Should you be using anonymous job applications?

The Equality Act became law in October 2010 to ensure consistency in what employers and employees need to do to make the workplace a fair environment and comply with the law [1].

Organisations are increasingly relying on anonymous job applications to reduce discrimination and bias in the initial shortlisting stage of recruitment.

Anonymous job applications are a simple and straightforward practice during the initial step of the hiring process: applicants will not be asked their name, gender or education history at application stage in order to protect their identity with the aim to reduce discrimination and bias.

Names and education history can give a clue as to the applicant’s ethnicity, gender or economical background, hence why organisations are increasingly allowing candidates to omit this information.

WHY REDUCE DISCRIMINATION IN THE APPLICATION STAGE OF HIRING?

Discrimination is not only unfair to the applicants that experience it, but it is also economically disadvantageous to organisations that put barriers in place. A 2015 study warned that Britain’s biggest companies are missing out on business opportunities because of ‘the diversity deficit’ at the top, where only a handful of senior roles are held by women or ethnic minorities [2].

Differing levels of callbacks following initial application submission have been documented from minority or other disadvantaged groups, such as immigrants and women [3], revealing the need for the hiring process to change.

HOW CAN ANONYMOUS APPLICATIONS HELP REDUCE BIAS?

The underlying hypothesis is that the less information available to recruiters on applicants, the wider the choices that can be made – particularly in the initial stage of the hiring process.

By reducing – or entirely eliminating – discrimination in your shortlisting process, you can establish that those successful for interview are qualified or skilled to be in line with your organisation’s aims. Furthermore, you demonstrate your organisation’s commitment to equality which can encourage further minority applications for future vacancies, broadening the diversity in your organisation even further.

THE DIFFERENCES GLOBALLY ARE STARK

European and North American countries compare well in terms of general antidiscrimination policies, but this is very different in some Asian countries. Whereas explicitly reserving a job for a person of a specific race or gender has been illegal in the US since the 1960s, asking for very detailed personal information can be standard in many Asian countries – this can include segregating by gender, smoking or drinking habits, height and weight, blood type and financial status [3]!

Whilst European and North American employers may not be as forthcoming as this, the information they gather from candidates can hint at the individual’s personal situation – including marital status and future family plans. Furthermore, information about two characteristics that are central to any debate surrounding hiring discrimination – gender and place of birth – can often be deduced or assumed by the applicant’s name [3].

WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT OF ANONYMOUS JOB APPLICATIONS?

You cannot expect your anonymous job application process to immediately remedy the diversity in your organisations; ultimately, candidates’ identities are revealed once they are bought into the room to interview face-to-face at the latest. Discrimination can therefore simply be postponed to this later stage in the hiring process if recruiters consciously – or unconsciously – discriminate against minority candidates.

In this instance, whilst minority candidates may benefit from higher callback rates regarding their application, their job offer rates may not necessarily improve with the introduction of anonymous applications – anonymous applications rely on prejudices playing a more important role in document-based decision-making than discrimination based on an individual’s appearance.

However, employers must be conscious that document-based prejudice can influence the demographics of individuals bought in to interview; Chinese applicants must submit 68% more applications to get an interview than those with Anglo-Saxon names. People with Middle Eastern names must submit 64% more, Indigenous 35% more and Italian 12% more [4].

If these individuals had an equal chance to enter the interview room, the hiring manager may make their decision based on the individual in front of them – and their associated skills, experience and personability.

WHY MIGHT ANONYMOUS APPLICATIONS SKEW RESULTS NEGATIVELY?

For those of foreign origin or those from underprivileged upbringings, anonymous applications prove to be counter-productive; positive-discrimination allowances cannot be made for lower qualifications or forgivable faults due to disadvantaged backgrounds.

In these instances, context-specific information may be necessary in order to interpret it fairly; information may be interpreted disadvantageously if the candidate’s identity or background is unknown.

Similarly, some organisations may prefer to have a larger number of candidates from minority or disadvantaged groups in the initial shortlisting stage, in order to improve diversity at interview level. Anonymous job applications can block positive action by employers.

Moreover, some application questions can be deemed necessary by employers to protect their employees for health-related matters for example; employers can determine whether an applicant can carry out functions essential to the role, and whether ‘positive action’ can be taken to aid a disabled candidate’s application to ensure equal opportunities [1].

HOW TO USE ANONYMOUS APPLICATIONS POSITIVELY

It is largely agreed across the industry that anonymous application processes needn’t be introduced unless your organisation has a specific diversity problem. Anonymous applications could have the opposite effect, with those requiring supported applications excluded from your hiring process.

An applicant tracking system (ATS) can aid you by opening up vacancies to a wider audience through social sharing, allowing you to advertise your role consistently across a wide range of sites, enabling people from all background to view your vacancy – from traditional job seekers to social media users. This will expand your potential candidate reach, allowing you to match your organisations with candidates that may not find your vacancy in the traditional manner.

Similarly, an ATS can anonymise applicants automatically, ensuring that those that are selected for interview are not benefiting from unconscious bias. Their skills and experience will be shared to the hiring manager and HR, but their personal details omitted from their application, ensuring that they are shortlisted through merit alone.

[1] Acas, The Equality Act 2010
[2] Acas, ‘Prevent discrimination: Support equality’, June 2018
[3] World of Labor, Ulf Rinne, ‘Anonymous job applications and hiring discrimination’
[4] Alison Booth, ‘Job hunt success is all in a name’, 4 March 2013

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