· Features

What's in a name?

We're taught not to judge a book by its cover, but what about by its title? Name-blind recruitment could improve ethnic diversity

In October prime minister David Cameron held a meeting at Downing Street with some of the UK’s most celebrated business leaders. They were in agreement: tackling discrimination and celebrating difference is in the interest of UK plc. “If you don’t deal with the issue of discrimination you can never have true opportunity – which is what we all want to see,” Cameron said.

Organisations represented at the event included Deloitte, HSBC, KPMG, the NHS and the BBC, all of whom pledged to introduce ‘name-blind recruitment’, which means that jobseekers’ names will no longer be seen by recruiters. Cameron also announced that UCAS, the UK’s university admissions service, will accept name-blind applications from 2017.

The case for taking action was quite clear. Many studies have shown a correlation between ‘ethnic-sounding names’ and a lack of success in job applications. Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US found that jobseekers with white names needed to send about 10 CVs to get one call back. Those with African-American names needed to send around 15.

With the so-called ‘war for talent’ continuing to rage the reasoning is clear: UK organisations need as wide a pool of talent, and as much diversity, as possible to thrive. And this is being jeopardised before the candidate even walks through the door.

Emma Codd, managing partner for talent at Deloitte, says it’s about time companies took a long, hard look in the mirror. “We’d always assumed bias was most likely to kick in during a face-to-face interview but actually that’s not the case. It can still happen there – so we’ve trained people to make sure they’re aware of unconscious bias – but we wanted to make sure there was no bias when the CV or application hits the desk,” she says.

The first step for Deloitte was taking out references to applicants’ places of study, known as ‘institution-blind’ recruitment. It’s also in the process of introducing contextualised recruitment in partnership with Rare Recruitment. “This enables us to look at somebody’s A-level results in the context of various socio-economic factors. Somebody who got three Bs at a school where three Ds is the norm is – to us – extraordinary,” explains Codd.

Once the rollout of contextualised recruitment is complete, Deloitte will begin implementing these name-blind recruitment practices by the end of July 2016, says Codd.

While Deloitte is in the early stages, other organisations are considerably further along the adoption curve. Law firm Baker & McKenzie, which is also introducing contextualised recruitment, has been name-blind since 2007. “We focused on looking at how many BME graduates were applying to us and how many were successful, and we analysed statistics around that. Then we had a big plan to try and ensure we were getting more people applying to us and that we were converting those into jobs,” says Sarah Gregory, inclusion and diversity partner at Baker & McKenzie.

It’s fair to say it has been a successful programme so far: the number of BME new starters was 3% 10 years ago – it’s now around 30%.

The NHS isn’t new to name-blind recruiting either. But chief people officer Stephen Moir admits that it can be challenging to implement, particularly at smaller organisations. “We’ve got the advantage of a very well developed national jobs portal, with all of the necessary back office support behind it,” he says. “I recognise for some organisations that would be a huge investment in technology and particularly for a small to medium enterprise it might not be feasible to have that type of technology in place.”

He cautions that name-blind recruiting is not entirely foolproof. “While the recruitment process is name-blind, people can still make assumptions based on information. They might be able to look on an application form at the date people completed qualifications, for example, and guess age. Or you could look at where they’ve been educated and infer nationality or ethnicity based on school or university.”

Moir recognises that name-blind application processes are not a panacea but says they’re a good place to start. “It’s not a complete solution but it’s certainly a big step change to what many hiring managers would have experienced in the past,” he says.

Gregory agrees: “Contextual recruitment and name-blind recruitment are very important parts of widening the pool who apply to us but it needs to be sitting alongside a whole raft of other things, such as unconscious bias training and involving more junior staff in interviews to put candidates at ease,” she says. “There’s no silver bullet.”