‘Name blind’ recruiting to undo unconscious bias in Victoria

By David Donaldson

Friday May 20, 2016

Minister for Multicultural Affairs Robin Scott at the launch of Recruit Smarter.

A Victorian pilot program will scrub job applications of name and gender to combat unconscious bias. Two key departments, DPC and DTF, Victoria Police and others have signed on, but views are mixed on if it works.

The Victorian government is leading an effort to eliminate unconscious bias in recruiting with an 18-month pilot of “name blind” job applications across a range of private and public sector organisations.

The Recruit Smarter pilot will assess which personal details — including name, gender, age and location — should be de-identified during the application process.

Participating organisations will include the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Treasury and Finance, WorkSafe, Victoria Police, Australia Post, Westpac, the Transport Accident Commission and VicRoads (full list below).

Unconscious bias in recruiting remains a problem. A 2010 paper found that to attain as many interviews as an Anglo job 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, the NHS, BBC and a range of private organisations have vowed to do the same.

Apart from ensuring basic fairness, there may actually be benefits to workforce diversity: one study showed higher executive and board diversity in companies produced returns on equity an average of 53% higher and gross earnings 14% higher than those with low levels of diversity.

Over the next three months, a group of public and private sector representatives led by DPC will:

  • develop an implementation plan to scope and define the pilot
  • identify training requirements and other materials
  • develop an evaluation tool to assess the outcomes of the pilot

The government would be flexible about how exactly the pilot is implemented, especially for those outside the private sector, says Minister for Multicultural Affairs Robin Scott.

The government will also allocate $200,000 to NGOs and the private sector to provide training to address hiring biases.

Scott said unconscious bias was an issue close to his heart.

“My own wife has experienced the issue. She has a beautiful Chinese name, Wu Shaojie, but in English people find it difficult to pronounce and often something that’s a bit foreign,” he explained.

“So when she was putting job applications in, even in a public sector context, she found it very difficult to get job interviews or further in the process. And interestingly when she anglicised her name and called herself Jade Scott … almost instantaneously there was a change in response. This is essentially the same CV, the same material going out.

Recruit Smarter is also the first of its kind in Australia.

“I believe in an Australia where someone’s age, background, postcode, gender or wealth doesn’t determine your chance for a fair go,” he said.

“This initiative is the first of its kind in Australia, and an important step towards equality of opportunity in our workforce. We want employers from across the public and private sector to sign up to creating a level playing field for all Victorians.”

But is it better than unconscious bias training?

The initiative comes after secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles expressed scepticism about name blind recruiting in a committee hearing earlier this year.

While acknowledging unconscious bias as a problem, Eccles said he preferred a more systemic approach:

“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 told Labor MP Steve Dimopoulos, who suggested the idea.

Indeed, it’s difficult to be certain whether it works. It’s been tried in a few European countries and some studies say it makes no difference. Discrimination may come back in at the interview stage, where personal identity obviously can’t be masked. Knowledge of a foreign language or school can give away details of ethnic minority status, or time out can indicate maternity leave.

meta-analysis by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor of a number of European trials concluded it “can prevent discrimination in the initial stage of recruitment” and “may boost job offer rates for minority candidates”. The announcement of such a policy is good news either way, it concluded, as “anonymous job applications signal a strong employer commitment to focus solely on skills and qualifications.”

The institute also warned that sub-par implementation of blind recruiting processes “can be costly, time-consuming, and error-prone.”

The government will evaluate the pilot to see how effective it is, according to the minister.

It’s the latest attempt to do-over public sector recruitment processes, with the Northern Territory and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet trying out single page applications — though some are concerned this could exacerbate unconscious bias.

Participating agencies and corporates

Apart from government bodies, the initiative will include a range of NGOs and private companies, including several large firms:

  • Australian Industry Group
  • Australia Post
  • Ambulance Victoria
  • Australian Workers Union
  • Centre for Ethical Leadership
  • Community and Public Sector Union
  • Deloitte
  • Department of Premier and Cabinet
  • Department of Treasury and Finance
  • DOW Chemical
  • Ernst & Young
  • Hall & Wilcox
  • Law Institute of Victoria
  • Municipal Association of Victoria
  • University of Melbourne
  • PriceWaterhouseCoopers
  • Publicis Australia
  • Recruitment and Consultancy Services Association
  • The Shannon Company
  • Transport Accident Commission
  • United Energy and Multinet Gas
  • Victoria Police
  • VicRoads
  • Victorian Public Sector Commission
  • Victorian Trades Hall
  • Victorian Public Sector Commission
  • Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
  • Westpac
  • WorkSafe

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