Can you stamp out unconscious bias in the recruitment process?

Our employment expert Shivali Chaudhry investigates measures such as name-blind job applications in this month’s Employment Law Journal:

Household-name employers in both the public and private sector are piloting a voluntary scheme to select candidates for interview on a ‘no-names’ basis, in a bid to curb discrimination and prejudice. Employers taking part in the scheme include the BBC, the NHS, HSBC, KPMG, Deloitte and the civil service.

The Equality Act 2010 outlaws discrimination and harassment in relation to nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. There is no legislation to prevent discrimination on the grounds of class or social standing.

Name-blind applications

The new scheme is intended to tackle both blatant discrimination and the danger of unconscious bias, which can creep in during the preliminary stages of recruitment, particularly against black and ethnic minority candidates. Equality campaigners have long asserted that recruiters can inadvertently discriminate against candidates with foreign-sounding names or women when considering applications. In partnership with the National Centre for Social Research, the Department for Work and Pensions found that applicants who appeared to be white needed to send nine applications before receiving either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. By comparison, candidates from an ethnic minority with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.

This claim has also been borne out by various experiments, including one in Germany which found that candidates with German-sounding names were 14% more likely to be called for interview than candidates with Turkish names. However, other studies have been less clear; one in Sweden found that only women, not immigrants, were boosted by anonymous recruitment and another in the Netherlands found no benefit to ethnic minority candidates.

Critics of name-blind recruitment (which has already been tested in countries such as Germany, Sweden and France) warn it is flawed because employers who want to discriminate can easily do so at interview stage. Rather than eliminating discrimination, the scheme will therefore just add another layer of bureaucracy to the recruitment process.

In any event, ensuring that a candidate’s CV is truly anonymous is difficult. For example, even in name-blind applications, studies in France found that candidates from poorer districts (identifiable from the school they attended) or those with knowledge of Arabic were less likely to be offered an interview. Deloitte has attempted to address this by introducing both name-blind and school- and university-blind recruitment.

Some commentators argue this is political correctness gone too far. However, others consider that recruiters may not be able to help forming stereotypical or prejudicial views of candidates based on characteristics such as their gender, religion, ethnicity or where they grew up. They believe the scheme will challenge such assumptions, which have no place in the fair selection of the best candidate for the role.

The scheme will also aim to prevent employers from researching candidates online and making decisions based on their internet and social media profiles, which could lead to prejudice. To protect against this risk at any stage of the recruitment process, employers in the trial are also being asked to offer practical training for managers on how to detect any bias or tendency to stereotype in themselves.

Apart from the ethical arguments, employers supporting the scheme recognise the practical benefit that it would have for their organisation when it comes to expanding their recruitment pool. By hiring people from a variety of backgrounds and avoiding the trap of recruiting in their own image, organisations stand to gain employees who innovate and bring fresh perspectives.

The scheme also provides the perfect defence against spurious claims by serial litigants who apply for jobs with the intention of pursuing a vexatious discrimination claim if they are rejected at the first stage.

Other proposals

The no-name recruitment scheme is just one of a number of proposals that the government is currently considering to tackle discrimination and enhance social mobility in the UK in both education and the workplace.

UCAS, the higher-education admissions service, has announced that it will start making its applications name-blind from 2017 amid fears that black and ethnic minority students are losing out to white contemporaries when applying for sought-after university places.

Meanwhile, a number of recruiters are seeking to look beyond academic results in order to avoid discriminating against students from deprived areas or under-performing schools. A good example of this is Ernst & Young, which has scrapped its requirements for school leavers to have a minimum of 3 B grades at A-level and for graduates to have an upper second class degree so as to widen the scope of its recruitment pool.

Other proposals currently being mooted include:

• advertising work experience through schools rather than filling such posts through informal networks;
• offering paid internships (or at least covering expenses); and
• developing mentoring schemes for young people to raise their aspirations and build their knowledge of the world of work.

These schemes are intended to tackle the social inequality of the ‘class ceiling’, which was highlighted in recent research by the London School of Economics. The study found that those who are in high-status occupations whose parents also had professional or managerial jobs were likely to earn significantly more than those in comparable roles whose parents were in more humble employment.

The findings imply that not only are students from deprived backgrounds less likely to secure a highly paid job in the first place, but even if they do, they may suffer prejudice in the entrenched middle-class culture that is often prevalent in fields such as medicine, law and finance. This subtle form of ‘cultural matching’ – where people with certain accents or cultural interests are, often unconsciously, singled out for promotion or fare better in interviews or performance appraisals – is not dissimilar to the discrimination against female or ethnic minority individuals that is outlawed under the Equality Act.

Gender bias

Another important incoming change intended to promote equality at work comes as a result of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. This obliges the government to make regulations requiring private and voluntary sector employers with 250 or more employees to publish information about their gender pay gap by 25 March 2016. The government has now indicated its intention to include bonus information in gender pay gap reporting and to extend the obligation to publish gender pay data to public sector employers as well. The government is also pledging to work with business to eliminate all-male boards from the UK’s top 350 companies.

It is hoped that these measures will tackle the disappointingly sluggish progress made towards reducing the gender pay gap. According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics in November, the differential between men and women’s pay fell by just 0.2% in the past year for full-time employment, from 9.6% in 2014 to 9.4% in 2015. Indeed, the gender pay gap has remained almost unchanged over the past four years.

Mandatory gender pay gap reporting will focus business minds and may cause an upsurge in equal pay claims. However, it is difficult to predict how much of an impact it will have in itself on the earnings divide. Other measures, such as policies that encourage flexible working for all employees, may ultimately be more effective in ironing out inequalities between men and women in the workplace.

Boosting equality

Unconscious bias is, by its very nature, difficult to detect and even more difficult to prove. Nevertheless, practical measures such as no-name recruitment schemes, dropping academic thresholds and gender pay gap reporting will all help to boost equality in the workplace, supporting the letter of the discrimination legislation we already have in place.


See the original article in Employment Law Journal

If you have any questions regarding this article or Employment Law please contact Shivali Chaudhry on 020 7355 6074.