Name-Blind Hiring


The BBC reports that

Leading companies and universities are being asked to remove names from application forms in an effort to stop “unconscious bias” against potential recruits from black and ethnic minority backgrounds… Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that Ucas, the UK’s university admissions service, will carry out “name-blind” applications from 2017. The same will apply for graduate, apprentice-level and some other applications for organisations including the civil service, BBC, NHS, local government, KPMG, HSBC, Deloitte and Virgin Money.
(via Dan Dennis)

Studies have shown a bias against job applicants with names that do not “sound white.” From one:

A job applicant with a name that sounds like it might belong to an African-American – say, Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones – can find it harder to get a job…

Now a “field experiment” by NBER Faculty Research Fellows Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan measures this discrimination in a novel way. In response to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers, they sent resumes with either African-American- or white-sounding names and then measured the number of callbacks each resume received for interviews. Thus, they experimentally manipulated perception of race via the name on the resume. Half of the applicants were assigned African-American names that are “remarkably common” in the black population, the other half white sounding names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.

To see how the credentials of job applicants affect discrimination, the authors varied the quality of the resumes they used in response to a given ad. Higher quality applicants were given a little more labor market experience on average and fewer holes in their employment history. They were also portrayed as more likely to have an email address, to have completed some certification degree, to possess foreign language skills, or to have been awarded some honors.

In total, the authors responded to more than 1,300 employment ads in the sales, administrative support, clerical, and customer services job categories, sending out nearly 5,000 resumes. The ads covered a large spectrum of job quality, from cashier work at retail establishments and clerical work in a mailroom to office and sales management positions.

The results indicate large racial differences in callback rates to a phone line with a voice mailbox attached and a message recorded by someone of the appropriate race and gender. Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This would suggest either employer prejudice or employer perception that race signals lower productivity.

I know that a couple of philosophy departments are asking that job candidates’ writing samples be prepared as if for anonymous review. Are any departments removing identifying information from all application materials prior to their review by members of the search committee? Would that be a good idea? Is it feasible?

guest
13 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Anongrad
Anongrad
5 years ago

Put all the eggs in the university stamp? Arguably the worst bias of all (pedigree) shouldn’t be doing the work. Some folks have been branding by using their name. Seems unfair to them as well.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Anongrad
5 years ago

I cannot see the point of anonymizing writing samples when so much else in the application is going to identify the applicant — letters of reference, teaching evaluations… At least at my university the entire package is presented to us as one electronic file. The work of anonymizing the entire application would really be quite onerous for the candidates.

As to pedigree: I do not agree with anongrad’s implication that this is a matter of (mere) bias. The school where one did one’s degree is entirely relevant to one’s application. Different faculties have different strengths and it is worth knowing who the applicant studied under, etc. All other things equal, an applicant from Yale is likely to be better suited to an early modern job than an applicant from Chicago (note: I teach at Chicago; we currently have no faculty specializing in early modern, though we hope that that will change soon). Again, this isn’t decisive, but it is not a mere bias.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
Reply to  Michael Kremer
5 years ago

It’s true that pedigree need not be a (mere) bias, but I think there is enough anecdotal evidence to make plausible the case that often enough pedigree is used as a mere bias. For example, if two candidates have equally good writing samples, teaching profiles and publishing records the candidate from the better pedigreed university will almost certainly get the position; now, is that also the case if they are close in each of these but the candidate from the lesser known school is in the lead on all these? I think that our perception of the job market might say yes, the candidate from the better school will still beat out a better candidate on the basis of pedigree. For example, the dean might want to brag about getting someone from school X on their faculty, or we might just believe that candidates from X are going to be better anyways than other candidates even if the profiles give the other candidates the edge. I’m not saying that happens everywhere, but it is very likely what Anongrad is worrying about. We need more data on this and probably getting that data would be tricky if not impossible (I’m not even sure what data would be useful), but we should recognize the very obvious potential for a problem here.

And this, of course, does relate to other problems of discrimination because we have to follow the chain of who gets into top grad programs? Probably people who got into top undergrad programs, and who gets into those? Probably people who had more advantages than others? And from there it’s not hard to see why academia has the demographics it has.Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
5 years ago

A “name-blind” approach won’t work for conspicuously black job candidates in philosophy: they’d have to wager on whether the ostensible benefit of being “especially encouraged to apply” (i.e., responding to affirmative “outreach”) is worth the risk of bias in identifying as black upfront. (The notion that these candidates who are any good get “snapped up” is a perverse, convenient myth.) If they choose not to take that risk, they will be viewed as black anyway should they get an interview. While there might be some benefit in getting an interview via a “colorblind” route (despite the risk of encountering “colorshock” later), the same assumptions and anxieties that would lead members of a search committee to privilege “colorblindness” are likely to be triggered when it comes to the actual hiring decision.

In short, there typically is no procedural way to circumvent employer prejudice or negative “perception” when interviews are involved and candidates can be visibly racialized.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago

Michael Kremer: Would it not be fairly easy to also delete the name of the institution, referees and references to staff names in teaching profiles? That would surely not be so much extra work. Then the hirer could focus on the content.

LK McPherson: Of course you are right that race will always be an issue. However we can put it a couple of steps back by anonymizing the dossier, and perhaps even having telephone/non-video skype first interviews. Once the candidate is flown out then his/her colour will become apparent. However then the hirers spend more time with the candidate, so are more likely to deal with him/her as a unique human being, whereupon colour will have a diminished effect (at least for a proportion of hirers).Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
Reply to  Dan Dennis
5 years ago

Dan Dennis: Yes, those anonymizing steps could be taken, which of course would be a backdoor retreat from any serious affirmative action efforts (never mind how uncommon these are in philosophy hiring). As for the notion that in-person peer encounters generally diminish racial bias (to a sufficient extent), you seem unfamiliar with the “colorshock” phenomenon I referred to (see, for example, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner); and, more simply, your optimism would appear to belie the persistent reality of conscious and “unconscious” racial bias.Report

Kenny
Kenny
5 years ago

I suspect that different hiring markets are looking for different things in applicants. I’m not very familiar with corporate hiring, but I imagine that for a lot of positions (particularly entry-level ones) they are looking for employees as a commodity – one needs to have particular skills along a few dimensions, but otherwise what matters is just the quantity of employees of that type. But for other positions (and I’m expecting that most research-active faculty positions go here) what is important is something that is distinctive and unique about the candidate.

If that’s right, then it may be true that anonymous applications work well for the first type of position but not for the second. Or at least, that the way to achieve the benefits of anonymization in the application process for the first type of position are different from the way to achieve them for the second.

Maybe this isn’t correct. Maybe academic hiring really does work as a commodity, or maybe entry-level corporate hiring really does depend on the uniqueness of the person rather than on treating them as a commodity.Report

Wesley
Wesley
5 years ago

Another way to go might be in almost the complete opposite direction, promoting transparency and then providing materials to help guide job committees about the problem. Just one study, but with promising results, “Now Hiring! Empirically Testing a Three-Step Intervention to Increase Faculty Gender Diversity in STEM”:

“We tested a theory-derived three-step intervention that involved (1) a short presentation to search committees about overcoming the influence of unintentional (i.e., implicit) bias during the review process, (2) arming search committees with a guidebook on tactics for recruiting diverse candidates, and (3) providing access to a faculty family advocate who was unaffiliated with the search to confidentially discuss any work–life integration issues deemed appropriate by the candidates. The intervention measurably increased gender diversity among STEM faculty. Although the focus here was on increasing women faculty within STEM, the intervention can be adapted to other scientific and academic communities to advance diversity along any dimension.”

http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/65/11/1084.fullReport

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago

LK McPherson:
1) When referring to ‘colourshock’ you seem to be implying that when candidates are flown out, then hirers encountering those applicants would not know prior to meeting them what their race is, and so would experience the ‘colourshock’ phenomenon. Is that correct? But that can easily be overcome by informing them of the race of the applicants once they have been selected but well prior to the date of the flyout. Or am I missing something?

2) I did not say that hirers meeting applicants at the flyout will be perfectly oblivious to race. I only said that people are less prone to prejudice when they get to know someone as an individual. I thought that had been demonstrated in one of these experiments one reads about (as much as any of these things can be demonstrated)? It would certainly make sense – for then thoughts about the nice, intelligent, interesting individual that the hirer has just met tend to crowd thoughts about stereotypes.

If measures such as those Wesley mentioned were thought to increase fairness in hiring decisions then they could take place at the flyout stage, once anonymity is no longer possible.

3) The case for thinking it morally right to discriminate for/against an individual on the grounds of his race (aka affirmative action) is tenuous at the best of times, but to claim that such discrimination should take place in preference to fully anonymised assessment when that is possible, is surely implausible. If there is to be any ‘affirmative action’ then surely that should only be once anonymised assessment is no longer possible (i.e. at the flyout).Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
Reply to  Dan Dennis
5 years ago

Dan Dennis: You seem not to understand or accept the difference between “stereotypes” and racial prejudice. At the same time, you seem exceedingly confident about what is “surely implausible” and what “surely” should be the case. I’ve found that substantively engaging under such circumstances is not really worth the effort. But I will say this: given your strident rejection of affirmative action, a policy of announcing the color of applicants only at the point of the on-campus stage would be very strange.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago

LK McPherson: I assume there is commonly a connection between P1 having a stereotypical view of people of type X as having characteristic Y and P1 seeing an individual P2 of type X as having characteristic Y, where P1’s seeing P2 as having characteristic Y even though he does not have characteristic Y may then result in P1 being prejudiced against P2. (E.g. P1 sees blacks as lazy, so sees P2 as lazy simply because he is black, not because P2 have given any grounds for P1 to think him lazy, and therefore P1 fails to hire P2, which constitutes racial prejudice). Of course, I can see that racial prejudice may take other forms, for instance a simple failure to respect as an end members of certain races. (So should have added an ‘etc’ after the word ‘stereotype’ above, sorry).

I don’t understand why you say, ‘ given your strident rejection of affirmative action, a policy of announcing the color of applicants only at the point of the on-campus stage would be very strange.’

I here take affirmative action to mean intentionally favouring/disfavouring a candidate for no reason other than their race/gender/religion/disability. So anonymising application forms is not affirmative action in this sense. It is simply a practical step to minimise the chance of conscious and subconscious prejudices playing a role in a hiring decision.

I said that everything possible should be done to make the application process anonymous, in order to (as far as possible) eliminate the chances of racial prejudice playing a role in deciding who to fly out. I cannot see why one would introduce racial prejudice (aka affirmative action) into a process which can be anonymous. I thought the main argument for ‘affirmative action’ was to counter prejudice but if you have a process in which no prejudice can be exercised – because hirers do not know the race/gender/religion/disability of applicants – then this argument is nullified.

[I realise there are some other arguments for affirmative action, for example, a concern with changing the structure of academia etc. – I just think the arguments for always respecting every person as an end are compelling, and that respecting every person as an end is not compatible with favouring/disfavouring people on the grounds of race/gender/religion/disability.]

There is no way of making the on-campus stage anonymous, hence one must either just let the candidates turn up without advising hirers of their race, gender etc or telling hirers once the decision on the fly-out had been taken but some time before the candidates arrive. I thought you were saying that the first option is not good because it would result in ‘colourshock from which I inferred it would be better to take the second option.Report

RP Forsberg
RP Forsberg
5 years ago

It’s a great idea, not just for ethnic bias, but also gender bias, though it won’t stop “good old boy” bias based on what school you got your degree from. “I graduated from X, a great school”, the applicant also graduated from X school, thus… yes, the school is an important thing to consider, but my experience says it often leads to bias against those fro other schools who might be as bright or accomplished.Report