Recruitment Bias and Name-Blind Recruitment

By Chapple

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Discrimination is everywhere and the workplace is no exception. There have been many attempts over the years to correct bias in recruitment, to address the gender pay gap, increase ethnic diversity and ensure disabled workers are not disadvantaged. Recent news stories about introducing name-blind recruitment in the public sector and forcing businesses to publicly disclose their employee’s salaries to expose gender pay gaps, show that the subject is on the agenda of most organisations. The general approach however, has been to address each issue separately, but is this right or indeed effective?

The Government Commitment

The Cabinet Office has pledged to introduce name-blind recruitment by 2020.This follows David Cameron’s pledge at the recent Conservative party conference to remove bias in recruitment and ensure that jobs are awarded on merit alone, in a bid to remove inequality across the public sector. Worthy words were uttered by Cabinet office minister Matthew Hancock: “I want to see a Britain where nobody is defined by the circumstances of their birth. To deliver that, public services need to reflect the country that they serve.” David Cameron also announced that other graduate recruiters such as KPMG, HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money and the BBC would commit to name-blind CVs for all graduate and apprentice roles.

Introducing name-blind recruitment is an important step forward but it is only going to reduce discrimination in a very small part of the recruitment process. If you can’t see the name, it may reduce gender and racial discrimination initially, but place of education can still introduce the possibility all over again. If an applicant went to university in Pakistan for example, as opposed to say Oxford in the UK, the unconscious bias door is wide open again. Then, further down the recruitment chain, the interview process, without any bias protection could probably negate any value obtained from the name-blind applications at the start of the process.

Unconscious Bias

Discrimination, an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group can manifest itself in different ways. Open prejudice is thankfully now rare in the UK, and can be effectively legislated against. Another stems from an unconscious bias; these are often feelings we are unaware of that we have towards other people that can influence our judgement of certain people and groups. They can depend on several factors:

  • Perception – our personal interpretation of people and reality.
  • Attitude – how we react towards certain people based on past experience.
  • Behaviours – how we behave towards certain people without being aware of it.
  • Attention – what we pay most attention to.
  • Listening – how much we actively listen to what certain people say and how we remember it.
  • Micro-affirmations – how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations.

Unconscious bias is fascinating in that the majority of people don’t believe they are guilty of it, while also believing that many of their colleagues probably are. A very good example of unconscious bias is shown in the result of a study carried out by Judge and Cable which found that in the US, 60% of all Corporate CEOs are over six feet tall, although only 15% of American men are over six feet. Height is clearly not a criterion for leadership, yet it appears that unconsciously, we believe it is.

When we first meet someone (or read their CV’s), our brains make incredibly quick judgments and assessments without us realising, and this can happen in less than a third of a second. The brain relies on information gathered over a lifetime and one’s background, personal life experiences, exposure to societal stereotypes and cultural context can all have an impact on decisions and actions. We are often unaware of these views and opinions, or of their full impact and implications.

Test Yourself

There are ways you can put your own unconscious bias to the test and you may be surprised by the results. Take the story of a father and son for example, who are involved in a serious car accident. The father dies at the scene. The son, critically injured, is rushed to hospital and immediately into theatre for life saving surgery. Upon seeing the boy, the surgeon exclaims ‘That’s my son!’ So, who is the surgeon? You would be right if you said his mother, but in tests, the majority of people get the answer wrong, even people who consider themselves to be completely unbiased. 

A world famous musician who has played to sell out audiences throughout the world in the most prestigious concert halls, and who can command huge fees for playing, was asked to pose as a street busker. He played the same music on a street corner that he was famous for in the concert hall, but people just walked on by, restricted by their unconscious bias to be able to appreciate what they were actually hearing rather than what they had programmed themselves to expect to hear.

You can also take the Harvard Implicit Association test – a free online assessment to try for yourself. By discovering our unconscious biases, we can develop an awareness of them and open ourselves up to change.  Leading organisations increasingly view diversity as a key influencer in its success, with studies showing a clear link between increased workforce diversity and better revenue and sales performance. Beyond financial measures, a more diverse workforce carries significant benefits, including enhanced retention rates.

Increasing an awareness of unconscious bias is a good starting point, and the most common biases in hiring can be split into 5 groups:

  • In-group bias – is when you recruit people who are similar to yourself. In-group bias can be based on age, gender, ethnicity, social class or professional background or a combination of these.
  • Prejudice - Making unfavourable judgments towards a person without being aware of other facts.
  • The Halo/Horns effect - when our overall view of a person’s character is exaggerated by an unrelated  detail. This can be positive (halo) or negative (horns). Physical attractiveness has been shown to produce a ‘halo’ effect, with hiring managers favouring attractive applicants over non-attractive ones. Physically attractive people are seen as more intelligent, warmer and are perceived to have better social skills. Tattoos or body piercings could produce the opposite ‘horns’ effect.
  • Confirmation bias - when an initial unconscious  judgement is made on a candidate and the hiring manager then looks for evidence to back it up, even if the judgement was ill-founded.
  • Biased recall - remembering something incorrectly about a candidate. There is a tendency to make memory errors as a result of existing prejudices and stereotyping, even when we are presented with objective facts.

What next?

Every one of these factors will affect who is selected for interview, how they are interviewed, who is eventually hired and the reasons for hiring them. If discrimination is happening at an unconscious level, it is harder to allow for it in to the recruitment process. When recruiters explain that their decision to hire someone was based on ‘gut instinct’, perhaps it was actually an unconscious bias masquerading as honest instinct. However, it is possible to create an awareness and understanding of the way unconscious bias works and once it is accepted that we are all prone to bias, and methods of minimising it throughout the hiring process can be embraced, not just at application stage and the resulting, diverse workforce and the employer will be able to reap the benefits. 


At Chapple we specialize in sourcing candidates in external and internal communications, employee engagement, change and business transformation roles.

Contact us on 020 7734 8209 for more information about how we can help you find the right people for your business.


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