Equal or unique employee? 'Visible minorities' job seeking experiences

Ida Kvittingen has written her master’s thesis as part of the EUMARGINS project. The title of her thesis is "Equal or unique employee? 'Visible minorities' job seeking experiences" and is about visible minorities’ transition from higher education to the labour market. Her qualitative study is based on ten in-depth interviews with visible minorities who have recently finished their master degree in either social or natural sciences and are entering the job market.

The master thesis (which is written in Norwegian) should be available online within a month of this publication. We will then provide a link to direct you to the thesis. The English summary is provided below.

Background to the study

The study seeks to determine how young people with visible minority background transition from higher education to the labour market. Most of the informants are born in Norway, and some expect to be met with skepticism in the labour market because of their name, appearance and/or religious affiliation. Others see their own minority background as an asset. Guiding research questions for the thesis are how these young people reflect on the opportunities that are available to them in the labour market and how they present themselves to prospective employers. Kvittingen’s main findings are summarised in a description of four strategies that young migrants and descendants use when applying for jobs.

Early experiences as a guide

Job seekers create an image of themselves to prospective employers through both their job applications and various forms of personal contact (ie. the job interview, telephone calls, and so forth). How the job seekers present themselves, depend on the view they have of opportunities that minorities have in the labour market. Some of Kvittingen’s informants believed that they had equal opportunities as ethnic Norwegian job seekers, while others think they stand out either positively or negatively.

To understand how each of them developed this impression, Kvittingen examined what early experiences the informants had with inclusion and exclusion. Based on these experiences, the informants had adopted different coping strategies and varying degrees of social support to deal with the adversity they faced. The methods they use to resolve these experiences have impacted what approach they choose to use in order to enter the labour market. Through these experiences some of the informants gained confidence that their ethnicity would not be a hindrance to them in the labour market, in fact being a visible minority would add value to their applications. Other informants had negative experiences and therefore were keen to highlight their similarities with the majority population.

Theoretical Apparatus

Depending on whether they want to appear as an equal or unique job applicant, they choose different strategies in their job search. The analysis of these strategies is based on a combination of signaling theory and theory of impression management. Signaling theory illustrates the uncertainty in the outcome of the encounter between job seeker and employer, where the candidate is trying to convey their competence to the employer by the use of signals. Education is a typical signal, but Kvittingen’s findings show that visible minorities also communicate other signals, such as name or religious affiliation.

Four Job Seeking Strategies

Using Goffman’s theoretical apparatus related to impression management, Kvittingen looks further at how job seekers attempt to drive the impression that an employer gets of them and from this draws out four different strategies. Among those that seek similarities with the majority, there is one group that attempts to downplay or hide their ethnic background since they believe that it will be perceived as stigmatizing. This can, for example, be their name or religious affiliation. One of Kvittingen’s informants, Azadi, believes that even though many employers express a desire for more employees with an immigrant background, the reality is that they favor more employees similar to themselves. He thinks that employers are not actually interested in cultural or religious diversity and knowing this he tries to adapt his appearance to avoid looking Muslim.

Other informants choose to describe their features to reduce the prospective employer’s uncertainty of visible minorities. For instance, Najat states in her job applications that she is originally from Morocco, but underlines that she is born and brought up in Norway and speaks fluent Norwegian. “It is important for me to highlight that I am a foreigner. That way they are prepared when they call me for an interview…so they know who they are meeting.”

Kvittingen also finds two strategies among the informants where they feel confident that their ethnicity will set them apart in a positive way. Some use their ethnicity as a signal that they are multicultural, believing that their language and cultural knowledge will be seen as a resource for an employer. These informants seek jobs in international environments where they see that their multicultural upbringing has value. Another informant, Jasmina, describes that “there are also some who see that you have the multicultural background that you have. This can be seen as a strength in that you have knowledge of several cultures and languages, (…) and have an international perspective. This can be an advantage. One would obviously want employees with multicultural backgrounds.”

Other job seekers also want to be seen as unique employees, but do not want it to be based on their ethnicity. Bushra explains that “we are all individuals. No land should define us. (…) Because you are who you are—so why do we have to define ourselves and always explain where we come from…” Bushra does not see herself as completely Norwegian and is proud of her Pakistani roots, but considers it irrelevant in the work context.

Gaining Access to Jobs

The choice of strategy may change over time as the job applicant takes on new experiences. When they face diversity oriented or discriminatory employers the informants begin to develop new views on the opportunities that minorities have in the labour market. The informants in Kvittingen’s study also take different actions when choosing their approach to the labour market. For instance, some feel that they can gain access to jobs through social networks. The use of networks can serve as a way to avoid being exposed to possible discrimination by an employer. Legislation also places constraints on the choices of a job applicant. The Discrimination Act prohibits an employer to inquire about ethnicity. The informants in the study interpret the law differently, either as enabling or limiting, in light of their own experiences. For some the Act provides protection against constant questioning of ethnicity. For others it places obstacles against the strategy of sharing information regarding their minority background.

A Diverse Life

Kvittingen concludes by discussing her findings in light of the concept of diversity. What opportunities did the informants have in relation to the strategies they chose to use? Strategies that promote ethnicity as a resource work best with those employers who seek a diverse workplace. Those informants with social science education applied in greater numbers to workplaces that emphasize international perspectives since they themselves believe they are more multicultural. Even though those from mathematics or natural sciences have many visible minorities as colleagues, but at the same time they believe less emphasis should be placed on multicultural perspectives at work.


By T. Sarin
Published Sep. 1, 2011 2:42 PM - Last modified Sep. 1, 2011 2:48 PM