The Department for Work and Pensions has been conducting an experiment which involves sending out bogus applications for 1,000 jobs nationwide. In each case it has sent out two applications, with the same qualifications but with a different name. In one case the name sounds British and white; in the other it suggests that the applicant is from a minority ethnic group. Preliminary results suggest that applications from the former group are significantly more likely to secure an offer of an interview. This, says the Equality and Human Rights Commission, should lead to a clause in the new Equality Bill banning the use of names in recruitment processes.
It will be interesting to see just how this experiment has been conducted. If applications are absolutely identical but for the name, it seems likely that some of them will have been spotted. If they differ in other respects – if, for example, supposedly equivalent degree qualifications are from different universities – then the results may not be as solid as they seem. But I am inclined to believe that the results are as claimed, for many similar experiments have been conducted in several different countries: a brief review of the literature appeared in last year’s OECD Employment Outlook.
The question is, assuming the preliminary findings are confirmed, what should be done about this? Some background may help.
Removing information from application forms is already widely practised. In recent years, many public sector employers and larger firms have removed date of birth and marital status from application forms in order to avoid accusations of gender and age discrimination. However, this is often unintentionally subverted by applicants who continue to send in full CVs or covering letters. Even when they stick to the standard questions, their answers may reveal information to recruitment panels: for instance those applicants who list ‘O’ level qualifications are revealing themselves as being middle-aged at least. In the same way, those with West African qualifications, even if their name is not shown, will reveal their backgrounds. Non-native speakers may also reveal their status through their phraseology in open-ended questions.
Other research studies have shown that addresses matter: applicants from particular housing estates or schools may suffer disadvantage in applications within local labour markets. This used to be particularly obvious in Northern Ireland, where rigid housing and educational segregation clearly indicated religious affiliation, but addresses may also indicate likely ethnicity in many British cities.
Removing names has been tried before – in a pilot programme in Sweden. This seems to have increased the proportion of applicants from immigrant backgrounds invited for interview. It did not, however, increase the proportion subsequently offered a job.
Note that only a minority of vacancies are formally advertised. Many people obtain their jobs through family and friends, through networking, through speculative applications, through internal promotions, or through recruitment agencies.
In March it was revealed by the Conservatives that the proportion of job vacancies advertised at jobcentres had dropped sharply: this is in line with previous recessions. When unemployment rises, many employers don’t need to advertise for the few vacancies they have available. Theresa May castigated Gordon Brown for this, but quite why she imagined that employers should have to use government employment services in their recruitment was not clear.
Small businesses rarely use the full apparatus of written job specification, public advertisement, shortlisting, interviews with a gender-balanced panel and so on which are no doubt the experience of those working at the DWP. But it’s also increasingly the case at the top of large organisations that few job interviews are obtained by filling in forms. Key posts are now usually filled with the assistance of headhunters: their use has grown very rapidly in the last decade, with government agencies, not-for-profits and charities following the lead of the private sector. By definition, headhunters cannot recruit anonymously.
It’s also the case that in many “creative” fields such as advertising, the arts, media and sport – growing areas of employment – people obtain jobs on the basis of work done publicly. Nobody submits an anonymous application to play Hamlet, to manage Newcastle United, or to be the presenter of Newsnight.
My conclusion would be that requiring anonymous application forms would have relatively little impact on the number of interviews minority groups obtain. To the extent that the requirement was seen as yet another stick with which to beat small employers, it might discourage some from advertising jobs at all - they could rely still more on informal recruitment. As informal practices are likely to disadvantage those not in networks and without personal connections to people from different ethnic backgrounds, such a result could be counter-productive.
As usual, regulatory interference in employment matters is not as straightforward as politicians assume. Nobody wants to justify a practice where people are treated unfairly in applying for jobs, but further government interference isn’t necessarily the answer.
A cheeky suggestion: why not privatise the intervention and encourage individuals to take action? If an individual puts in their own identical applications, one under an assumed name, and finds evidence of discrimination by being accepted for interview under only one name, let them take the employer to an employment tribunal under existing law. More than a decade ago an Asian jobseeker did precisely that and won nine different tribunal awards.