COMMENT:

Earlier this year an employment tribunal found that Matthew Furlong had been the victim of discrimination after being rejected for a job by Cheshire Police, which was in the midst of a diversity drive, because he was a white heterosexual man.

While it is thought to be the first ruling in the UK that positive action had been used in a discriminatory way, it remains far less common than the routine discrimination faced by many black and ethnic minority applicants.

But what the case does suggest is that individuals continue to be judged according to ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation rather than their talent and suitability for a role.

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Companies have attempted to combat the problem with a variety of recruitment strategies, one of which is "blind recruitment", whereby names, gender and age are removed from CVs to anonymise applications and stop hiring managers from making biased decisions - whether consciously or unconsciously.

Anonymous recruitment only works during the application process prior to interviews, but bias during the application stage is prevalent, according to a 2004 study carried out by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

It found applicants with names that sound African-American, such as Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones, can find it harder to get a job than those with a "white sounding" name.

Researchers sent 5,000 résumés to employers. Half of the applicants were assigned African-American names that are "remarkably common" in the black population, the other half typically white names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.

The study showed that applicants with white names needed to send about 10 CVs to get a response, while those with African-American names needed to send about 15.

Jorden Berkeley, a black 22-year-old graduate from London, told the BBC in 2012 that a careers adviser suggested she drop her first name and start using her middle name, Elizabeth, after months of getting no responses.

This prompted then prime minister David Cameron to ask the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) to start making its applications "name blind" and instead identify candidates by a code.

He also called for other businesses and public sector groups to follow suit, with organisations including HSBC, KPMG and the NHS agreeing to do so.

However, Ucas concluded in 2016 there was "insufficient evidence of a problem to warrant the scale of investment and business change that would be needed to adopt name-blind applications", and instead proposed a set of recommendations on gathering more evidence of unconscious bias and promoting good practice.

While many businesses and individuals agree that unconscious bias and discrimination in the workplace is an issue, making recruitment strategies such as "name-blind" CVs a crucial move, others say they won't be an effective solution.

Richard Miskella, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, says businesses that adopt blind recruitment signal a commitment to diversity - which is a powerful recruitment tool in itself - there are disadvantages to the strategy.

"If effective but badly implemented, so much data is stripped out that candidates become indistinguishable and it impedes hiring decisions," he says.

"In the worst case it can also be discriminatory - for example if a female applicant discovers that birth dates were removed but gender was not, that could be used to found a sex discrimination claim by arguing that the employer was aware of the risk of bias but didn't care about gender bias."

Steven Frost, a diversity expert and co-author of Building An Inclusive Organisation, says there has been a rise in the use of blind recruitment in the past few years, which is a "step in the right direction" for diversity.

But organisations can do more to improve their diversity recruitment through tactics such as interviewing candidates in teams rather than individually, so that there is a mix of people making the hiring decision, he argues.

Employers should also be consistent with their questions so there is an equal playing field for interviewees.

Career coach Corinne Mills agrees that, while blind recruitment is good for removing one of the first hurdles for an ethnic minority applicant to getting a job, if a company is proactively trying to recruit a diverse mix of candidates, anonymising CVs can have the opposite effect of blocking these same minority job-seekers.

"How far do you take it? It's not realistic to remove everything from a CV, and some information, such as the university the interviewee attended, could be important to the role they are applying for.

"You can never totally make it a level playing field, but removing names is a good start," she says.

It is in a business's best interest to have a diverse workforce. According to a 2017 study by consultancy McKinsey, companies with a healthy balance of men and women are 15 per cent more likely to outperform their competitors, while those with employees from a good mix of ethnic backgrounds are 35 per cent more likely to excel.

Kate Thrumble, talent director at advertising agency Momentum Worldwide, which implemented blind recruitment a year ago, says the move has helped increase -diversity.

"All CVs that come to us have the name removed and any clues to their ages, such as the dates they attended university. We've definitely seen an uptick in people from diverse backgrounds, although obviously we don't know for sure if there is a direct correlation. At the moment it's trial and error. Increasing diversity won't happen overnight - the industry needs to tackle the issue as a whole."

Virgin Money, which introduced a blind recruitment process three years ago, says the number of BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) candidates being selected for interview rose by 5 per cent during this period.

Dynamo PR, a London-based agency that brought in blind recruitment to encourage a wider mix of candidates, says the move resulted in a 50 per cent increase in applicants, with two recent hires specifically applying because the agency promised blind recruitment.