Penn researchers offer new way to expose hiring bias

Although your employer may rank diversity as a top priority, unconscious bias can still creep into the hiring process, according to new research from the University of Pennsylvania.

Two business economics and public policy professors–Judd Kessler and Corinne Low–at Penn’s Wharton School in Philadelphia conducted a study between 2016 and 2018 that involved roughly 80 employers representing different sizes and industries. They researched whether discrimination persists among companies who publicly commit to building a diverse workforce and also identified employer preferences for job candidates.

The study’s authors gathered real resumes from nearly 800 recent graduates from the University of Pennsylvania who were seeking jobs. Then they designed IRR, an incentivized resume-rating system, which is a diagnostic software tool that collected varied experiences, academic degrees and other characteristics from those resumes. IRR then reorganized those data to create thousands of fake resumes that clearly conveyed candidates’ genders and ethnicities. No two resumes were alike, and they were dubbed Franken-resumes–named after Frankenstein, the monster whose body was built from different human parts.

Participating hiring managers knowingly reviewed and rated 40 randomly assigned fake resumes about how much they liked each fictitious candidate and the likelihood of that candidate accepting their job offer. In return, IRR used those ratings to match companies with the real resumes of Penn graduates.

“The employers who said, ‘Yes, we care about diversity, want diverse candidates’ were discriminating in multiple ways,” says Low. “They were not always treating resumes with female or minority names the same as white male resumes.”

When evaluating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) candidates, for example, participants rated minority candidates lower than white male candidates. Female or minority candidates with a 4.0 grade point average were also rated the same as white males with a 3.75 GPA.

Likewise, employers gave less credit–about half–to female and minority candidates for having a prestigious internship compared to white males. But perhaps the most surprising outcome, according to the researchers, was that hiring managers across the board rated female and minority candidates lower in “get-ability,” or that they would be less likely to accept their job offer.

“That would manifest in how hard employers went at recruiting these candidates,” says Kessler, explaining that, if recruiters believe diverse candidates are in big demand, they may not want to pursue them. “This research suggests this is another channel for the potential for bias … [HR] may not have thought explicitly about it or addressed it.”

Meanwhile, the researchers hope to work with other companies to potentially identify discrimination within their hiring processes, develop anti-bias hiring strategies and help identify the best candidates for jobs by either using or eliminating race and gender preferences.

“Wanting diversity isn’t enough,” adds Low. “You have to build practices that help you overcome powerful biases. IRR will be a tool to uncover these biases and work toward building these practices.”






















Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at