Study reveals discrimination against job applicants with non-Irish names

A recent study by the Economic and Social Research Institute found that job applicants with identifiably non-Irish names are less than half as likely to be called for interview as those with typical Irish names. The research, the first of its kind to be conducted in Ireland, found a similar level of discrimination against those with an identifiably African, Asian or German name. The study compared employers’ approach to applications from candidates of different ethnic or national origin.

A recent study by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published in May 2009 claims to break new ground in Irish research by providing direct evidence of discrimination using a field experiment that investigates discrimination in recruitment on the basis of ethnic and national origin. The study Discrimination in recruitment: Evidence from a field experiment (1.19Mb PDF) by Frances McGinnity, Jacqueline Nelson, Pete Lunn and Emma Quinn was commissioned by the Equality Authority (An tÚdarás Comhionannais) under the ‘Research programme on equality and discrimination’. According to the ESRI, the research is the first of its kind to be conducted in Ireland.

Candidates identical except for ethnic origin

The ESRI research examined how two individuals, identical on all relevant characteristics other than the potential basis of discrimination, apply for the same jobs. Responses were carefully recorded, and discrimination or the lack thereof was then measured as the extent to which one applicant is invited to interview relative to the other applicant. In their experiment, ESRI researchers analysed the level of discrimination against three ethnic minority groups – Africans, Asians and Europeans (German people) – using distinctive names to signal ethnic or national origin.

The experiment addresses three key research questions:

  • Are there any differences in responses to minority candidates and Irish candidates?
  • Is there any variation in the extent of discrimination between the minority groups?
  • Does discrimination vary across the labour market in Ireland?

Experiment methodology

In designing the experiment, the researchers considered that they should follow international best practice, adapting it to the Irish situation. They claim that written job applications have the advantage of allowing maximum control in the research and a guarantee of equivalence; therefore, the written approach was adopted. Occupations were chosen that required written applications – that is, submitting a curriculum vitae (CV) – and that had many vacancies, in order to generate enough responses to ensure systematic observations. The chosen occupations included lower administration, lower accountancy and retail sales positions.

The ESRI researchers created fictitious Irish and minority candidates with names that were clearly indicative of Irish, African, Asian or German origin. For each occupation, two equivalent CVs were developed. The CVs were not identical, to avoid detection by employers in the selection process, but all relevant personal and employment characteristics other than national or ethnic origin were matched: age (young adults), gender (male for accountancy jobs, female for lower administration and retail sales), education (in Ireland), previous labour market experience (all in Ireland) and additional skills. The CVs were rotated using the different names as an additional safeguard, to rule out any effects of unintended differences between the CVs, such as layout.

Between March and October 2008, 480 matched applications were sent out by email in response to 240 job advertisements. All responses from employers were carefully recorded, as either positive (mostly invitations to interview, but also requests for further information) or negative (rejection or no further contact with the candidate). Given the ethical issues in this experiment, the project underwent a rigorous procedure. The researchers emphasise that every effort was made to minimise inconvenience, costs and damage to the reputation of employers. For example, interview offers were declined promptly, and all records were kept strictly confidential.

Study reveals discrimination in recruitment

First, the ESRI researchers found that candidates with Irish names were over twice as likely to be invited to interview for advertised jobs as candidates with identifiably non-Irish names, although both applicants submitted equivalent CVs. Secondly, the researchers did not find significant differences in the degree of discrimination faced by candidates with Asian, African or German names. In their sample, all three groups were about half as likely to be invited to interview as Irish candidates. Thirdly, the results for the sample of jobs used indicated strong discrimination against minority candidates. This applied broadly across the occupations tested – lower administration, lower accountancy and retail sales – and across various sectors of the Irish labour market – industry; transport, distribution and communication; other business services and non-market services.

While not ruling out alternative explanations, the ESRI researchers argue that the unequal treatment observed by some job applicants in this experiment can most likely be due to two explanations. First, the unequal treatment may be due to a strong preference for Irish candidates on the part of employers/recruiters known as ‘in-group favouritism’. Favouring the in-group is consistent with the Irish situation of a strong, cohesive national identity and a very recent history of inward migration of non-Irish nationals. The second explanation is that employers may not have read beyond the applicants’ names on the CVs, and thus failed to appreciate that the minority candidates had qualifications and experience obtained in Ireland that were equivalent to the expertise of the Irish candidates.

Tony Dobbins, National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway

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