A new attempt by Ottawa to root out bias in the hiring of federal civil servants is a modest initiative, but with real promise. If it succeeds, the pilot project will help government hire the best talent, while at the same time allowing it to better reflect the diverse people it serves. The initiative could act as a model for other employers, both public and private.
The idea behind the “name-blind” hiring project announced this week is simple; the names, emails and countries of birth of job-seekers will be removed from their applications, with the aim of preventing the bias – unconscious or otherwise – that too often leads employers not to bring in applicants of diverse backgrounds for interviews.
The body of evidence that ethnic and racial bias plays a troubling role in hiring is growing. A recent study out of U of T and Ryerson University, for instance, found that job seekers with Asian names and Canadian qualifications were considerably less likely to get calls for interviews than were applicants with English-sounding names — even when the person with the Asian name had a better education.
Similar findings have been made in other western countries. A 2003 study from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that job applicants with white-sounding names got called 50 per cent more than those with African-American-sounding names. In Germany, one investigation found that applicants with names that sounded German were called 14 per cent more often than people with Turkish names.
Ottawa’s new initiative, which will initially affect six departments, is modeled on a similar project in the United Kingdom. In 2015, the government there announced that 10 large employers, including the British civil service, KPMG and Deloitte would start recruiting on a name-blind basis.
Early evidence suggests that these programs help, though they are not enough in themselves to fully defeat bias in hiring. One study of name-blind experiments in a number of countries, determined that while anonymous applications prevent bias and discrimination in the first stages of recruitment, these problems can occur later in the hiring process, such as when the applicants show up for a face-to-face interview.
Name-blind hiring is no substitute for the hard work of culture change, but it is no doubt an important step in the right direction. Bias in hiring is not simply unjust; it’s also perverse. People of colour, indigenous people and immigrants are persistently underrepresented in the Canadian workforce. As these groups continue to grow relative to the general population, so does the lost opportunity. Much of the country’s talent is being overlooked.
Compared to other employers, the federal civil service has a relatively diverse workforce. But Ottawa is right to look to be a model, not least because a government that reflects its constituents is better placed to understand their needs.
Clearly everyone, regardless of their colour, creed, sexual orientation, gender or disability should have an equal opportunity when it comes to applying for and landing a job. But in Canada, that’s not the reality. Ottawa is right to fight to change that.