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Color Theory


by Stephany Below, SIOP Communications Manager

Study Shows Personality Trait That Can Predict Colorism in Employee Selection

It is unfortunately all too common in the workplace today for individuals to experience discrimination based on their race. However, many also experience discrimination based on their skin tone—a process known as colorism.

A new study presented last month at the 29th Annual SIOP Conference sheds light on this type of discrimination and shows how a person’s tendency toward colorism can be determined by measuring a single personality characteristic.

The study, by SIOP Student Affiliate Tiwi Marira and his advisor Dr. Kristin Sommer, both of Baruch College, The City University of New York, found that it is possible to determine a person’s tendency to discriminate based on skin tone by measuring what is known as their social dominance orientation (SDO), or the degree to which individuals desire and support group-based hierarchy and the domination of “inferior” groups by superior groups.

Marira and Sommer’s study specifically focused on colorism within the Black community by relating the SDO of Black participants to their hiring decisions for light- and dark-skinned African-American job applicants.

“We wanted to understand, all things being equal, whether lighter-skinned African Americans have an advantage in an employment context,” Marira explained. “We found that as social dominance orientation increased, participants were more likely to give higher resumé ratings, higher starting salaries, and actually hire lighter-skinned African Americans over darker-skinned African Americans, regardless of the skin tone of the person doing the rating.”

The study, titled “The Impact of Colorism in Selection Systems: A SDO Perspective,” is unique in that it stipulates and finds evidence for a link between colorism and SDO, Marira said.

Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of a person’s skin. It is distinguished fromracism, which is driven by multiple factors that make up an individual’s race. Despite a renewed interest in colorism, little is known about the psychological functioning of the phenomenon or about how colorism affects Blacks’ employment decisions regarding other Blacks, Marira explained.

“I think it’s an interesting topic that has historical roots dating back to the 1600s in America,” he added. “More recently, I remember Senator Harry Reid opining about how perhaps Barack Obama could be elected president of the United States in part because White Americans found his lighter skin tone to be more palatable. He was criticized for that, but perhaps there was some truth in it.”

In their study, Marira and Sommer measured the social dominance orientation of Black participants and prompted them to make employment decisions about equally qualified lighter-skinned and darker-skinned Black job applicants.

The participant sample included 131 Black participants working professionals from a variety of industries.
The researchers conducted an online business simulation in which participants were informed that they would be playing the role of the vice oresident of Marketing and Research in a public relations company and were supplied with a description of their job role and an organizational chart.

Participants were presented with filler tasks that prompted them to type responses to e-mail messages regarding several organizational issues. They were then presented with an e-mail from the human resources director informing them that a marketing position needed to be filled and that the participant needed to rate the resumes of the prospective job applicants. Participants were then provided with two equivalent resumés paired with photographs of two different Black men. The photos were modified to reflect a lighter or darker skin tone.

Participants were asked to rate the two candidate resumés, select the starting salary they would assign to each candidate if they were to hire both of the candidates, and finally to select which single candidate they would prefer to hire for the marketing position. Participants were then asked to complete the SDO measure, which asked them to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as, “To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups,” and “We would have fewer problems if groups were treated more equally.”

Higher SDO scores predicted lower resumé ratings given to darker-skinned, Black applicants compared to lighter-skinned job applicants and predicted lower salary ratings given to darker-skinned, Black applicants compared to lighter-skinned job applicants. Participants with stronger SDOs were also more likely to select the lighter-skinned applicant over the darker-skinned applicant when making hiring decisions.

Participant skin tone had no effect on resumé ratings, salary decisions, or hiring decisions, contrary to what social identity theory (SIT) might predict, Marira explained.

“Coming into the study we were thinking that perhaps we would see an in-group favoritism effect that social identity theory might predict, where lighter skinned African Americans would prefer lighter-skinned job candidates and darker-skinned African Americans would prefer darker skinned candidates,” he said. “But that was not the case.”

Social dominance orientation stems from social dominance theory (SDT), which presents a different perspective than the “in-group favoritism”assertion of social identity theory. Central to social dominance theory is the assumption that all societies are organized in terms of group-based hierarchies. In hierarchies, dominant groups are presumed to have the social and political power to oppress subordinate groups. The theory interprets discrimination as an act of active outgroup oppression rather than ingroup favoritism, and proposes that many different forms of prejudices and discrimination, such as anti-Black racism and sexism, are in fact outcomes of group-based hierarchies.

Indeed, social dominance orientation has been positively correlated with anti-Black racism, sexism, and anti-gay and lesbian attitudes in other studies, Marira noted. However, he added, the Black participants in his study might not have been aware that they were exhibiting colorism.

“It’s interesting because, in terms of the participants in the study, my hunch is that people didn’t necessarily know that they were discriminating in favor of the lighter-skinned candidate. I think in this instance SDO influenced people more subtly.”

These results do make sense however, given that at its essence, colorism is a form of group-based hierarchy in which lighter skin tones are advantaged over darker ones, Marira added.

So, how should employers use this information to prevent colorism in their selection practices?

“The surest way to know someone’s SDO is to give them a personality assessment measuring SDO,” Marira said.  “However, it is unlikely that all employers will start to measure personality variables like SDO.”

Therefore, employers should consider utilizing training interventions that emphasize the proper use of selection standards and competency models rather than simply assuming that minorities or groups composed predominantly of minorities will make less prejudiced employment-related decisions, he said.

The evidence of intraracial colorism found in this study also demonstrated the danger in assuming that Black professionals will not discriminate against their own group in a similar fashion as Whites may. Marira said the study suggests to HR managers that simply having more minorities on selection panels may not reduce all types of discrimination, especially colorism.

“It is common for employers to assume that if you want a more diverse workforce, you should put, quote-unquote, diverse people in decision-making roles,” he explained. “But this study and other SDO studies have shown that your racial ingroup or ethnicity really matter a lot less than your SDO in determining whether or not you engage in discrimination. If you, as an employee, care so much about social dominance and hierarchies, you are likely to prioritize that in your beliefs and actions, even if it is to the detriment of your own race or gender,”

As employers typically do not measure personality variables like SDO that have been linked to discrimination, the next best thing would be for employers to look closer at industries that typically attract those with higher social dominance orientations, he said.

“There has been some vocational research conducted by Sidanius that shows individuals who have higher SDOs tend to pursue college majors and occupations in fields that enhance societal hierarchies, such as law enforcement, accounting, and national security,” he said. “Individuals with low SDOs tend to pursue fields that attenuate social hierarchies, such as social work. While employment discrimination is always a possibility in every field, practitioners need to be especially aware of the problem of colorism in those fields that attract higher SDO individuals.”

Recruiters and talent acquisition staff should probably also avoid using social media to evaluate candidates.

“That is because photographs of applicants are generally available through these media,” Marira explained. “And that increases the likelihood of someone consciously or unconsciously using skin tone to make an evaluation or hiring decision.”

Marira noted that although his study examined colorism only among African Americans, it could occur within and between many different racial and ethnic groups.

“I think it’s important to convey that colorism can happen within racial groups, but it can also happen interracially, between groups,” he explained. “So in my study, I found that Africans Americans can prefer lighter skin tones among African Americans, but it is also possible that a White person could prefer a lighter skin tone among Asians or that an Asian person could prefer a lighter skin tone among Latinos.”