Can you achieve fairness and cut out name bias in recruiting?

Legal experts from Thomson Snell & Passmore LLP explain how to tackle name bias in recruiting, to boost diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

A recent BBC investigation found that job applicants with Muslim sounding names are less likely to be offered a job interview than those with more Christian sounding names. Two applications were sent out to the same 100 employers for the role of business managers. The applications were identical except one featured the first name ‘Adam’ and the other the first name ‘Mohamed.’

The ‘Adam’ application was three times more likely to receive a call back. Previous studies have yielded similar results. A report by the charity Demos in 2015 found that British Muslims are less proportionately represented in managerial and professional occupations than any other religious group.

Workplace discrimination on the basis of race (which includes nationality) or religion is illegal. The Equality Act 2010 forbids employers discriminating against job applicants and employees because of such characteristics. Despite this legal protection though, job applicants rarely claim against employers who fail to offer them a job or interview. It is difficult to prove, without undertaking to send applications with different names, that because of their race or religion, an offer was not forthcoming.

To do this the CVs would need to be identical but for the names.  In the case of Kpakio v Virgin Atlantic Airways Max Kpakio, a black African, applied for a job under his real name, then under the name Craig Owen. The first application was rejected, the second was advanced. The tribunal found that discrimination was not present though because the CVs were filled in differently, with the second featuring more relevant work experience.

Many managers filtering job applications will be familiar with their employer’s equal opportunities policy and discrimination law.  Many will swear blind that no prejudice exists in their recruitment process.

The likely cause of this disadvantage, rather than overt discrimination (although of course this does exist), is unconscious discrimination.  This is an institutionalised issue that must be combatted by innovation.  One technique, which is being implemented on a growing scale, is nameless applications. This involves the employer not knowing the name of the applicant until they are offered an interview. It removes the possibility of those reading applications applying prejudices based on names alone.

Utilising nameless applications gives the employer confidence that they are striving for equality.  It gives he employee reassurance that they will not be judged by their name and the characteristics that it might be presumed to suggest about their race or religion.

Nameless application procedures have been undertaken by the Civil Service, the NHS and the BBC, alongside HSBC and KPMG and many other large scale employers. Deloitte has gone one step further and not only removed applicants’ names from their applications, but also the schools and universities they attended. This, CEO and Senior Partner David Sproul says “ensure that job offers are made on the basis of potential – not ethnicity, gender, or past personal circumstance.”

Everyone can agree that employers should seek to combat any sign of discrimination in their recruitment processes and that a diverse team should aid productivity and a vibrant workplace.  But once the risk of overt discrimination has been reduced, employers need to consider going further and looking at whether their process could be tainted by unconscious discrimination and how this can be eradicated.

Ben Stepney is a senior associate, and Mark Primrose is a trainee solicitor, in the employment team at Thomson Snell & Passmore LLP

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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