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Anonymous job applications—the wave of the future?

October 3, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Kristin Cifolelli

What is the most basic piece of information you gather from job applicants? The person’s name, of course, which is generally the most prominent line on the resume and the very first box completed on the job application.  Could there be a discrimination issue embedded in that practice? Government regulators in Canada and several European countries think there is. Could the U.S. follow their lead?

Right now the latest debate in Canada and Europe is unconscious bias from employers during the hiring process stemming from knowing applicants’ names. In a step in that general direction, this past July the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) launched a policy that regards requiring “Canadian experience” from the applicant to be a form of discrimination.

Ratna Omidvar – president of Maytree Foundation, an organization advocating for workplace diversity and leadership development – told SHRM Online that “the OHRC’s initiative will motivate Canadian employers to look for better ways to identify and employ talent.”

Anonymous job applications are a logical next step.  We all have subconscious biases.  Studies have shown that personal information such as a name can trigger these subconscious biases about, for example, ethnic origin, immigrant status and gender. Once triggered, the biases prevent the reader from objectively seeing the rest of what is in the application.

A study conducted here in the United States by Marianne Bertrand at the University of Chicago set out to study and measure whether employers actively discriminate against African-American job applicants.  The goal of the study was to determine if a name listed on a resume and the perceptions of race implied by this name would hinder an applicant’s chance to receive an initial call-back or interview.

In the study, researchers sent resumes with fictitious names in response to 1,300 ads for open positions.  The callback rate for interviews was used as the metric to determine the success of the resume.  Approximately 5,000 resumes were sent for positions in sales, administrative support, clerical services and customer service. Each resume was assigned either a very Caucasian-sounding name (such as Emily Walsh, Brendan Baker) or a very African-American sounding name (such as Lakisha Washington, Jamal Jones). Credentials and experience for each racial group were comparable.

The results of the study found that applicants with Caucasian-sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American sounding names.  Applicants with Caucasian names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback, while applicants with African- American names needed to send about 15 resumes to achieve the same result.  At the conclusion of the experiment that author stated the results “didn’t claim that employers engaged in discriminatory behavior consciously, or that this is necessarily an issue of racism,” but that “it is important to teach people in charge of hiring about the subconscious biases they may have and figure out a way to change these patterns.”

Similar studies conducted in Canada in 2011 found that resumes with English-sounding names were 35 percent more likely to get call-backs from employers than resumes with more ethnic sounding names, despite identical qualifications and experience.

The discussion in Canada now revolves around whether employers should consider removing personal information such as names and street addresses for the initial round of screening.  For on-line applications, a number or some other unique identifier could be inserted in their places, and for paper or email applications, job applicants could be asked to put personal information at the end of the resume so that it will be the last thing rather than the first thing the employer sees. Of course, candidate and prospective employer will sooner or later meet; but in theory at least, every candidate will make it past the initial screening hurdle.

Several countries in Europe are also leading the way in testing the effectiveness of anonymous job applications, including Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.

The trend has not yet surfaced here in the United States.  But as this debate continues to evolve in Canada and in Europe, and with the globalization of business, employers can rest assured that it is only a matter of time before this trend will become a topic for discussion in the U.S. In the meantime, recruiters and HR professionals involved in the early stages of the screening and interview process should heighten their awareness of these types of diversity issues in order to avoid concerns with discrimination in hiring.

Sources:  SHRM on-line September 6, 2013; University of Chicago, Racial Bias in Hiring (Spring 2003)

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