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Should employers adopt anonymous recruitment policies?

‘Name-blind’ recruitment may help reduce bias

By Brian Kreissl

I have read quite a few articles lately relating to anonymous recruitment policies in organizations. The idea is employers should remove names from job applications and resumés in order to mask the identity of applicants and reduce bias.

Several studies have found that racialized or ethnic minority job applicants may be disadvantaged in the job market simply because of their names. For example, studies in the United States have found people with stereotypically “white” names were more likely to get a call for an interview than those with names that were typically associated with people of African American descent.

A similar Canadian study conducted in 2011 by Diane Dechief and Philip Oreopoulos of the University of Toronto entitled “Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew but not Samir?” found candidates with “English” sounding names were 35 per cent more likely to get called than those with Chinese or Indian names. A significant number of the recruiters who were interviewed as part of the study speculated this could be because applicants’ names may have signalled their possible lack of language or social skills to employers.

Eliminating racism and subconscious bias

Several studies and anecdotal evidence have suggested that so-called “name-blind” recruitment policies (not to be politically incorrect, but that’s what they are usually referred to as) can help to eliminate racism and subconscious bias in determining who warrants an initial call for a job interview or telephone prescreen. Similarly, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra found that gender diversity was greatly improved when they began auditioning musicians behind a screen, thus masking their gender, race, age and appearance from decision makers.

The U.K. civil service recently adopted a policy of anonymous recruitment for the first stage of screening. Details such as age, first and last name, preferred name, home and e-mail address, telephone number, nationality and immigration status are now concealed during the initial phase of recruitment. This helps to reduce bias not only with respect to race and ethnicity, but also in relation to age, gender and social class.

Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen wants Canada to adopt a similar policy, arguing name-blind recruitment policies would help end discrimination and promote equality. According to Hussen, “It is crucial that Canadians who have got the grades, skills, and the determination succeed.”

Flaws associated with anonymous recruitment

But do such policies work in practice? Admittedly, there are some flaws — such as the fact that applicants cannot remain anonymous forever since their identities will eventually be disclosed.

People’s names aren’t always indicative of their racial or ethnic backgrounds or their birthplaces. It may even be possible that in certain circumstances someone with an unusual or “exotic” name could have an advantage over someone named John Smith or Mary Jones. However, these aren’t necessarily valid arguments against anonymous recruitment policies.

There’s also the question of what type of details should be omitted. For example, what about which academic institutions the candidate attended and where? And would it make sense to redact the names of an applicant’s previous employers or the fact he volunteers for a religious or political organization?

As a former recruiter, I would argue such information may be important. Where an applicant lives may also be a legitimate factor in determining whether to call her in for an interview. Unless the job is a very senior one or the individual wants to relocate for a very specific reason, it usually doesn’t make much sense to call a candidate in Toronto for a job in Vancouver.

There are also certain challenges in administering such a program. For one thing, special software may be required — or at least administrators to censor the information in question before passing applications on to recruiters or hiring managers.

In spite of the challenges in administering such programs and the fact they are imperfect solutions, I believe anonymous recruitment policies are useful in helping to reduce bias and discrimination in the early stages of the recruitment process. Discrimination does unfortunately still exist in the labour market – even if such discrimination is subconscious, subtle or based on reasons other than those prohibited by the governing human rights legislation.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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