‘Name blind’ recruiting less critical than unconscious bias training

By David Donaldson

Monday February 22, 2016

Where the British civil service forges a path Australia tends to follow — but maybe not on the issue of tackling discrimination in job applications.

With studies showing employers are less likely to call back job applicants with non-Anglo-sounding names and the UK civil service moving towards “name blind” applications, should Australian public services start recruiting on an anonymised basis?

No, says the head of Victoria’s public service, Chris Eccles.

Findings vary, but it is clear discrimination in hiring continues. One 2010 study, for example, found that to attain as many interviews as an Anglo applicant, an Italian person must submit 12% more job applications, an Indigenous person 35%, a Middle Eastern person 64%, and a Chinese person 68% more.

Recognising a similar problem in the UK, the British civil service committed late last year to introducing name blind recruitment for all jobs below senior civil service level. In the UK, other large organisations such as KPMG, HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money, the BBC and the NHS have vowed to do the same.

“It is a serious issue and the Victorian Public Sector Commission is looking at everything that is associated with our recruitment practices in the VPS.”

This means recruiters drawing up candidate shortlists are unable to see applicants’ names, in theory reducing ethnic and gender discrimination. Some studies say it makes no difference, and it’s not fail-safe — knowledge of a foreign language or school can give away details of ethnic minority status, or time out can indicate maternity leave. But some studies suggest it improves the number of interviews and jobs offered.

At Victoria’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee last week, Labor MP Steve Dimopoulos noted the “profound discrimination” found in the hiring practices of many Australian workplaces.

“I’d love to see an opportunity where you had no name on an application for the Victorian Public Service,” he told the secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

But Eccles is not keen on the idea, responding that dealing with the root cause of the problem might be a better way to do it.

“I haven’t given any thought to the de-identification of applications. I think our preference might be to work to address the problem, to deal with the issue of bias rather than the more direct approach that you’ve identified,” he said.

“It’d make an interesting situation in an interview. You’d call them candidate A or candidate B,” Eccles quipped.

“All joking aside, it is a serious issue and the Victorian Public Sector Commission is looking at everything that is associated with our recruitment practices in the VPS. Within that is very much the issue of unconscious bias.”

In his experience as a male champion of change and conducting focus groups on lived experience of discrimination with aspiring executive men and women, Eccles said, “even in what I would hope is a progressive organisation, bias appears in subtle ways”.

Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Belinda Clark recently attributed an jump in the number of women in executive positions down in part to work to increased awareness of unconscious bias in the workplace.

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