Thursday, January 30, 2014

Is There a Racial Bias in Recruiting in Korea?

A sample of a job advertisement I found back in 2012. I guess I don't qualify.

There are tons of positions to be had throughout Korea, the majority of which are either in public schools or in private academies, known as "hagwons". Most of these jobs are obtained through recruiters. These are the middle men whose job is to find qualified candidates for open positions in Korea.

Why do we have recruiters? Well, since the majority of job candidates speak little Korean, and the majority of school officials speak little English, recruiters are a necessary evil. From the job candidate's point of view, recruiters introduce them to job opportunities they wouldn't have found otherwise.

One day, I began the job hunt for my next position. At this point in the game, I much preferred dealing with schools directly, although I was still open to recruiters if they happened to have the type of position I was looking for. While looking at a desirable position, I thought about the particular recruiter that was offering it. I was pretty sure I had sent my resume to that recruiter before, but I never remembered them ever replying back. I took to my magical e-mail search function.

I was half right. Since 2010, I had sent them my resume 3 times. I had only heard back from them once. In that case, they wanted an interview, but requested a picture beforehand, not realizing I had already sent them one -- it was in the top-right corner of my resume. Nonetheless, I complied by sending an additional photo. I never heard from them again. This, in turn, caused me to think of all of the other resume black hole experiences I've had. I was wondering how I'd have fared in the job search if my skin were a different color. Would I have been treated differently?

Speaking with other foreigners in Korea, I've noticed that there has always been speculation as to which candidates were seen as the most desirable for teaching positions in Korea. I have heard the rumors of young, white Americans being preferred. I have even seen a few recruiters boldly stating they only wanted white applicants on job advertisements. This doesn't appear to be common, though.

There have been signs that many recruiters still apply the "whites only" rule while sifting through photos resumes. It can occur by steering candidates of color to public schools (seen as less discriminatory) or to less desirable positions (such as a more rural location, a lower salary, or split shifts). Of course, the discriminating recruiters may simply decide to forgo replying in the first place.

These recruiters claim to have tons of positions available, and you know you qualify, but you still don't hear back.   I became curious. Was this true? Are white candidates really preferred over black candidates?  If so, then to what extent?

Here's what I did:  

  • I created two female job candidates with no prior teaching experience in Korea. Both women hail from middle America and they love children!   
  • I made two similar resumes. They had exactly the same qualifications. Neither has taught before, but they each used to tutor elementary school children. They each have an unrelated (and what some would call a "useless" ) university degree. Neither candidate has any formal training in teaching. I gave them both their very own e-mail address.
  • I purchased the rights to stock photos. One candidate is black, and the other is white. Both have attractive, smiling photos. I worked to select natural looking photos that looked good, yet not too professional. In other words, I selected the sort of photos that most people would take. Both women are what I would consider to be of average attractiveness. They look to be in their 20s.  
  • I posted on the resume board of a popular website recruiters use to fill open positions in Korea. The recruiters sent an initial e-mail to both candidates. From that, I compiled a list of 20 separate recruiters that e-mailed both candidates without seeing their full resume or picture. The recruiters may recruit for private academies, public schools, or both. However, neither young lady applied for any specific job. They only replied to the e-mail sent by the recruiting agency with their resume and picture.
  • The black candidate posted on the website first, and the white candidate posted on the website second. Remember -- at that stage the recruiter hasn't seen a full resume or photo. The black candidate replied to 20 recruiter e-mails with her resume and photo. I waited two weeks for the recruiters to respond. Then, the white candidate replied to the same agencies as the black candidate. Since it is customary in Korea, both sent their resume and photo to the recruiter's e-mail address. 
  • Both candidates had the same job preferences. They wanted to work with children, and they were interested in working either in or near Seoul.  Neither had their required E2 Visa documents ready. Would the recruiters still be willing to work with them?
  • What's being measured? After sending the recruiters the resumes and photos, I waited at least a week for a reply from the recruiters. The reply had to be an honest attempt to work with the candidate. This is either by offering to schedule an interview, or contacting to see what kind of schools the candidate was looking for. Instant job offers counted, too! However, a candidate simply being added to a mass-mailing list didn't count. Obviously, neither job candidate conducted any actual interviews.     
In the end, I got my results. I realized that the black job candidate applied to recruiters before the typical holiday vacation, and the white candidate applied after. Also, neither young lady had her E2 Visa documents ready. I wanted to see if these could be possible factors.

So, for Phase Two, here's what I did:

  • Two more female job candidates were created! One is black, and the other is white. They both have resumes that show exactly the same qualifications, etc. You see where I'm going here. The difference here is that this time, the ladies had their E2 Visa documents ready. They didn't show proof, but they assured recruiters that they were ready to go for the visa.
  • I compiled a list of about 60 different recruiters that posted English teaching jobs in Korea recently. These were taken from the same popular website.
  • From that list, 15 recruiters were selected at random. The black candidate and the white candidate applied to these 15 recruiters a week or less apart. Could they have applied to all 60? Of course, but I'm too busy for that!

Here are the results:

Phase 1: Recruiters respond to resumes posted online
During the first phase, the black candidate received a few bites, but they weren't much. Out of the 20 recruiter e-mails she replied to, she heard back from only 6. To add salt to the wound, two of those times she was only added to a mass mailing list. Being added to a spam-o list means nothing -- chances are, the recruiter won't reply when she actually tries to put in an application for those jobs. I've personally been there and done that. Bottom line: If I were her, I'd be very frustrated.

The white candidate, on the other hand, seems to have been much luckier. Just two days later, she had heard back from nearly every recruiter. She had a 75% success rate. In most of the replies, the recruiter wanted to interview her. Her e-mails were more personalized and catered to her preferences. More interviews with schools were set up for her. The recruiters seemed to be more enthusiastic, sometimes contacting her multiple times and showing her attractive job positions.

Phase 2: Resumes & photos are sent to a random sample of recruiters
 Here's phase two, when both candidates urged recruiters that they had their documents ready. This time, they applied to 15 different recruiters by e-mailing their resume and photo to the company. The black candidate seemed to fare a little  better in this round, hearing back 40% of the time. However, this white candidate seems to have better luck this time around too, who happened to hear back about 73% of the time.

Why not name the recruiting companies?

When I notice what could be wrongdoing, I often have the urge to name and shame them. However, it wouldn't be wise for me to do that in this case for a few reasons.

First, my point isn't to go after specific companies, but to rather see how things are in general. I wanted to witness what the job-seeking climate was like from two perspectives. 

Next, I've heard that Korea's got some pretty strong slander laws. It's all about keeping up with appearances here and causing a company lose face is a serious thing. 

Even then, there's the point that recruiters are following the requests of their client schools. If their clients are demanding white American teachers, then the recruiters might just give in to that demand by simply rejecting everyone else at the door.

Finally, this is just a personal experiment. I'm no scientist, so I can't guarantee that everything was set up perfectly. I also didn't test all 60 recruiters I found, just 35. For all I know, all the other recruiters could be fantastic! (Probably not, but whatever.) But, because I haven't tested all of them, it's not wise for me to make recommendations one way or another.

There are a couple of things we need to consider:

Korea isn't the only place with this problem. Racial bias against black job candidates can be found around the world. It also exists in the US, my own country. In the USA, black job candidates, even with advanced degrees, can have a tough time on the job hunt. At this point, it's well-documented that resumes with African-American sounding names get fewer call backs. An unemployed black woman tried a similar resume experiment and her job offers soared. My point is, this racial bias isn't exclusive to Korea.

It's not fair to paint Korea, as a country, with an extremely broad brush. Sure, some individual Koreans may display racist tendencies, but not everyone is like that. After all, despite this, I am teaching in Korea right now. There are tons of other black native English speaking teachers that are in Korea. While some people have a tough time, it appears that most people have positive experiences overall and do not regret coming here. The majority of my friends here are Korean... born and raised. This means they aren't all bad. Koreans, like everyone else, are individuals who have their own thoughts and opinions.

Does this mean I don't have a chance?

If you're black and you're applying to jobs, do the best you can. Use your resources and put your best foot forward. You may have some obstacles in front of you, but this isn't a reason to give up. If you are at least open-minded about where you are placed, then you will likely find a job as long as you present yourself and interview well.  In addition, a very good resource for life in Korea for those of African decent is the Facebook group Brothas&Sistas of South Korea. Look in their "Documents" section for tips on getting hired in Korea as a black candidate.There is a ton of information and support in that group, along with hundreds of members that are able to answer your questions about living and working in Korea.

I always advise people to speak to actual black people about what it is like to be black in Korea. The same is true for people of other ethnic backgrounds, because then it's easier to get a more realistic picture. Be wary of members of a privileged group who claim to be experts on the subject. While well-meaning, sometimes people can give wildly inaccurate advice or suggestions. Last summer, I've even met a 22 year-old white American male who lectured me on the topic of anti-black racism in Korea. He had been in Korea for a grand total of six weeks!

Don't be discouraged because many of us are here. We are in all places, and teaching in all different types of jobs. People of color working in universities, international schools, or any "better" job really is not that rare. Ultimately, after not hearing back from two "lesser" positions, I was offered a pretty good position in Seoul this time around.

Yes, some Koreans have negative attitudes about people of color, but it's not to the point where it's too hard to find any job. The truth is that there are plenty of schools that don't discriminate. Generally speaking if you apply to many schools, and your qualifications are good, you're likely to get hired somewhere. 

We got here somehow, so ask us how. Ask someone who has been through it.


  1. Good on you! I've been interested in this issue for some years now. Great research idea/data collection. I really liked your approach and your ethical stance to not reveal the names of those who did/didn't respond to your study, but underline the area of significance in the findings.

    I've spoke to people from teachers, vice principals, parents, agencies, even students have protested about such injustices and inequality. They all seem to blame each other, to some extent.

    What IS important is that things are changing and that is purely and simply down to people like yourself who are committed teachers, who refuse to give in and keep knocking down walls and changing attitudes. Korea and the world's a much better place for it too.

    Well done Lauren.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement! Yes, I don't think it is an excuse to give up, but rather an opportunity to educate and be our best. I think that things are changing for the better in Korea in many ways. I'm excited to be a part of that!

  2. Have you considered sharing this info and recruiter contact info with the National Human Rights Commission?

    1. Well, I think it's legal for businesses in Korea to discriminate by race, so I don't think it would do anything if I did. Besides, since I'm not anonymous (or powerful) I'd be susceptible to retaliation. Lastly, even though I've been here for awhile, this is very much not my country. I feel a certain way about protesting or causing a political stink in a country that is foreign to me.

    I heard that recruiters charge more for finding a white north american female (ie the hagwon has to pay a higher fee). the lowest fee was a black male from south africa. Obviously, you can charge more for products in demand.

    Any research done (by you or that you have seen) on what fees apply to hagwons? Is it true they are paying higher?

    1. Korean Lex -- My wife has been a recruiter for 11 years, and she's never heard of that. It's always been the same flat fee, regardless of the applicant's sex, race, or country of origin.

      Little Lauren -- I'm glad you acknowledge that "recruiters are [maybe just] following the requests of their client schools", because not *all* of them are evil(!), and I can confirm that the good ones are indeed OFTEN placed in a bind by their clients.

      Basically, how it works is hagwon owners contact my wife's company, and if they don't mention any preferences then my wife sends 3 teacher profiles/resumes as possibilities to choose from...but sometimes they may all be rejected, with the hagwon owners saying "Dammit, I don't want black/old/men etc., ONLY give me white young North American women." My wife then tries to persuade them that the other teachers are just as good (maybe even better), but unfortunately almost no owners that say that ever change their minds (and to play Devil's Advocate, they may be worried about parents' reactions themselves), and if they don't get what they want then they just take their business elsewhere. For a small company like the one my wife works for especially, in such situations there's nothing she can really do.

      I know that really sucks for non-Caucasian teachers, but that's basically what happens at the recruiter's end.

    2. Very interesting to hear from the recruiter's point of view! I had never heard of that practice either.

  4. Good research, but I feel it's in vain. The sad reality is that Korean parents prefer a white American (female for Kindy) to teach their kids. They watch Hollywood movies and think Tom Cruise (just an example) is the standard for English. An older Korean would agree with this. A person of color getting a public school job is much more common than at a private school, as stated above. Yes, I agree it's racist and wrong. I found out the hard way when I tried to replace myself at my hagwon when I was leaving. I wanted to save the school from a recruiter's commission. The few candidates who responded to my job posting were non-white. When I presented their resumes and pictures to my Korean boss, he said he only wants people who "look like me" (white male). When I asked why these candidates aren't preferred, he said "because the students and their parents can't handle it". It's one guy, but I think that's a common attitude. We don't need research for that.

  5. I've got a Latino last name (due to marriage) and I know that works against me. I've even had people ask me how I learnt English despite me stating at the top of my CV that English is my native language and I was born and raised in the USA.

    1. I have heard the same thing from other, actual Latino-Americans here. I guess it mostly has to do with the perception of being "not white enough." I'm not surprised by your experience... I think many recruiters don't review resumes much at all beyond the requirements for the visa.

  6. Thank you for your beautiful account of the hardships you have faced, and the positive attitude you faced them with. I have added a link to your article at my address

    Thank you for sharing this with everyone!

    1. Thanks for the comment adamrcarr! I'm not one to dwell on the things that have gone wrong for me personally, since in the end I am here with a decent job and all. But I just got curious at that time and decided to do something interesting. I'm glad you liked it. I took at look at your blog and I think you post was a very solid one!

  7. Don't worry things will eventually change. Japan for instance still values white face and they started out their ESL industry in the 70s. It'll take another 10-200 years for them to change their attitudes.

    By this same yard stick Korea will stop valuing white face by about 2314.

    China will stop caring by about 2415 as well.