One part of the social mobility strategy announced this week is about removing barriers to employment. And I was very pleased to see a very simple idea that I floated during the passage of the Equality Bill (rejected by Labour – surprise) finally find its way into being.
This is a very simply idea for job applications where applicants don’t put their name or school on the application form – using something like their National Insurance number instead – to ensure that judgement is on experience, skills and qualifications in the first sift. The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office introduced the removal of which school the applicant attended in addition to the removal of name – for obvious reasons.
I long ago wrote a column for the Ham & High on this – pasted below.
What’s in a name?
I had two interns a while back whose surnames were Hussein and Patel. They were bright as buttons and of course, because that is the point of interning for an MP, they 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. It wasn’t rocket science to wonder if their surname was a barrier.
So I developed my theory that there might be a subliminal discard of applications because of an unconscious bias of some sort. My suggested proposal to counter any such bias is that we should move to anonymous job applications where the applicant uses something like their National Insurance number instead of their name on written application. 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 – that subliminal discard is out the way – and the force of character takes over. Lord knows, I have been in enough ‘equal ops’ panels interviewing to know that regardless of the scores and the weighting given to questions and answers – it is far more to do with the instincts of the panel about the person – than any of the ‘rules’ of interview. So getting through to the interview is key.
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.
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.
Not deterred by the outrage of the agencies that make a living from examining CVs, finding employees, etc – at Committee stage of the Bill, I tabled an amendment which would see this brought into law. The Solicitor General, Vera Baird (Labour Minister) after sneering for a bit, admitted that the Department of Work and Pensions, since I put the idea forward at second reading, 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 this were to become best practise – this would really blast apart one of the biggest barriers to work that people can experience. So – we will see in the summer where this goes.
Then the Mail on Sunday gets the wrong end of the stick and blasts the government for another bit of work it is clearly doing on the issue. Apparently the DWP sent out two thousand applications with false names to companies to ‘see if they are racist’. Well – firstly if the ‘experiment’ demonstrates that there is deep and systemic ‘racism’ then it is a valuable experiment. The Mail and the CBI are saying how dare the Government waste business time.
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.
I don’t know how many and what type of experiments the Government is carrying out to prove or disprove my theory – it is without doubt important to prove – so good on them for taking it seriously. If it is proved – then it will be important to remove that barrier. To have the qualifications and experience and be barred from getting through the first stage of job applications for some unconscious reason is not acceptable.
And to those who think this is about racism, sexism or ageism per se – it isn’t just about that. The Mail on Sunday jumped to that conclusion – but a little work to research the issue would have shown them that this is a theory based on science as well as subliminal discrimination per se. There has been some work done which shows that the brain reacts differently to that which it is familiar as opposed to that which it finds alien. That is why this is about eradicating subliminal reactions.
So what’s in a name? Quite a lot!