“Oh, your German is really good!“ – How the experience of discrimination affects jobseekers

An Austrian study recently investigated how jobseekers are disadvantaged based on their ethnicity. While many studies already found that discrimination based on race is widespread in the Austrian labour market, the recent research adds new and profound insights. It shows that people belonging to ethnic minorities not only have lower rates of invitations for job interviews but – after having experienced discriminatory practices – also show less motivation and worse strategies for job seeking as well as a more negative perception of their own position and possibilities for finding a job.

‚Cheated out of their opportunities‘ is the telling title of the latest study into the effects of racial discrimination on job seeking. The researchers A. Schadauer and J. Wiesinger shed light show how job seekers from ethnic minorities are disadvantaged in various ways. The existing body of research had already shown that the Austrian labour market is still segregated by gender, age and (perceived) origin. This induces higher unemployment rates for the related disadvantaged groups as well as a higher share of people that have to work in underqualified jobs.

In order to get a comprehensive understanding of the impact of discrimination, the researches aimed at exploring the personal perspective of job seekers from ethnic minorities throughout the job search process. Therefore, the study followed a qualitative design and investigated which experiences, both positive and negative, are made by jobseekers, which forms of discrimination they report and which implications these experiences have on the job search.

The majority of interviewees who personally or whose parents or grandparents were born in one of the “new EU countries” or outside the EU (e.g. in Iran or Columbia) reported experienced discrimination. The authors of the study classified these experiences in two categories: directly and indirectly perceived discrimination.

Directly perceived discrimination includes situations where applicants were rejected frankly and unambiguously because of their (perceived) cultural background or ethnicity, e.g. based on the colour of their skin, their headscarf or their “exotic” name.

A widespread (apparent) legitimation mentioned by employers in the sample is an alleged negative reaction of customers when confronted with an employee with a different cultural background or ethnicity. Indirectly perceived discrimination occurs in more subtle ways. Many interviewees reported the perception to be assessed based on their origin rather than on their qualification. A typical pattern was, e.g., that several interviewers were surprised by the applicants’ high level of spoken German, although they had already indicated their language skills in their CV.

The study investigated the impact of these experiences of discrimination in three areas: job seeking strategy, motivation and the perception of one’s own position and opportunities on the job market. Some of the interviewed persons reported to having ever more adjusted their job seeking strategy around the avoidance of being discriminated. Hence, the number of applications was reduced and they only sent application documents to international companies. Caution and restraint characterise some job seeking strategies after the reported negative experiences, resulting in a reduced number of applications. Alongside with these changes in strategy, motivational drawbacks often occur, partly resulting in complete resignation.

While strategy and motivation were mainly affected by the experience of direct discrimination, indirect discrimination also impaired the perception of job market opportunities. The study suggests that this effect is quite strong as even interviewees unaffected in the former two areas showed impairment in this area. Some of the respondents had begun to doubt employers’ honesty and criticised a lack of transparency in decision making after the job interview so that more and more they felt discriminated against because of their origin.

The authors recommend taking anti-discriminatory actions and promote anonymised applications as an effective instrument not only to avoid discrimination the first stage of the application process but also to send positive signals towards applicants with diverse cultural backgrounds. However, this would only partly solve the detected problems. “Prejudice and different forms of bias are human and therefore also exist in HR,” Diversity expert Michael Stuber states. “Usually, discrimination occurs sub- or unconsciously while it always creates unwanted effects. For employers miss out on talent and the opportunity to leverage a diverse workforce,” he explains. Solutions include a robust awareness building and a rigorous analysis of each detail of the recruitment process and its application, including a consistent monitoring.