Lynne Featherstone

MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

my blog
Lynne's Parliament and Haringey Diary, established 2003

What’s in a name?

Here’s my latest column from the Ham & High:

I had two interns a while back whose surnames were Hussein and Patel. They were bright as buttons and went on to get very good jobs – one at the Ministry of Defence and the other in public relations.

Prior to coming to my office they told me that they had applied for hundreds of jobs but not even got through to the interview stage. Now much as I’d like to hope that my interns get valuable experience – after all, that is the point – it was a striking change that once they’d got “worked for an MP” to put on their CV they suddenly got much more interest from would-be employers.

So that got met thinking that there might be a discard of applications because of an unconscious bias – a bias that is only beaten back when there’s a strong contrary hook in the CV for people to latch on to. If that’s the case, then the answer is simply – move to anonymous job applications where the application is processed, at least until interview stage, using a reference number with the name withheld.

Without a name the ethnicity, gender and age of the applicant would be hidden – and the application would be judged on its merit in terms of qualifications and experience. Of course, when it comes to interview, all would be revealed. But once an applicant is in the room – they’ve got a chance to show what they’re made of.

We give children numbers to write on their exam papers to ensure that there is absolutely no bias in marking. This is really the same kind of thing. And it’s also what some employers do at the moment.

I floated my thesis in the second reading of the Equality Bill and it caused quite a hoo ha in the employment world. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development supported the idea – although did not believe it should be mandatory. Some in the human resource industry thought it was a stupid idea – though I was a bit surprised that some said it couldn’t be done, given some firms are doing this already!

Undeterred, at the Committee stage of the Bill I tabled an amendment that would see this brought into law. The Solicitor General, Vera Baird (Labour Minister) – after sneering for a bit as is apparently mandatory when a good idea comes from an opposition MP – admitted that the Department of Work and Pensions was doing some survey work to find out if my theory was correct. She said she was sorry to tantalise the committee as the work would not be finished until the summer – but initial findings showed ‘significant discrimination’.

I was really excited – because if there is a big problem here – then the use of anonymous CVs is a really simple, effective (and low cost!) way of fixing it. And so many benefits flow from removing discrimination in the job market in terms of opening up opportunities and spreading wealth – brining pluses such as greater social cohesion and economic efficiency which we all benefit from.

Then the Mail on Sunday gets the wrong end of the stick and blasts the Government for carrying out this research. Well excuse me – but research to see if a change in the law is required sounds pretty sensible to me – especially on an issue as important as discrimination in employment practices. The Mail quoted various grumpy employers not liking the idea that research is being done to check whether discrimination is taking place – but if that’s the case they shouldn’t have anything to fear from the research. And a smart employer would also know the depth of scientific research that already exists into the myriad of subtle ways that biases and discrimination can creep into human decision-making processes – as seen in bestselling books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Blimey – this is a proposal that actually won’t cost business any money and might drastically improve the situation for applicants for jobs – bringing fairness and equality – and still they moan.

So what’s in a name? Quite a lot!

Thu 9 July 2009
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Comments

  1. Martin Bailey says:

    Ah, yes: making job applications anonymous might well help reduce discrimination on various negative grounds: sex and ethnicity are the most obvious.

    It is also apparent that discriminating against otherwise suitable candidates on grounds of age can have very serious consequences both for individuals and society at large. How on earth can we raise the minimum age for state pensions IF we continue to allow employers to get rid of workers (and refuse to employ others) simply on grounds of age? Why should it be legal to refuse employment to a fit 66 year old just because he or she is above a certain arbitrary age? Let alone fit people in their fifties?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Equality based on CV….in the arts council I was finally employed by working my way up slowly but surely. There I met people who had got in on a CV – Oxford/CaMBRIDGE, INTERNSHIPS with auntie/or a pal of …and frankly the CV is an indication of how 'class'is now replaced by "money". So had I got a scholarship to a private girls school I would be in a better job, and so when I worked for managers who had got jobs on this basis and managers who were political appointments such as black and minority ethnic specialists, for example, the overriding issue of how well and apt someone is to do a job was then based on who daddy knew and whether the minister was David Lammy, a strong advocate of equality based on race (as opposed to gender/disability/social class/ age) at the time. The personnel managers are employed to give the job to whoever their manager wants, and so on paper you will see nothing but over a period of ten years you will see a workforce/contractors/consultants change to whichever managers agenda. I think the Blairite world is too based on 'preference' to the CV and not to experience for doing a job – for your blank CV to have any relationship to 'equality'. Just look at the BBC – obsessing about being "hideously white" but not "hideously middleclass and rich mostly public school boy yuppies".

  3. Alan J Williams says:

    Hi Lynne,
    Just read your piece on What's in a name. Brilliant. If this improvement can be made it will remove quite a stain on our reputation for fairness.
    All the best,
    Alan J Williams

  4. Anonymous says:

    okay the person gets to the interveiw then his interveiwer prefers somone from the same type tribe colour ect. what then .also all races do it . human nature is basicly like that.they employ cousins aunties same tribe and its across the board all races do it. some are above such sillyness but most are not.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think it is a quite fantastic idea – it's a total contrast to most of Lynne's other musings on the subject.

    Anonymous applications would put a stop to genuine discrimination and give people much more chance of equal opportunities in the workplace.

    Lynne's scheme wouldn't just put a stop to discrimination by BNP sympathising employers or just misogynistic men as Lynee seems to be suggesting. It would equally hamper racist ethnic minorities employers (eg those on Bristol council who think only white people can be racist) and it would also help to stop sexism by militant feminists (Patricia Hewitt comes to mind as she was of course found guilty of sex discrimination a while back).

    One study in this area I noticed Lynne has not cited is the one by Portsmouth Businesss school which also sent out large numbers of fake applications.

    Whilst they found significant discrimination against women in engineering posts, there was also a great deal of discrimination against men who applied for accountancy, computer analyst and secretarial roles.

    Perhaps Lynne has kept this one quiet because she knows that if Baird found out the scheme might actually help men too and actually mean even female candidates had to be selected on merit then she'd dismiss it instantly and probably try to make it illegal!

    People like Baird really aren't interested in equal opportunities, they just want equal outcomes regardless of the consequences where people can be employeed soley due to their ethnicity/gender rather than merit or suitability for the task. I think perhaps in Baird's bizarre world, equal opportunites and equal outcomes are somehow exactly the same thing!

  6. dreamingspire says:

    How often do we hear that job vacancies require candidates to have prior relevant experience? The simple fact of being an intern in a well respected MP's office would, I suggest, have a lot of influence on the selection panel. Your comment, Lynne, is rather too subjective.

  7. Lynne Featherstone MP says:

    Dreamingspire – if you read what I have written you will see I make exactly that point – that my interns were fine because they could put that they were working for an MP on their applications forms and this was why they suddenly started getting interviews and jobs – contrasted with before when they didn.t.

  8. [...] answers include the name-blank employment policy pioneered by Lynne (to avoid subconscious bias at early stages in the recruitment process) and are laid out in the [...]

  9. [...] Lynne explained in a newspaper column back in 2009 the logic is this – blanking out names on job applications would remove subconscious [...]

  10. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

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