Today’s topic is a personal one for me –and it’s also of universal importance for all of us in human resources.  It’s about something we all share: names.  We all have them, and we share something else, too: unconscious bias.

Although we hate to admit it, we all suffer from some form of unconscious bias. Not just those of us in the human resources industry, but everyone on this planet.

It might be hard to recognise at first, but, for me, with a name like ‘Anwar’, I’ve got a front row seat on the reality of bias when it comes to names.

For example, many of you reading this article may have made the assumption that I am a Muslim based on my name. I don’t suggest that this is a negative thing to have assumed about me, but it is not true – I’m a Christian.

While you probably agree that we make unconscious judgements every day, often solely upon a name, you might also be thinking that this is no longer really an issue when it comes to serious business decisions, particularly around hiring and the workplace. You might think that in 2017, in a world of diversity programs and equal opportunity, there are smart and fair processes in place to guard against this bias.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case.

What’s In A Name?

There are countless examples of men and women with ‘foreign’ sounding names having to adopt pseudonyms just to receive an acknowledgement of their application.

Research from Inside Out London found that a fictional ‘Adam’ received three times the number of interviews than an identical candidate named ‘Mohamed’.

Closer to home, researchers at the Australian National University conducted their own experiment and found people without ‘Anglo-sounding’ names had to submit up to 64 per cent more resumes before they secured an interview.

The same results have been repeated across the English speaking world.  Researchers in the US, UK and Australia have all come to the conclusion that it is harder to get a ‘fair go’ if your name is Samir, not Sam.

“Name Blind” recruiting could be one way to address this.

In name blind recruiting, resumes are stripped of any information that may provoke a recruiter’s latent bias. Effectively, all the information irrelevant to the role (name, age, place of birth, sex etc.) is removed so that recruitment decisions can be made objectively and based solely on merit.

When you think about, it makes perfect sense. Regardless of whether recruiters are aware of their bias is beside the point – conscious or no, the result is the same.

Momentum is Building for Name Blind

Name blind recruiting is neither new nor novel –but it’s growing in strength, because people are demanding it.  Some of the world’s largest organisations use it: The BBC, NHS, Deloitte and HSBC to name but a few.

In fact, in 2015, then British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a plan that would see all UK civil service roles below the level “Senior Civil Service” be decided by blind recruitment as of this year. .

As you can see, the momentum behind name blind recruitment has been building for some time, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down.

In addition to the slew of early adopters, recent name blind adherents include Canada’s Federal Government, which is piloting a program in six federal government departments with a view towards a whole-of-government roll out, and the UK Labour Party which identified name-blind recruitment as a key pillar in its Race and Faith Manifesto. 

Much of this article has focused on the benefits name blind recruitment offers those of us with ‘foreign’ sounding names, but we can’t discount the effect the practice would have on levelling the playing field for women.  In fact, Silicon Valley heavyweights Google have turned to name-blind recruitment as a way to boost representation among women as well as other underrepresented minorities.

The Argument Against Name Blind

Despite all the positive results, the studies are by no mean unanimous. A Dutch study showed name blind recruitment had no effect as it only delayed the bias until during the interview stage.

Another French study showed foreign-born candidates were actually less likely to be offered an interview when biographical data was removed from resumes. The study’s authors suggested this may have been due applicants listing proficiency in particular foreign languages. This highlights another good point – name blind recruitment can be incredibly difficult to do.

You must decide which fields to anonymise and, even then, you must be aware of the unconscious inferences you make based upon the remaining data.

Having considered all the facts, to those who earlier thought “how could bias exist in 2017” I ask, “how could nonblind recruitment exist in 2017”.

Ultimately it boils down to the fact that, as recruiters, we’re able to create an environment where Mohammed has the same opportunity as Matthew, Lucy as Luke and Xi as Xavier. That being the case, I think we have a responsibility to make it so.

But then again, maybe I’m biased.


Anwar Khalil

Author

Anwar Khalil

CEO

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