Anonymous Job Applications: The Next Step Towards Bias-Free Hiring

What can employers do to find the best talent while avoiding discrimination or bias in their hiring practices? This article looks at evidence of subconscious bias in hiring and what employers around the world are doing to circumvent these biases. 

By Bonnie Mah, Maytree

Last month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission confirmed that requiring a job applicant to have “Canadian experience” is discriminatory. This has prompted a renewed discussion on discrimination in hiring, and what employers can do to find the best talent while respecting the rights of job applicants.

anon-jobs-postIt’s time to consider anonymous job applications.

Unconscious bias based on applicants’ names

2011 Canadian study (PDF) found that resumes with English-sounding names were 35% more likely to get call-backs from employers than resumes with Chinese- or Indian-sounding names, despite having identical qualifications and experience.

In the same study, when recruiters were interviewed about their choices, many pointed to concerns about the language and social skills of applicants with non-English names, even when a resume showed Canadian education and work experience. The study suggests that non-English names triggered the recruiters’ implicit or subconscious biases about “foreign” applicants. This led recruiters to overweigh their concerns without fully considering the applicants’ qualifications or information that would offset those concerns.

Anonymous job applications can help

The good news is that employers can reduce subconscious biases in their hiring processes by using anonymous application approaches. In this approach, applicants do not provide personal information on their job applications, or it is hidden from reviewers.

A Swedish study looked at the outcomes of an anonymous applications pilot program (PDF) at a large public sector employer. In this pilot program, the employer asked applicants to certain positions to complete an anonymous application form.

The form instructed the applicant to provide information on education, work experience and current employment, but not to include any information that would reveal their ethnic origin or their gender. The form specifically instructed applicants not to identify the university they attended, as this could indicate ethnic origin or immigrant status.

The study found that when the employer used these anonymous applications, ethnic minorities and women were substantially more likely to be selected for an interview.

Similarly, “blind” audition processes for orchestras – where the musician-applicant performs behind a screen – have been a boon for women. One study (PDF) found that since the widespread adoption of blind auditions in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of women in orchestras has increased significantly, and that the screen increases the chance that a woman will advance out of the preliminary audition rounds by 50%.

For online applications, it is easy to remove personal information such as names and street addresses and replace these with a number or other unique identifier for the first round(s) of screening. For “paper” or email applications, applicants could be asked to put personal information at the end of the resume, so that it will be the last, rather than the first, thing that the employer sees.

These practices aren’t perfect. Candidates will eventually meet the employer in person (or by video), at which point overt or subconscious biases can come into play. But getting past on-paper first impressions is a step in the right direction.

Focus on what matters

By helping employers focus on what matters most – the applicant’s ability to do the job – anonymous job applications can circumvent subconscious biases that can get in the way of good decision-making.

In some places in the world, applicants list their age, marital status, political affiliation and attach a photo with their resume. Canadian employers already recognize that this kind of personal information will not tell them anything meaningful about how the applicant will do the job.

Leading employers around the world are starting to test anonymous job applications, and diversity experts are calling for their use.

It’s time for Canadian employers to take the next step. Anonymous job application processes can help employers overcome subconscious bias to find the best, most qualified person for the job.

Related:

With the new Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policy on removing the “Canadian experience barrier” Ratna Omidvar, President of Maytree, provides practical examples that employers can use to assess competencies of a potential candidate.

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