Study: We’re terrible at guessing people’s races over the phone

It is a sad fact of the workplace that often we’re judged long before we even enter the office. For instance, we already know that having an “ethnic-sounding” name can reduce the chances that your resume even makes it out of the slush pile. A phone screening is another time when one’s ethnicity or race — perceived or otherwise — could put one at an unfair disadvantage.

To add a wrinkle: A new study finds that we’re pretty bad at guessing people’s identities correctly over the phone.

Even when we’ve heard what someone sounds like on the phone over a significant period of time, we’re bad at guessing the race and ethnicity of the person on the other end of the line. That’s what a new Pew Research Center telephone survey found when interviewers asked 3,769 adults one final question on an unrelated survey: “[I]f you had to guess, would you say I am white, black, Hispanic, Asian or some other race?”

This last question tripped up many of the respondents. The answers were mostly incorrect. Roughly half (49%) failed to identify the race or ethnicity of the interviewer correctly, while 40% guessed correctly. (Eleven percent of respondents refused to answer the question.)

While seven in ten respondents were able to guess the identity of white interviewers, the participants had lower chances of correctly guessing the identities of non-white interviewers, even when the poll respondent shared the same identity as the interviewer. Respondents were able to correctly guess the identity of black interviewers half of the time, 43% of the time with Hispanic interviewers, and only 3% of the time with Asian interviewers.

Studies: The sound of your voice may determine if you get that callback

The results of this survey are one more reminder that your gut instincts don’t always lead to the right answer.

This analysis could have wide-ranging implications for phone interviews, given that previous studies found we act differently depending on who we think is on the other end of the phone line.

At best, the Pew Research Center cites the social desirability effect, a phenomena where we will bite our tongues and not express negatives views about someone’s race or ethnicity if the person we’re talking to is from that group. (That a phone interviewer might hesitate to express racist thoughts is somewhat cold comfort.)

At worst, using auditory cues to make sweeping judgments becomes “linguistic profiling,” a term linguistics professor John Baugh has coined in his career of studying the harm these snap judgments cause. Throughout his research, Baugh has found that stakeholders who have the authority to give you that house or that job will block callers based only who they think you sound like, even if these actions break equal opportunity laws.

In one experiment, Baugh got people with different ethnic dialects to answer a job ad. Even though the call recipients had no idea about any of the callers’ job qualifications, only the job seekers using Standard English would be told that the job that was advertised was still available.

“Those who sound white get the appointment,” Baugh concluded.

Other stumbling blocks

These discriminatory snap judgments are not just limited to what you sound like. Your name can be the difference between you getting that networking boost or not.

To test this, researchers sent out identical letters from prospective students to professors, where the only difference was in the names signed at the bottom. Fictional white male students like Brad Anderson got a response 87% of the time, compared to 62% of all fictional women and minorities combined.

In a separate study, online instructors who identified themselves as a female, regardless of their actual gender, would get rated lower by students in their evaluations than instructors who identified themselves as male.

What to take away

What this research shows job seekers is that by the time you say “hello,” lasting judgments may have been made about your character and qualifications.

For those in charge of hiring, it’s a stark reminder that unconscious biases lurk everywhere. You probably know far less about candidates than you think you do — until you’ve taken the time to truly evaluate people as complete individuals.