Name Discrimination: Does your name really influence your destiny?


4 mins

Posted on 05 Nov 2015

Recent weeks have seen much discussion in the press about the influence your name can have on job applications. One, now well known, story involves a black university graduate called Jorden Berkeley who was advised by a recruitment agent to use her middle name Elizabeth on job applications. Even more shockingly, this approach proved successful.

Leading organisations, including the Civil Service, Teach First, HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money, KPMG, BBC, NHS, learndirect and local government, have pledged to use ‘name blind recruitment’ for graduate positions. Last week the Prime Minister announced that UCAS will also remove candidates’ names from university application forms from 2017.

In a speech last week, David Cameron announced that “The introduction of name-blind recruitment processes and school and university-blind interviews will help prevent unconscious bias and ensure that job offers are made on the basis of potential – not ethnicity, gender or past personal circumstance.”

Just how prevalent is this problem and will this scheme really be effective?

The Evidence - Studies and Statistics

• A recent Australian study showed that people tend to have better impressions of colleagues and politicians if they have names they can easily pronounce.• The National Bureau of Economic Research in America produced a study which showed that those applicants with white sounding names only had to make 10 job applications to get one call back, whereas those with ethnic-sounding names had to make 15 applications to get one call back.• Another study showed that certain names can have positive or negative implications. For example, people thought Margaret and Ron would be ‘hardworking’, but that Ace would be ‘a jerk’.• In 2011, the unemployment rate for ethnic minority women was 14.3%, compared with 6.8% for white women.

These figures suggest name discrimination is rife. 

Graduate Admissions Systems

However, many graduate recruitment systems involve applicants entering their details on to a computerised form. At each stage, the system analyses whether or not the applicant meets the selection criteria. For example, many law firms and accountants stipulate certain academic achievements e.g. 3A’s at A Level and a 2:1 degree. Without these levels of achievement, you cannot even progress to the next stage of the selection process. In these situations, early sifting of applications has absolutely nothing to do with an applicant’s name.

Deloitte announced in September that it had introduced “contextualised academics”. For example, a student achieving 3Bs at A Level in a school where the majority of students achieve 3Ds is recognised as exceptional performance.

These types of graduate admissions systems demonstrate that achievement and experience is clearly of the upmost importance to employers. It is true, however, that they do not exclude unconscious name bias at a later stage in the recruitment process.

Why would a business not want to use name-blind recruitment?

Having seen the statistics and flaws in the current recruitment systems, using name blind recruitment seems like a no-brainer, or does it?

Companies will often want to do a background check on an individual before they are invited to interview. Although not necessarily advisable, social media checks by employers are becoming a more and more common feature of the recruitment process – a silly Facebook profile photo and your chances of success may be scuppered!

Companies may also wish to read an individual’s LinkedIn page or their profile on their previous employers’ websites to gather further information in preparation for the interview. With name blind recruitment, this will not be possible.

Name blind recruitment appears only to work for the initial “sift” stage of the recruitment process. Unconscious bias may still creep into the process as soon as an applicant’s name is revealed, and of course there is also a risk of discrimination following a face to face interview. 

The success of name blind recruitment is yet to be seen, but any attempt to increase equality in the workplace should be applauded.

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