Business Columns & Blogs

Diane Stafford: Why employers ask for your race

A job hunter posed these questions: “Why do so many job applications ask a person about their ethnicity? Affirmative action laws no longer exist, so what is the purpose behind the question?”

Here’s an answer directly from the U.S. Department of Labor’s website:

“For federal contractors and subcontractors, affirmative action must be taken by covered employers to recruit and advance qualified minorities, women, persons with disabilities and covered veterans. Affirmative actions include training programs, outreach efforts and other positive steps.

“These procedures should be incorporated into the company’s written personnel policies. Employers with written affirmative action programs must implement them, keep them on file and update them annually.”

Affirmative action rules still exist. Most large companies do business with the federal government in some way, so they must comply with affirmative action regulations. Other companies have voluntary affirmative action policies because they believe having a diverse workforce is the right thing to do.

The federal government’s demand for affirmative action documentation is why the question is asked on applications. It provides data to compare application and hiring rates. It’s a way to tell if the company is getting diverse candidates and offering jobs with diversity in mind.

The job hunter had another question:

“The applications claim that there is no penalty for not answering the question, but do you think that is true? I recently read a story where a woman sent out identical applications. … She marked white on one set of applications and declined to identify on the other group. The group marked white had a much higher response rate.”

Many tests, both informal and statistically valid, have tested similar employer response rates. Some have found disparities aren’t just because of a check-the-race box on applications. Some have looked at employer responses based solely on the applicants’ names.

Such studies generally have detected higher response rates for a John over a JaRon, or a Laura over a La’treya. Right or wrong, the second name in each pair may be assumed to be African-American and possibly from a household with less income and less education than the first name in each pair.

It’s no secret that racial bias, both explicit and discreet, exists in America. But a business world dominated by white people isn’t necessarily proof of racism. Many organizations try hard to be inclusive. They work to recruit and hire people of color and other non-majority backgrounds. In some cases, that gives hiring preference – affirmative action – to minorities.

This topic brings to mind the job hunting truism: Recommendations from family and friends who already work at your target company usually are your best avenue for hiring. If they are good workers, you won’t need to worry about checking a box.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star:, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,