Could a 'blind recruitment' policy make Canada less racist?

Marketplace investigates how biases — both overt and unconscious — affect how we’re treated by stores and companies.

The process of removing names for job applications is practised in Britain; some think we should have it here

'Blind recruitment' for minority job seekers

7 years ago
Duration 2:16
The process of removing names for job applications is practised in Britain and is now being considered for jobs in the federal government

What's in a name? More than you may think. Removing names from job applications — a process known as blind recruitment — can actually curb both overt racism and unconscious bias.

And at least one MP thinks that Canada should adopt the policy.

Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen made that statement after CBC Marketplace investigated how race and culture influences how companies treat shoppers, apartment-hunters and job-seekers across Canada.

Hussen stood in Parliament Wednesday to suggest that the federal government follow Britain's lead to better ensure our government ranks reflect the people they serve.

"We must ensure our public service adopts name-blind recruitment," the newly elected MP said. "I rise today to bring attention to an idea that will assist in our fight to end discrimination and attain real equality in our country.

"It is crucial that Canadians who have got the grades, skills, and the determination succeed."

While visible minorities make up almost 20 per cent of Canada's population, the civil service is less diverse at only 14 per cent, according to 2013 data. (CBC Marketplace)

Britain adopted a blind-recruitment policy for its civil service in October 2015 after a number of organizations found the practice worthwhile.

While visible minorities make up almost 20 per cent of Canada's population, the civil service is less diverse at only 14 per cent, according to 2013 data.

The months-long Marketplace investigation looked at blind recruitment and how bias affects how we're treated and how we treat one another, including why we intervene — or don't — to defend a stranger.

'It's had a huge impact'

When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra began to audition musicians blindly in 1980, putting them behind a screen, the result was profound.

While the hiring committee could hear an applicant's performance, they not see what he or she looked like. They even put down a carpet so high heels couldn't be heard.

Now the orchestra — which was made up almost entirely of white men in the 1970s — is almost half female and much more diverse.

"It's had a huge impact from the beginning, when screens came in," says David Kent, the TSO's principal timpanist and personnel manager.

Ahmed Hussen, the Liberal MP for the Toronto-area riding of York South-Weston, says he'd support a blind-recruitment policy for Canada's civil service. (CBC Marketplace)

Some law schools in Canada have followed suit, stripping names from applications, exams and assignments.

And in Britain's private sector, HR departments at companies including HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money and KPMG are also starting to send the relevant credentials — and only the relevant credentials — to managers as they seek to fill vacant posts.

It's even come to reality TV: Judges on the hit show The Voice can't see the contestants until they choose to support them. That's not just a gimmick — it's increasingly the way musical performers are identified, free of any prospect of bias.

Ethnic-sounding names get fewer callbacks

Studies in the U.S. and Canada reveal that job applicants with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to get a response than more Anglo-Saxon names, despite having the same experience and credentials.

A 2004 study for the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found resumes with white-sounding names got 50 per cent more callbacks than names that sounded black.

In Canada, two researchers from the University of Toronto sent out 7,000 resumes: The names were different, but the credentials similar.

Their 2011 study, "Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew but not Samir," found employers in Canada's most-diverse cities were 35 per cent more likely to call a job applicant with a white-sounding name over a Chinese- or Indian-sounding one.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra started auditioning musicians behind a screen in 1980. Timpanist and personnel manager David Kent says it's had a 'huge impact.' (CBC)

Marketplace tested this issue in Toronto using a diverse group of 10 students. All were part of a class on modern racism offered at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.

In total, the students sent out 100 resumes: half with white-sounding names and half with ethnic-sounding names.

Many of the other students received little or no response to either name — perhaps not surprising considering their minimal levels of career experience. Others actually got more responses for their ethnic-sounding name.

"It's pretty sad that a name would be looked at first before qualifications," says student Daniel Lungu, who noticed a difference when applying for security jobs. He got more responses for his white-sounding name than his ethnic name.

Did the students get a callback because of the names on the application, or was it unrelated? For such a small test, it's hard to tell, though some students say this issue will affect how they apply for jobs.

Luxshiani Ganeshalingham says her friends automatically change their names when they're looking for jobs. "We shorten our names to get a better response, or more responses."

Modern racism less overt

"Modern prejudice is the transformation of our biased attitudes," says the students' professor Michael Inzlicht.

"[About] 40, 50 years ago, one could express overt hostility or antipathy toward a group — 'No, I'm not going to allow a black person into my golf club,'" he says. "You politically can't say that any more."

Modern racism is less overt, Inzlicht says, but we see "very clear" biases.

"It's more dangerous … if you're not aware of it," he says.

As for Hussen and his House of Commons statement, he hopes that blind recruitment is an issue Canada looks at seriously.

"I think it's a very interesting idea; it intrigues me," Hussen says.

"And I think it's the kind of thing that would go a long way in terms of reducing, or eliminating some of the subliminal values that we have today."

Based on a Marketplace investigation by Ronna Syed, Janet Thomson, Anu Singh, Lindsay Sample, Asha Tomlinson, David Common and Connie Walker