Being a Person of Color While Searching for a Job

Being a Person of Color While Searching for a Job


By Ken Barnes

The research has been done, the results are in, and being a person of color (PoC) can affect your ability to find a job. Many students have said their searches haven’t yielded the results they expected – particularly when it comes to getting interviews. Research shows that “ethnic” sounding names on applications in English-speaking countries get fewer interviews and offers. What are ethnic-sounding names? Basically, those that possibly identify a person’s ethnicity (or religion, in some cases): African/African American, ChicanX/LatinX, Asian American, Middle Eastern/South Asian, or otherwise non-white. A few years back, a UC Davis alum had her hopes dashed by a company CEO when she was told her application wouldn’t be moved forward because they weren’t hiring international students. She was born and raised in the United States, so she was racially profiled purely by her name. “Racial discrimination in the job market is real. It’s unfortunate I had to experience it myself to believe it.” Tiffany Trieu said.

This article isn’t about substantiating or refuting bias, it’s about what to do if you are a PoC actively involved in a job search. There are several approaches we’ll discuss. Which one is best? Only you can tell.

With a college degree, it takes 6-9 months to find a job in a good economy (which is when unemployment is at or less than five percent). If you are a PoC, and your resume, by default, yields less interviews, that means you will either have to extend the time it takes to find a job (perhaps 9-12 months), or change your job search process. This assumes you’ve done everything right – participated in internships and other experiences, kept your grades up, had your resume critiqued, and prepared for the opportunities you seek. If you haven’t, there are some steps before this article you should take. Talk with an advisor at the Internship and Career Center about those steps.

Let’s take a look at some of your options by assessing what others have done. Again, the best approach is up to you. This article is designed to give you information and options.

  • Increase the number of applications. Studies show there could be a difference of as much as 50% between interviews offered to non-PoC students vs. PoC students. If that’s true, one option is to apply to more positions. Playing “the numbers” means understanding them and how many applications it will take to yield the results you want. Eventually, your number will come up.
  • Look for Affinity/Employee Resource Groups (ERG). A way to increase the odds (beat the numbers) is to apply to organizations known for appreciating diversity. Looking for companies that have affinity groups for underrepresented people or diversity-appreciation statements might increase the odds of an interview. Affinity groups or employee resource groups are groups of people formed around shared interests or common goals. They most often relate to diversity and inclusion programs, and include race and ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, social or economic causes, and military status. They offer support, resources, and mentorship with the goal of improving job satisfaction and business.
  • Remove racial indicators from your application materials. This is sometimes referred to as “whitening” your resume, and involves the removal of things like groups, clubs and organizations that potentially identify you or your ethnicity. Names are a little tougher to deal with because they have to be included in your application materials. Some students have substituted ethnically identifiable names with western names (for example, Sean or John for Cheng), while others have shortened their moniker to one or two initials and a last name (J.J. Walker for Jamal Jordan Walker). The goal behind this idea is not to hide ethnicity, but to remove the implicit bias that people may or may not even know they have when selecting candidates for interviews.
  • Own it. President Barack Hussein Obama once said he was named by someone who obviously never thought he would run for president. Owning it means being outright with it. For example, one can state in their cover letter that “As an African American (or ChicanX/LatinX, LGBT, individual with a disability…), I am aware of and sensitive to issues of diversity. With my experience and background, I can present a unique perspective to your organization.” This approach shows employers that your diversity is an asset and you will enhance their company.
  • Make sure your application materials are competitive. Given the implicit bias of the job search process, your application materials should not only be good, they must be better than good…the absolute best. Make sure your resume and all supporting materials are competitive. How do you achieve this?
    • Have your materials reviewed by others before submitting them. The Internship and Career Center is available to you via drop-in advising and appointments (see website for the most up-to-date information). It’s always best to get a second (and sometimes third) opinion from ICC advisors, faculty, friends, family, and others.
    • Tailor your application to each position. Let the employer know that you have thought about starting your career at their organization and think there is a place for you to contribute.
    • Network and meet people related to the organization before applying so you can name-drop in your cover letter. Having an ally in the organization can be very powerful. Also, use your current network as efficiently as possible: professors, current/past supervisors, professional associations, etc. Using your network will increase the odds of getting an interview.
    • Attend career fairs and other recruiting events that allow you to interact directly with employers. Interactions that put you directly in contact with recruiters should be considered interviews because they give you opportunities to impress them and let them ask qualifying questions. Those interactions also give you insight into what they seek in competitive applicants, which allows you to enhance your application materials with specific knowledge.
  • Be a competitive candidate. Make sure you take the steps to stand out as competitive. Show that your experience is varied and will be an asset to any company or organization. How do you achieve this?
    • Do multiple internships and related extracurricular experiences in your field. This not only increases your knowledge and skill base, but also your marketability by connecting you with industry professionals. The more you increase your skills and connections, the higher the probability you have of landing interviews. That’s a significant edge.
    • Do undergraduate research. Research exposes you to highly focused areas of industry, giving you expertise in fields that potential organizations and supervisors can utilize. It also allows you to network with highly knowledgeable specialists in those fields. Undergraduate research isn’t just for STEM fields. If you are in a liberal arts major, you should also consider it. There are opportunities that cater to your interests no matter what they are. For more information, visit the Undergraduate Research Center at
    • Maintain a competitive GPA (3.0 or higher tends to attract employers; 3.5 or higher really stands out).

Hopefully this article has given you ideas about jumpstarting your job search while compensating for the implicit bias that sometimes occurs. Focus on the positive: what you can do in your job search, and how much of it you can control. Don’t take the negative personally: what you can’t control. Always be aware of the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) you offer an organization and how you can frame those KSAs in meaningful ways. If you aren’t sure, talk to a career advisor at the Internship and Career Center.

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