Who, What, Why: What is name-blind recruitment?

Leading companies and universities are being asked to remove names from application forms in an effort to stop “unconscious bias” against potential recruits from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. But how does “name-blind” recruitment work?

In 2012, Jorden Berkeley, a black university graduate from London, said a careers adviser had told her to use her middle name – Elizabeth – on her CV. Some of her friends had been urged to “whiten” theirs “by dropping ethnic names or activities that could be associated with blackness”.

Research done in the US suggests that bias can be significant. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper entitled Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. It found that: “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.”

A study, carried out in France, found that people with “foreign-sounding” north African names were less likely than others to receive a response from companies’ recruiting staff.

Another study of the Russell Group of leading UK universities by Vikki Boliver, senior lecturer in sociology at Durham University, suggested 36% of ethnic minority applicants from 2010 to 2012 had received places, compared with 55% of white applicants.

Following such findings, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that Ucas, the UK’s university admissions service, will carry out “name-blind” applications from 2017. The same will apply for graduate, apprentice-level and some other applications for organisations including the civil service, BBC, NHS, local government, KPMG, HSBC, Deloitte and Virgin Money.

Names are no longer to be seen by recruiters, but other indicators of background, such as address and school, will still be included.

Research suggests a person’s gender, as demonstrated by the name given, can also have an influence. In one study, US universities seeking a laboratory manager were handed CVs randomly headed with male or female names. They were seen to rate applicants assigned a “male” name as “significantly more competent and hireable“.

The government’s announcement is “definitely not a solution” to some of the “biases” recruiters exhibit, “says Boliver, although it “may help some”.

Ucas has found no ethnic bias in university acceptance rates, after taking into account applicants’ predicted A-level grades and the popularity of their chosen degree course and institution.

But Boliver is calling for Ucas to use all students’ responses when working out its statistics. Currently only the details of those who explicitly agree to this are included. But Ucas argues that this could still undermine trust in its data-collection.

The study of the effect of name-blind applications is in its infancy, but the government says they are “likely to spread more widely”, moving to much of the private sector in the next few years.

The law firm Clifford Chance last year removed references to applicants’ universities, to overcome what it felt was a perceived bias towards those from Oxford and Cambridge.

“But the reality is that people carrying out interviews, at the next stage on from applications, are humans,” says Azmat Mohammed, director general of the Institute of Recruiters. “The thing is for them to be able to analyse their own biases. Everybody has them and businesses are working to address this issue.”