Clegg signals success for Lynne Featherstone’s name-blank employment campaign

In amongst the details of this week’s government announcements on social mobility was a commitment to extend name-blank employment, a long-term campaign of Liberal Democrat MP and now Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

As Lynne explained in a newspaper column back in 2009 the logic is this – blanking out names on job applications would remove subconscious discrimination at a key stage in the job application process. Discrimination at later stages could of course still occur, but if subconscious decisions are being made based on people’s names before they even get the chance to get into a room and impress in an interview, an environment in which subconscious discrimination may be less likely to happen due to the other decision-making cues available, then this could be a significant step forward.

But this isn’t just theory. The government’s initial research, as mocked by the Mail on Sunday, tried out sending otherwise equal job applications in response to different vacancies but altering the names between male and female sounding ones and between those that sounded like ethnic minority names and those that don’t. The result? Discrimination was indeed found to be taking place simply on the basis of names.

As Lynne’s newspaper article concluded:

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!

Now in this week’s social mobility strategy the government has committed itself to “increased use of name-blank and school-blank applications where appropriate”. Some parts of the private sector have already adopted such practices (because, of course, firms themselves lose out if they fail to employ the best staff because of applications being rejected on spurious grounds) and if the public sector also adapts this change across the board there could be a gradual, quiet and often not noticed opening up of employment opportunities for all sorts of people.

It may not produce any future dramatic headlines, but the impact could well be greater than dozens of the would-be headline grabbing initiatives that come out of government every week.

The party itself is also making a step in the right direction with the decision that as from Tuesday all advertisements for internships are name and school blind, and they also will be paid.

As for the rest of the social mobility announcements, more on those later.

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  • Andrew Duffield 6th Apr '11 - 10:43am

    If firms reject the best candidate because of the name on an application form, they are only shooting themselves in the proverbial appendage. Let them get on with it I say.

    This is yet another example of supposed ‘Liberals’ wanting to meddle in an area that the market is perfectly capable of dealing with. Firms who employ lower ability candidates are automatically disadvantaging themselves without government getting involved.

    What next – blanked out educational details, home addresses or previous career histories for fear these might also reveal some potential to be discriminated against?

  • I’d imagine that if my wife were to have her name and school blanked out, there would still be a clue in her qualifications (‘Macedonian School Leavers Award – Grade 2’) that she is of non-UK stock. This is the most obvious case of let the market decide that I can think of.

    The worrying thing at the moment is that ‘social mobility’ seems to becoming equated to ‘opening up the opportunity to work unpaid to all.’

  • This is not unusual, many organisations have application forms where the front page is removed containing a persons personal details, so not sure how this is ‘Liberals’ meddling – My current employer who I joined 10 years ago had this in place – The interview board only had my work experience/qualifications etc

  • Brilliant news, and not illiberal against any individual.

  • Dave Page – I don’t know about the LD party, but…

    I have worked for three organisations based in London – in all those cases they either owned the building (in some cases via donation) or paid peppercorn rents. You need to be careful here because ‘based in London’ need not necessarily mean ‘paying rent at full London market rates.’

    There are arguments to be had about regional wage differentials, but that really is more a debate about house prices and that is a real nettle to grasp.

  • I’m cautiously supportive of making firms pay for internships, but is this across the board (including charities, art institutions etc.)?

    One advantage of unpaid internships is that groups can take more of a risk giving someone a chance. If they have to pay for them then they might be incentivised to pick someone who is already more highly qualified so they can be economically useful, and make them take on more work rather than giving them training. This then essentially just creates minimum-wage positions at blue-chip firms and I’m not sure if the interns or the firms are the winners there …

    Might be better to leave payment as a choice, but give tax incentives to firms to pay interns a living wage.

    Though I am in favour of name-blanks and open advertising for the most part.

  • Lorna Spenceley 6th Apr '11 - 12:43pm

    I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but I’m not sure this is the great leap forward being suggested. It only ‘works’ for people whose CVs contain no other clues. My CV says ’10 years at home raising my children’, so the assumption – even on a name blank application form – will be that I’m female. It also says ‘Hautlieu School, Jersey’ so it’ll suggest to most appointment panels that I wasn’t born in the UK. The only thing we can safely extrapolate from this proposal is that people whose careers look like those of stereotypical white British males will now get to be treated on the same basis as stereotypical white British males.

  • @Lorna Spenceley

    I think you make a really good point. I know that I used to discriminate based not on name or anything like that but if they’d included a load of rubbish about how they were wonderful or if they hadn’t worked (as in the case of interns, who consequently, were well paid in my company, well I think they were).

    Oh, the other thing was that I much preferred state educated people having been state educated myself.

    Lynne’s idea is good in theory although I just don’t see it working because you can get so much more about the person from the cv (and discriminate accordingly).

    Talking of Lynne Featherstone herself, I suppose I feel sorry for her….. ‘Equalities Minister’ under a Conservative Government/this Conservative Government has got to be the a hiding to nothing.

  • @Dave Page

    I agree, both this and the last government made a big thing about travelling the country for cabinet meetings, however, it has always meant nothing as far as I can see.

    People based in other major cities should get the chance for to work in London-based organisations starting with our major political parties. I hope the freemarket obsessives don’t notice I’ve said this.

  • Hard to implement in a smaller business but a great idea.

    I defy anyone to really state they have been in business for a few years and not seen discrimination…

  • @Andrew Duffield
    Whilst, as an employer, I would agree firms are shooting themselves in the foot if discriminating, they also damage the applicant. It can be demoralising and economically damaging to not get a job.

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