Workplace discrimination in Canada: do large employers discriminate less often?

Special feature by Trevor Hewitt



A panel met on January 25, 2017 at the Munk School of Global Affairs to discuss a new research report on discrimination against job applicants with Asian names in the Canadian workplace.

The report, released that day by researchers Rupa Banerjee, Jeffrey G. Reitz and Phil Oreopoulos, was titled “Do Large Employers Treat Racial Minorities More Fairly?” It examined data previously collected by Oreopoulos, which recorded employer responses to nearly 13,000 resumes submitted to employers advertising jobs requiring university degrees in Toronto and Montreal, and focused on how an Asian name on the application affected that response. The purpose of the new study was to see how discrimination against Asian-named applicants varied by employer size.

Results showed that employer size matters quite a bit. Overall, Asian-named applicants were about 30 per cent less likely to be called for an interview, even with a Canadian university degree and Canadian experience. The overall disadvantage was 20 per cent for large employers with over 500 employees, but as much as 40 per cent for smaller employers. The report also found that this overall discrimination existed regardless of the specific skill-level of the job.

The reasons why larger companies may be less likely to discriminate are several. They often have more resources to devote to the recruitment process, and a more professionalized recruitment staff; they also likely have a more diverse existing staff, and more resources to devote to training for new hires. However, even with this advantage, the large employers were 20 per cent less likely to call applicants solely on the basis of having an Asian name. And the situation is even worse for Asian applicants applying to smaller organizations. There, the disadvantage for highly-qualified Asians is twice as great, and these employers are unable to tap the same talent pool as the larger employers.

This disparity is highly significant when you consider Canada’s job market. “Small businesses employ more than 70 per cent of private sector employees in Canada,” explains Senator Ratna Omidvar. “Bias in the hiring process may put these companies at risk of missing out on a highly-qualified talent pool.” In fact, the research found that even with an additional masters degree added to their resume they were at a disadvantage. In these cases, small-to-medium companies were still 29 per cent less likely to hire those with Asian names compared with their Anglo counterparts, despite the Asian applicant having significantly more education.

Additionally, for high-skill jobs, the disparity in hiring policies between large and small companies was just as clear. Applicants with Asian names and Canadian education were only 15.2 per cent less likely to be considered for high-skill jobs in companies with over 500 employees. When looking at companies with under 500 employees, however, numbers plummet to 41.8 per cent. According to Wendy Cukier, not only is this unfair for many applicants, it is a symptom of what she calls unconscious bias in many of these companies. “(This is), by definition unintentional, which makes it harder to address,” says Cukier, who is the founder and director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, which looks research on diversity in the workplace.

Cukier says it’s also hurting the companies that are not altering their human resources departments to encourage diversity. “It’s not just about fairness and equity or a matter of avoiding reputational or legal risks, but reaping significant rewards – access to diverse talent is a key driver of organizational success.” Fellow panelist Corinne Prince St-Amand agreed, adding that the climate in Canada indicated what she described as a “fear factor”. According to St-Amand, people almost always subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) filter applicants by who they view as most similar to themselves, in terms of social and physical aspects. “People are scared to have their views challenged,” she said.

Noteworthy as well was the fact that small companies did not display this same disparity in hiring rates for low-skill jobs. In fact, they had slightly better call back rates than companies with over 500 people in this scenario – 19.7 to 24.1 per cent. This seems to suggest that there is less of an aversion to hiring those with Asian names in low-skill job scenarios. The panelists agreed that this disparity seems to suggest that employers think that those with Asian names are less qualified for high-skill jobs.

Nicholas Keung, panel member and the Toronto Star’s immigration reporter, said that this gap in employment opportunities has been heard to measure – as it’s impossible for any one person to tell if they didn’t receive a callback based on their name. He said it’s important for media to frame the conversation in a way that advocates for the people who are truly struggling to reach employment parity. Keung said that, to him, what struck him as most significant from the paper was the fact that even a masters degree didn’t create parity in small organizations.

Reitz and Banerjee hypothesized that one reason for more diversity in larger companies was due to more resources being devoted to the hiring process and bigger, more professionalized human resources departments. They recommended that companies facing diversity issues use anonymized resume tests to audit their own individual biases.

By removing an employees name from a resume, prospective employers would have to decide who they hire purely on the education and qualifications of the applicants. “Companies, big or small, should be auditing their hiring practices regularly,” said Banerjee. The panelists agreed that anonymized resumes would lead to a fairer employment process.

In addition to their findings, the research contextualizes a 2010 report released by statistics Canada that estimates 60 per cent of Torontonians will be a visible minority by 2031. The research seems to suggest that, if Canada doesn’t begin to address its issues of workplace discrimination sooner rather than later, it could cause huge issues in the future Canadian workplace.

The study also comes at a time where racial tensions in the United States are already at an all-time high. A Gallup poll released in April determined that 35 per cent of Americans are worried about race relations – up from just 17 per cent in 2014. And with Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, many are uncertain as to where race relations in America are headed.

As for Reitz, he remains cautiously optimistic that things can get better. “If (people) see evidence, convincing evidence, that there is a disadvantage for minorities simply on an irrational basis like their name, (hopefully) they would be motivated to see that situation is corrected.” Reitz says this concept – alerting the public of what’s going on in an available and convincing way – is the very basis of the team’s research. “I‘m encouraged with the persuasiveness of this evidence that there is ... hope that people will think about it and respond to it in a constructive way.”