NEW POLL: is it time to make job applications anonymous?

by Stephen Tall on July 2, 2009

Followers of Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone’s blog can’t have failed to notice her latest campaign – to bring in mandatory anonymous job applications “to end the subliminal discrimination that creeps in with some applications being discarded because of the names on them.” Specifically Lynne wants employers to remove names and replace them with a number on application letters/forms – otherwise “we end up with people not being discarded from the first sift of applications because their name shows they are black, female or old”. Lynne explained further:

… initial findings [from research by the Department of Work & Pensions] are of significant discrimination. And whilst it is clearly early days and the DWP is going to do more work – it seems clear to me that – first – those who argued there isn’t a problem which needs fixing in particular need to look very closely at what the DWP has been finding, and second – here is a simple proposal which costs business nothing but could actually deliver enormous benefits in removing discrimination in the job market.

Removing such discrimination is not only important in itself – but by providing people with equal opportunities to earn their living, it opens up all sorts of other knock-on benefits in terms of social cohesion and economic efficiency, which we all benefit from.

What do Lib Dem Voice readers think? Is Lynne right to pursue this campaign as the party’s equalities spokesperson? Or do you think it’s unworkable – and, if so, why? Here’s the question:
Do you support the idea of job applications being made anonymous?

And here are your options:

  • Yes, it should be made mandatory for all businesses to remove all discrimination
  • Yes, but it should be voluntary not mandatory for businesses
  • No, this is an unnecessary measure
  • Other [please state in comments]
  • Don’t know
  • Feel free to continue the debate in the comments thread below…

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    While it may prevent discrimination at the interview selection stage, it will not prevent discrimination at interview.
    Furthermore, to be totally anonymous, the applicants CV or application form would have to contain no address, names or dates of previous employers or places of further education.
    I think this means that an anonymous application is rather, well…pointless.

    by jay on July 2, 2009 at 10:40 am. Reply #

    Surely the poll misses the point. Discrimination on grounds of sex, religion and ethnicity is already outlawed, what Lynne is proposing is a mechanism to help remove subliminal discrimination by allowing a more level playing field at the fist stage of the process, based on the research done at DWP.

    It does not mean, as Jay implies above, that the whole interview process is carried out anonymously! It is simply to ensure that everyone has a chance of an interview without regard to their ethnicity or gender.

    So the poll ought to be specifically about this measure, not about discrimination generally.

    by Nigel Quinton on July 2, 2009 at 11:13 am. Reply #

    I’ve steadiy come to the opinion that all anti-discrimination legilsation, unless where the state itself using our money is one of the the principals in the transaction, is wrong.

    We all discriminate on all sorts of grounds. And, for example, a logical corollary of outlawing someone discriminating against me in the provision of goods, services or obtaining a job on the grounds of my sexuality is to outlaw me discriminating when obtaining those goods services or jobs. It is an affront to the liberal notion of free association.

    It is addressing a symptom and not the problem. The symptom being that, in the case of employment, there is too much power to the employer and not enough to the employee – sytemically – companies are inherently hierarchical and therefore coercive.

    In the ideal liberal world, from the ideas of people like Benjamin Tucker and Joseph-Pierre Proudhon, the worker would receive full value for his or her labour because profit would have been squeexed out by proper competition. Interference in proper competition is what the state does best and then has to put things right by way of stuff like anti-discrimination legislation.

    Without such interference, and without having taken such a large proportion of the value of our labour to fund the state, amongst other things, the worker would be more likely to have the financial independence to say “sod you” to a prospective employer knowing their prejudices not having them hidden from them.

    I voted “no” with some trepidation thinking that Liberal democrats would be wholheartedly supporting this kind of cuddly sounding initiative, but am pleased to see that the “noes” are in the lead – so I can’t be all that way off beam.

    by Jock on July 2, 2009 at 12:06 pm. Reply #

    I voted “Yes, but non compulsory”. Which effectively is the current state of affairs. It’s a perfectly good idea to spread around, for businesses who may not have thought of it, but it’s not a matter for legislation. Not surprised it got such a good hearing on Illiberal Conspiracy.

    by Alix on July 2, 2009 at 12:47 pm. Reply #

    What utter nonsense.

    I suppose you could have anonymity at interviews by requiring everyone to wear a balaclava (or niqab) and speaking into a voice synthesiser type thing to disguise the sound.

    The fact that this is being put forward by a usually sensible MP is a real indicator that the whole world is going daft.

    Tony Greaves

    by Tony Greaves on July 2, 2009 at 1:01 pm. Reply #

    A couple of points I would raise. Firstly, “significant discrimination” is vague; just how extensive is it. We’ve seen enough legislative sledgehammers being used to crack rather small nuts in recent years.

    It is also worth considering whether the DWP survey reinforces previous evidence.

    Interestingly, while there is some evidence for discrimination based on ethnicity, “Blind Trials” (as they are called) suggest that there in fact is no discrimination based on gender. The Gender Pay Gap is therefore definitely not due to discrimination.

    by Tom Papworth on July 2, 2009 at 1:20 pm. Reply #

    Editor’s note: I’ve added in a sentence to make it absolutely crystal clear that Lynne was referring to the anonymity of job applications at the written letter/form stage – have to say, I’d thought that was self-explanatory, but clearly not!

    by Stephen Tall on July 2, 2009 at 1:21 pm. Reply #

    “Followers of Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone’s blog can’t have failed to notice her latest campaign…”

    I’m not sure you meant to say that, Stephen!

    It sounds a bit like “Followers of popular music can’t have failed to notice the new single by T’Pau…”

    by Tom Papworth on July 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm. Reply #

    Hang on. I’ve misread that, haven’t I?

    Apologies. Do feel free to delete that comment :o)

    by Tom Papworth on July 2, 2009 at 1:29 pm. Reply #

    I like the idea of having interviews conducted by Kte Adey in a darkened room with an “actor’s voice” and the interviewee silhouetted against the nate curtains, Tony!

    by Jock on July 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm. Reply #

    I’m a bit confused about how this could possibly work, speaking as someone who works in the recruitment industry.

    So, I stick in an ad in the local paper, the candidates send in their CVs with the names and contact information redacted because that’s the law. I decide I like a couple of the CVs. Then what? I can’t contact the applicant because I don’t know who he is.

    And what happens when John Smith phones up and says, “I hear you’ve got a vacancy and I’m interested.”

    Do I reply, “I’m sorry, I can’t consider you because you’ve told me who you are.”

    This sounds more like something Gordon Stalin-Bean should be expected to come up with.

    by Darren Reynolds on July 2, 2009 at 4:46 pm. Reply #

    I’m quite a big fan of anonymity/pseudonymity as far as it goes, but the question must be how far should it go.

    I think Jock has a point that we would be be living in a hollow valueless society if we weren’t able to discriminate at all on the basis of talent, while Darren also has a point that it is impossible to separate a person from their actions.

    So any changes to the law must remain focussed on the practical actions which can be taken to simplify the application process to the benefit of both employers and employees by concentrating on relevant and useful details only.

    by Oranjepan on July 2, 2009 at 6:10 pm. Reply #

    Darren: the short answer is that some firms do this at the moment, so it must be possible!

    A longer answer: here’s one way. Applications come in with name and contact details on covering letter/sheet. Someone in the firm assigns a reference number to each application, writing it on the application and cover sheet. Cover sheet is then detached. Applications are reviewed, decisions made about who to interview. Names and contact details are then looked up via the reference number.

    by Mark Pack on July 2, 2009 at 6:58 pm. Reply #

    We anonymise job applications at work and it works very well. Of course you can’t take it one stage further and have anonymised interviews, but it focuses the attention on the candidate’s qualities rather than, say, whether they are already known within the organisation.

    I voted yes – compulsory although I’m not sure I would be that inflexible. We’re a tiny organisation and if we can do it, anyone can. Even – *gasp* – Tony Greaves!

    by James Graham on July 2, 2009 at 7:16 pm. Reply #

    This might be the basis of a fun question to ask the FFAC at autumn conference.

    by James Graham on July 2, 2009 at 7:17 pm. Reply #

    Whilst I can appreciate that immediate assumptions to an individual’s name may be outweighed by their preformance in interview or other inate qualities, this appears to be a cross between a daffodil suggestion (Quakers will get the reference) and suggestive of an underlying lack of trust for other humans.

    There are doubtless patterns of discrimination against named ethnic or social or gender groups, but Featherstone should provide evidence of a clear and pronounced bias before she suggests that whole swathes of the employer community are unable to make rational and dispassionate decisions. In statistic terms, significant does not necessarily mean lots and lots and lots.

    Those posters citing examples of their own companies are, well, citing examples of individual companies which may have their own unique social ecologies set-up. A manager or team leader would be quite likely to know of an applicant through personal or professional reputation, rather than if they’re called Sarah or Jimshaed.

    >> we end up with people not being discarded from the first sift of applications because their name shows they are black, female or old.

    Their *name* could be guaranteed only to suggest they’re female. Is these are the best crafted words she can come up with in support of her argument, she should have a re-think.

    by Efrafan Days on July 2, 2009 at 8:15 pm. Reply #

    Aye- we should be able to send in applications under pseudonyms 🙂

    by asquith on July 2, 2009 at 8:58 pm. Reply #

    I think the comments show just how much importance we do place on knowing names and just how much we tell from our analysis of a name. We feel uncomfortable about the idea of not putting our name on an application as if it robs us of identity. But, if it is proven that there is real and significant bias subliminally because of a name – I would have thought removing it just for that initial application, as we do with children taking exams who are issued with an exam number, would be a helpful move – and just for once – one that has no cost to business. Of course – not a panacea and a lot of work to be done – but this could mean a real step change to employment prospects for those who currently are left wondering why they get rejection after rejection without interview despite excellent qualifications or experience.

    by lynne featherstone on July 3, 2009 at 8:10 am. Reply #

    As an examiner I am used to marking exam scripts with a number at the top. Then, at the end, when the marks are all agreed and the candidates degree class worked out, the names are revealed. We could easily do the same for job applications.

    One area where I definitely think it would be worth doing is univ applications. Maybe subconsciously I am biased for or against one group or another, and having just a number rather than the person’s name would eliminate that risk. It is a risk I would like to see eliminated.

    Academic articles are also submitted to the editor with a name, but to referees without names. It works reasonably well, although inevitably as a referee you sometimes know who wrote it – as you will with job applications, if the field is small and specialised.

    (“I would like to apply for the job of Prime Minister. I think that my experience as Chancellor over the last ten years, along with my Scottish background…”

    by tim leunig on July 4, 2009 at 8:54 pm. Reply #

    “It is an affront to the liberal notion of free association.”

    If you allow employers to discriminate, then you end up with the vast majority of those employed being white, middle class people. Non-white people wouldn’t get employed by the employer of their choice, even if they were the most qualified. If they did get a job (and weren’t forced into extended unemployment), it would be a job that wasn’t the one they wanted, again, even if though they might be better than that. It would almost likely be lower paid, longer hours, and overall worse working conditions. But they would need work, so they couldn’t exactly turn that job down.

    That’s not the liberal notion of freedom of association. That’s freedom of association for companies and “favoured ethnicities” (i.e. whites), and no freedom of association for everyone else, particularly ethnic minorities.

    by Alex on July 7, 2009 at 1:38 am. Reply #

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