentic they should be in efforts to skirt bias in the recruiting process.

Compass Blue-02

Take action: 

  • Check your bias! How do you respond when you see a LinkedIn profile without a photo? With a “Black-sounding” name? Dark skin color? How is seeing an unsmiling Black person different for you from seeing an unsmiling white person? 
  • Ensure anyone involved in recruitment, hiring, or interviewing goes through bias training
  • Work to ensure your community reflects diversity and that this diversity is welcomed in a wide variety of names, expressions, hairstyles, and facial hair that are normal and natural for BIPOC professionals
  • Articulate what professionalism means for your company, so your culture doesn’t just absorb white dominant norms. Use the elements of Redefining Professionalism as a starting point. 
  • Do your homework. Non-BIPOC professionals, learn about the rich history of Black people’s names so they become more familiar to you and you have an appreciation for your colleagues’ context 

*All participant names have been changed to ensure anonymity and privacy.

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Written by

Delvin Edmond

Delvin Edmond, a member of our AnswerLab Alumni, worked with us as a Diversity & Inclusion Researcher during his time at AnswerLab. His passion is for conducting research that focuses on marginalized and underrepresented communities. Delvin was instrumental in conducting research with Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) employees in remote corporate culture for the Human Centered Work project. He also conducted internal research on recruiting processes and helped establish AnswerLab's Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Delvin holds a master’s in Cognitive Psychology from New Mexico State University. Delvin may not work with us any longer, but we'll always consider him an AnswerLabber at heart!

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