Study Finds Job Agency Race Bias


Whites are three times more likely than equally qualified blacks to get preferential treatment when applying for jobs through employment agencies, often landing higher-paying jobs or receiving offers more quickly, according to a new study of workplace discrimination.

The study, which probed the San Francisco-area offices of 17 national and local employment agencies, found that African American candidates were favored over whites in slightly less than one out of every five situations.

All told, the research concluded that whites and blacks encountered equal treatment barely one-quarter of the time.

Marc Bendick Jr., a Washington labor economist who served as a consultant on the study, said the findings demonstrate that job discrimination against blacks remains a major problem, even in supposedly "progressive" places such as the Bay Area.

"Discrimination is not just something that happens in the South," he said.

Still, the validity of the yearlong study, which was sponsored by civil rights groups and foundations in the Bay Area, was questioned by some social scientists and employment industry officials. The research relied on a controversial technique known as "matched-pair" testing.

Researchers examined the employment agencies' hiring practices by sending, without the agencies' knowledge, pairs of black and white "testers" posing as job applicants for entry-level office positions. In each of the 45 cases included in the study, the testers' job qualifications were essentially identical, with the main difference between them being race.

The results show less discrimination than those of a similar study conducted five years ago in the Washington, D.C., area. In the new study, African American testers as well as the white testers in the vast majority of cases received job offers, a fact that researchers attributed to today's stronger economy.

Still, the new study found that "whites got the higher-paying jobs, they got jobs more quickly, and they got them without having to take as many qualifying tests or going through as many reference checks," said Brad Seligman, a prominent plaintiffs lawyer who heads the Berkeley-based nonprofit group Impact Fund, the organization that carried out the research.

The unanswered question from the research, Seligman said, is why the discrimination continues to occur at employment agencies. "We don't know if the treatment is because of unconscious attitudes or if it's conscious conduct, with employers using employment agencies to outsource their discrimination," he said.

One of the reasons that matched-pair studies such as the Impact Fund's are controversial is the difficulty in determining which testers truly have equal qualifications.

Despite training provided to the testers, "it's difficult to make two different people have the same interview skills," said Paul F. White, a labor economist with Economic Research Services, a Tallahassee, Fla., firm that provides consulting services and expert court testimony for companies accused of workplace discrimination.

Also, because of their high cost, matched-pair research typically involves a relatively small number of tests.

In the Bay Area study, "you've only got 45 tests. It's hard to make definitive conclusions about the whole [employment agency] industry based on these examples," White said.

White added, however, that matched-pair tests "have made a real contribution" to understanding workplace discrimination.

Steve Berchem, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Temporary and Staffing Services, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va., said that "if these results are valid, it would suggest we have more work to do" in combating job discrimination.

In all, the study found that in 25 of its 45 tests, white applicants received preferential treatment. In eight of the cases, African Americans were favored. No preferential treatment was apparent in the remaining 12 situations.

Looking at the figures from another angle, the research shows that eight of the 17 employment agencies usually or always gave favored treatment to whites, and that one always favored African Americans.

The study did not identify the employment agencies.

In one dramatic disparity, a white applicant received a $10-an-hour temporary job with the prospect of it turning into a permanent $26,000-a-year position with benefits. The matching African American candidate, by contrast, was turned down for a job and told that she would have to polish her computer skills.

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