TVO: An applicant by any other name

Job candidates with non-Anglo names are much less likely to get callbacks. Will the federal government’s name-blind hiring pilot project fix that?

  Six federal departments — including National Defence and Global Affairs — are participating in a name-blind hiring pilot project. (DNY59 /iStock)

Six federal departments — including National Defence and Global Affairs — are participating in a name-blind hiring pilot project. (DNY59 /iStock)

In April, the federal government kicked off a six-month pilot project aimed at reducing unconscious bias in hiring and increasing diversity in the civil service. The method? Name-blind hiring, in which the Canadian Public Service Commission strikes candidates’ names and other identifiers from job applications.

“We do have a significant problem of racial discrimination [in Canada],” says Jeffrey Reitz, co-author of a joint study from the University of Toronto and Ryerson University that shows applicants with Asian names have a much lower chance of getting a callback than those with Anglo-Canadian names. It’s not necessarily that managers are racist, Reitz adds; some simply have concerns about language problems or heavy accents from candidates with foreign-sounding names.

For the duration of the government pilot, the CPSC will conceal applicants’ names, email addresses, employment equity information (whether they are a woman, part of a visible minority, disabled, or Aboriginal), alma maters, and birthplaces, before the applications are sent to hiring managers and human resources, explains Tom Kelly, a spokesperson for the agency. Once the managers have compiled a list of applicants eligible for interview, the CPSC will reveal the redacted details.

Six federal departments are taking part in the pilot, including National Defence, Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, and Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The government will issue a final report once the project concludes in October.

Analysts say name-blind hiring won’t eliminate discriminatory practices completely, but it is a first step in addressing the problem — one that may encourage companies and other governments in Canada to follow suit.

“There seems to be a real commitment to addressing the problem of discrimination in a way which would be transparent and possibly lead to remedial action in the case that they find there is a significant impact of simply a name-based discrimination,” Reitz says.

The U of T-Ryerson study is the latest to show job applicants with foreign-sounding names are at a disadvantage in Canada. The authors found that for every 100 callbacks applicants with Anglo-Canadian names received, those with Asian names — specifically of Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani origin — received just 72.

As a result of this discrimination, some applicants now “whiten” their resumés — changing their names and other details that might reveal their ethnic, cultural, or religious identities — to increase their chances of getting a callback.

Research in Germany, France, and Sweden has shown that anonymizing job applications does lead to greater diversity. And it can reduce sexism, too: one study showed that when orchestras began using a screen to hide performers during auditions, women were 50 per cent more likely to advance through the first round of hiring.

Beyond the feel-good reasons for increasing workplace diversity, there are business incentives, too: a new Centre for International Governance Innovation report found that, “viewed across all sectors, a one percent increase in ethnocultural diversity was associated with an average 2.4 percent increase in revenue and a 0.5 percent increase in workplace productivity.”

“If Canada wants to succeed in the high value-added sectors of the future, workplace diversity can be an important contributor to Canada’s competitiveness,” the authors say.

Yet while names and birthplaces can provide obvious clues about applicants’ identities, the educational institutions they’ve attended are not only less illustrative, at least on the surface; they’re also something by which hiring managers measure competency and applicants hope to separate themselves from the pack.

“People sometimes make assumptions about, if you went to Harvard or Princeton or Stanford or wherever, that therefore your work is going to be of higher calibre,” says Molly Anderson, president of Exponential Talent, a recruitment consulting firm.

But some companies are questioning whether academic credentials even matter, such as Ernst & Young and Deloitte’s U.K. operation, which removed academic requirements from their hiring process in 2015.

“We can’t ignore the fact that skills are not directly correlated with school,” Anderson says. “If we want a world in which people that possess a particular ability or skill are judged on their merits, we’re not going to be able to use education institutions in the way that we have historically.”

Kelly says the federal pilot will withhold only the institutions an applicant has attended, not the level of education they have attained.

But what if a job-seeker is part of a mosque or a Chinese cultural society, and chooses to include that on their resumé? What if there’s an employment gap suggesting a female applicant took time off to care for children? And what happens when that applicant comes to an interview?

“The name-blind admissions process is not foolproof,” says Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis — it isn’t going to completely prevent employers from drawing conclusions about candidates based on the details included on their applications.

When it comes to diversity hiring, the federal government actually has a decent record, employing women, visible minorities, Aboriginals, and disabled people at better rates than the private sector does, according to the most recent Employment Equity annual report. (For example, 54.4 per cent of the federal workforce is female, while workforce availability is 52.5 per cent, per the 2011 census.) Where the feds fall down is executive hiring: three of the four above-mentioned groups are not well represented in the upper echelons of government.

For its part, Ontario has an online tool — known as the Executive Recruitment Lens — intended to promote diversity in executive hiring, that government managers and recruiters can access through the province’s intranet. It poses a series of questions intended to guide managers along, making it “easier to identify, mitigate, or eliminate potential barriers at each stage of the recruitment process,” Matt Ostergard, a spokesperson for the Ontario Treasury Board secretariat, wrote in an email. Now, as part of a new pilot project, the province is rolling out the tool for non-executive hiring at 10 ministries, with plans to use it across the Ontario public service by the fall.

“If we want to really use all of the talents of all the people on the globe, fundamentally, we have to figure out different ways of hiring,” Anderson says. “And all of the research indicates that blinding resumés, both to names and other personal information, could be a very powerful technique to help us do that.”