Discriminating Employers

Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill, and Hiring in America, by Phillip Moss and Chris Tilly. Russell Sage Foundation, 317 pages, $29.95.

Should government--including the John Ashcroft–led Justice Department--do more to enforce laws against discrimination in hiring?

Until recently, there has been a paucity of rigorous social science research on employers' attitudes about hiring low-skilled workers. In 1991 Kathryn Neckerman and Joleen Kirschenman at the University of Chicago published a pioneering paper revealing that many Chicago-area employers made blunt and sweepingly negative judgments about the work ethic of black and Hispanic workers. Now a new study by economists Phillip Moss and Chris Tilly makes the case that the employment prospects of inner-city black and Latino job seekers will be diminished without a strong government commitment to enforcing fair hiring practices.

A probing survey of employers in four cities--Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles--this book is a major contribution to our understanding of how employers in lower-skill labor markets operate. It offers a thorough examination of what skills employers look for, the perception they have of workers from different social groups, how they decide where to locate their businesses, and their recruitment and hiring procedures.

Moss and Tilly focus on jobs that require no more than a high school education. They assert that technological changes and a greater emphasis on customer service are leading employers to demand workers who possess "soft skills," such as the ability to interact well with customers, to work with a team, and to bring punctuality, steady attendance, and good grooming and attire into the workplace. And the authors find the rising importance of soft skills troubling, because any assessment of them is inherently subjective and opens the door to stereotypes and bias.

A plurality of employers in the survey professed to see no difference in the skills and work attitudes of different ethnic groups. Moss and Tilly suggest that this is partly because the open expression of prejudice is socially unacceptable and many suburban employers have little experience with black or Latino employees. But among respondents who ventured an opinion, the evaluation of the skills and work ethic of inner-city black workers, especially black men, was absolutely devastating. The authors show that many employers prefer Anglos, Asians, and Latinos over blacks. In fact, several made laudatory comments on the work ethic of Asian and Latino immigrants (sometimes including Afro-Caribbean immigrants). Moss and Tilly think that this praise comes from employers who pay lower wages and appreciate immigrants' willingness to put up with more or settle for less.

Employers also criticized the communication skills of black workers. "Quite a few managers ... remonstrated African Americans for using a åblack dialect,' a problem particularly in jobs involving customer contact." Moreover, some employers expressed fear of black men. "At one extreme, a Latino store manager in a black area of Los Angeles, who hires mostly Latinos, flatly stated, åYou know, a lot of people are afraid, they [black men] project a certain image that makes you back off. They're really scary.'"

Fears about crime can be a factor in employers' decisions about where to locate their businesses. Some employers said they would have difficulty attracting a skilled workforce if they located in the inner city because many suburban workers express an aversion to cities. Others felt the crime problem of cities was exaggerated and suggested that the popular media stoked fears. Many attributed the employment difficulties of inner-city black workers to the substandard system of public education and to single-parent families that are failing to instill an adequate work ethic.

It is exceedingly difficult to discern whether employers' evaluations of poor black and Latino workers are based on a realistic assessment of skills and cultural differences or on stereotypes and preconceptions. In When Work Disappears, William Julius Wilson pointed out that many black employers and proprietors share common criticisms of inner-city workers. An important question that is not addressed in Stories Employers Tell is whether employers in lower-skill labor markets are able to distinguish between black and Hispanic inner-city workers who possess the skills they demand and those who don't.

The unease about the "manner of speech" of inner-city workers suggests that poor blacks pay a heavy price in the labor market for speaking what socio-linguists call Black English Vernacular. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu asserts that people who are unable to master the official language are doomed to inferior positions because dialect is devalued in school and the workplace. And the findings in Stories Employers Tell raise the question of whether more resources should be devoted to helping inner-city workers master the official language of the workplace.

Moss and Tilly outline a modest set of proposals for improving labor market policies that affect low-skilled workers. Chief among these are programs that socialize low-skilled workers and train them in the norms of work. But in addition, they call for the funding of audit studies to test labor market discrimination and for vigorous enforcement of existing antidiscrimination laws.