Elaine McIlroy: Equality of opportunity is the ulitmate goal

By removing names from job applications, it is hoped any unconscious bias will be eliminated. Picture: Craig Stephen
By removing names from job applications, it is hoped any unconscious bias will be eliminated. Picture: Craig Stephen
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We should open our eyes to the benefits and limitations of blind recruitment, writes Elaine McIlroy

In October, the UK Government announced that certain large employers such as the Civil Service, NHS and HSBC had pledged to recruit on a ‘name blind’ basis for certain roles. The intention is to reduce discrimination in the recruitment process and lead to better diversity in the workforce.  But is there a problem in the first place and if so, does ‘name blind’ recruitment really work?

During his speech to Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron referred toresearch which demonstrated that job applicants with ‘white sounding names’ are twice as likely to get a call back about a job than those with non-white sounding names. That statistic is persuasive in demonstrating that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. It also highlights that employers are not necessarily hiring the best talent available which inevitably impacts on business performance.

The business case for improving diversity is compelling. Evidence published by McKinsey this year shows that diverse businesses tend to perform better. McKinsey indicates that: ‘companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians’.

Improving diversity and eliminating discrimination appears to be high on the UK Government’s agenda.

By removing names from job applications, it is hoped any unconscious bias or overt discrimination in the first stage of the selection process will be eliminated.

But that will only take employers so far; once that initial sift of job applications has been carried out on a ‘name blind’ basis, the applicant’s gender, race and age will generally be identifiable at the later stages of the recruitment process. 

However, removing discrimination from those initial stages could make a real difference if it allows job applicants to get a critical ‘foot in the door’. It is likely to make the most difference for employers that have objective, measurable, competency-based selection processes as there is less scope for discrimination to creep back in at a later stage.

The extent to which this effort is successful in opening the door to a more diverse workforce will be interesting to observe. If it makes a real difference it is not inconceivable this voluntary measure may become mandatory. Experiences from other countries have provided some support for name blind recruitment in improving the interview prospects for those from minority backgrounds.

Any measure designed to improve diversity is to be welcomed, but the limits of this pledge are evident. The commitment made by employers to date is entirely voluntary and even those who have committed to blind recruitment have decided to use it only in relation to roles at certain levels – the Civil Service for example has excluded some senior roles from its ambit. It is arguable that it is at the top tiers of management where businesses tend to have the biggest diversity issues – yet these are exempt.

The current take-up of the pledge is also limited. The organisations include employers that employ 1.8 million people in the UK in total. That represents less than 6 per cent of the UK workforce. But it’s a step in the right direction and we should not underestimate its significance.

The UK Government’s endorsement of blind recruitment could raise the bar in terms of what recruitment processes are considered best practice in large organisations.

That cultural change could make more difference than any legislation.

Blind recruitment does not have to end with the removal of names – the possibilities are endless. Deloitte announced fairly recently that it had decided to remove school and university information from CVs to improve diversity. It is also using a ‘contextualised recruitment process’ allowing recruiters to understand the context in which examination results have been gained. 

Blind recruitment is gaining momentum as part of a re-think of the recruitment process. It will be interesting to see where we go next. 

Elaine McIlroy is a partner and employment law specialist at Weightmans (Scotland) LLP www.weightmans.com