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The head of a Toronto-based nonprofit is encouraging Canadian companies to consider anonymous job applications to pave the way toward bias-free hiring.
This decision comes on the heels of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) launching a policy throughout the province in July 2013 that states that requiring “Canadian experience” from a job applicant is a form of discrimination.
Ratna Omidvar—president of Maytree Foundation, an organization advocating for reducing poverty in Canada, workplace diversity and leadership development—told SHRM Online that the OHRC’s initiative will motivate Canadian employers to look for better ways to identify and employ talent.
“Anonymous job applications are a logical next step for employers,” Omidvar said. “We all have subconscious biases. Studies have shown that personal information, such as a name, can trigger these subconscious biases about ethnic origin, immigrant status and gender, for example, and prevent employers from objectively seeing the rest of what’s in the application.”
It’s not a risk for businesses, Omidvar added, because they will still meet the applicant in the interview, and, in fact, it will help them to choose qualified candidates by reducing distractions during the first round of screening.
According to Omidvar, Canadian human resource professionals can implement an anonymous screening process without too much difficulty when searching for candidates to fill vacancies.
Employers that have online applications or that use a particular type of software could hide certain information—such as name, age or gender—during the initial screening stage.
Employers that use traditional paper or e-mail applications could simply instruct the applicants to submit two versions of their resume—one anonymous, one conventional—or to put their personal information on the last page.
These practices are not perfect, Omidvar admitted, as candidates will eventually meet the employer in person or by video, at which point overt or subconscious biases may come into play. “But getting past on-paper first impressions is a step in the right direction,” she said.
In addition, organizations should look into education and training for their HR staff. “When HR professionals understand what benefits that a particular bias-free hiring practice—or a broader bias-free approach—brings to the business, they will be in a better position to make changes in their organization,” she said.
Omidvar also suggested that recruiting companies can play a role in searching for candidates anonymously. “Imagine if the big online hiring sites like Monster or CareerBuilder starting using this approach—the impact could be huge.”
The European Experiment
Canada’s quest to eliminate discrimination during the hiring process has been modeled after Europe, with several countries leading the way on testing the effectiveness of anonymous job applications, including Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.
Traditionally throughout Europe, job seekers list their age, marital status and political affiliation and attach a photo with their resume, but, according to Ulf Rinne, Ph.D., deputy director of research at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany, that practice is changing.
“Experienced HR professionals are now not looking at [candidates’] photographs, because they do not want to pass judgment or be swayed by a first impression,” Rinne explained.
A study issued by IZA in December 2012 found evidence of discrimination in hiring decisions. Consequently, to combat this trend in European countries, anonymous job applications have been rising in popularity.
Several German companies—including express delivery and freight company Deutsche Post DHL, telecommunications operator Deutsche Telekom, cosmetics firm L'Oréal, consumer-goods enterprise Procter & GambleCo. and e-commerce retailer Mydays—and several German government agencies participated in a pilot project from 2011 to 2012 to hire anonymous applicants.
“These companies were open to the process because they wanted to increase their pool of applicants with diversity,” Rinne said.
Throughout the pilot project, participating companies received several thousand applications for about 225 openings in technical professions, customer-service jobs, apprenticeships and university appointments.
After the project ended, in June 2012, four companies decided to continue with anonymous job applications, according to the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (FADA) in Berlin:
The other companies decided not to use that hiring process directly, FADA explained, because for global corporations, depersonalized applications are already the norm.
“Due to the fact that our HR policy was already based on a nondiscriminatory working environment, the results of the pilot project confirmed our existing processes without adding any additional value,” a spokeswoman from Deutsche Post DHL said in a statement. “Therefore, we continue to use our successful applicant management system, which ensures equal opportunity and a diverse pool of potential candidates.”
A FADA spokeswoman said they are offering training to German companies interested in implementing anonymous-job-application programs. “Through standardized questions in a survey, HR professionals can ask for specific abilities the applicant should have. We are confident that anonymous job applications will make a breakthrough in the next 10-15 years,” Christine Lüders, Germany’s government anti-discrimination representative, wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online.
Meanwhile, the city of Helsinki, Finland, conducted an anonymous job search in July 2013 for a project manager of a youth center located in the capital. A Finnish woman was recruited for the position; details of the other candidates are not available because of the anonymity of the process, according to the city’s HR director, Hannu Tulensalo.
“It is about rethinking recruitment,” Tulensalo said. “Instead of asking for the traditional CV, experience and personal information, the first round of examining an application is putting the applicants technically and systematically at the same level, because the only information that is compared is educational background and professional experience.”
Leveling the Playing Field
Above all, HR experts say that anonymous job applications will give women and immigrants equal opportunities to enter the workforce.
“We believe the neutralized application brings out the skills that are left in the shadows of strong prejudices that women, minorities and migrants face,” Tulensalo noted.
Moreover, FADA said single mothers and senior workers frequently report to the agency that they have been discriminated against because of their civil status or age. If qualified people are denied the opportunity to work, this could be detrimental to the German economy, FADA points out.
“It has been proven that diverse teams achieve better results and increase competitiveness,” Lüders wrote. “The idea behind anonymous job applications is the requirement that every person needs to get the same chance to be invited to a job interview.”
“It’s time for Canadian employers to take the next step,” Omidvar added. “Anonymous job-application processes can help employers overcome subconscious bias to find the best, most qualified person for the job.”
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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