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Unqualified for the Job or “Diversity Shaming?”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nkechi Onwuameze
November 9, 2018

Ashley, a Black female employee was barely two weeks into her new job when the rumor about her being unqualified for the job began spreading widely. The hiring process that she emerged as the selected candidate was competitive and attracted a pool of highly qualified applicants. When the hiring manager who was known for championing diversity initiatives in the organization decided to hire Ashley, some employees protested.

“She meets the qualification. She is Black and she is a woman,” the manager retorts in a meeting, as he attempts to quell the rumor that Ashley was “unqualified” for the job.

Though the excerpt above is a fiction, it captures the challenges several workplaces have to overcome to achieve a balanced, diverse workplace. Resistance to diversity has continued to grow despite several initiatives promoting the value of diversity in the workplace. According to Thomas and Plaut (2012), “our discomfort, anxieties, fears, stereotypes, and anger persist and derail attempts at creating an inclusive society and cultures.”

Minority employees have long struggled to overcome the negative stereotype that they are unqualified and that their hiring was mainly to fulfill affirmative action mandates or diversity quotas. This assumption is not only false but inaccurately based on the premise that discrimination no longer exists in the hiring process. Discrimination against minority applicants and women continues to be a major issue that has generated intense debate over the years.  In an interview with CNBC, Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League, an organization that monitors racial discrimination against African-Americans argued that “there’s still implicit and explicit bias in the labor market.

Racial discrimination in employment occurs on many levels, despite laws forbidding discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) responsible for enforcing federal laws against discrimination in the workplace receives race-based discrimination complaints averaging about 30,649 annually from 1997-2017.  According to EEOC, federal law “forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment,” but discrimination still occurs at every level in the U.S. workplace.  African-Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed than Whites and face discrimination after they get employed.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released October employment report showing unemployment rate for African-Americans was 6.2 and 3.3 percent for Whites. The trend in African-Americans lagging behind Whites in employment advancement has not changed. This persistent inequality has led to finger-pointing at employers that they systematically block diversity by discriminating against minority applicants. Bertrand and Mullainathans’s (2003) study tested the extent of racial discrimination in employment by randomly assigning black and white racially identifiable names to resumes and checking to see who employers choose to call-back. The results were staggering and suggest that racial discrimination occurs in the hiring process. The authors found 50 percent call-back gaps between White and Black applicants. White applicants need to send about 10 resumes to get a call-back from an employer compared to Black applicants who need to send about 15 resumes to get a call-back. The authors conclude that a White sounding name is a significant indicator for callbacks from employers, which strongly support claims that racial discrimination is a “prominent feature in the labor market.”

Research also demonstrate that racial discrimination does not end during hiring, but it continues after the employee secures the job. The existence of discrimination in terms of limited opportunities for job advancement is one factor Black employees have to deal with, another is the effect of being shamed because of the negative stereotype that they are unqualified for the job and their employment is to fulfil diversity quotas. This latter perspective hurts the organization and the employees, including minority employees that feel devalued. An organization that tries to create a balance and achieve a diverse workforces is conflicted between fulfilling that mission and avoiding to create the impression that the minority employee does not merit the opportunity. Hence, they may succumb to the pressure and abandon and/or temper their diversity goals and the cycle of inequality continues.

The manager in the scenario above may have overcome the pressure and went ahead to hire the minority applicant, but it is important to consider if the pattern persists, will he be willing to continue the “fight” to promote his vision of diversity? This is the core question that several organizations have to critically examine because it is only when the culture of the organization supports a diverse workforce that diversity advances. With the negative stereotype that minority employees are unqualified, employers who dare to fight against it are shamed and the minority employee who succeed in getting hired are also shamed and devalued.


Author: Nkechi Onwuameze works for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology of education at the University of Iowa. Her research interest include educational inequality, gender discrimination in the workplace, workplace diversity. [email protected] or Twitter: @Nkobis

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