A recent report has revealed that job candidates with non-English sounding names are significantly less likely to receive a callback from a recruiter. What steps can HR take to keep name discrimination in check?
Australian job seekers are subject to a worrying degree of unconscious bias in the form of name discrimination, according to research published in The Leadership Quarterly.
The report, titled ‘Is there a glass ceiling for ethnic minorities to enter leadership positions?’, is based on responses to over 12,000 applications for job advertisements in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane between 2018-19.
Researchers applied for both leadership and non-leadership positions using CVs with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Arabic, Chinese, English, Greek and Indian names.
The results showed that candidates with non-English sounding names received 45.3 per cent fewer positive responses than those with English names for non-leadership positions, despite identical resumes.
For leadership positions, the disparity was even more pronounced: ethnic minorities received 57.4 per cent fewer positive responses from their applications than candidates with English names.
See the table below for a full breakdown of responses to applications for leadership and non-leadership positions.
“Names really play a very important role in Australia – relatively speaking, much more than in many other countries,” says Andreas Leibbrandt, Professor of Economics at Monash University and co-author of the study, who has also conducted extensive research into name discrimination in the US and globally.
“That was very surprising for us. What I also found interesting was that it didn’t really matter too much which kind of ethnicity was signalled, as long as it was non-white. You might have expected that names with certain kinds of ethnic backgrounds would be viewed more harshly than others, but that’s not what we observed.”
Where does this unconscious bias come from?
As well as assessing the positive responses from applications to leadership roles versus non-leadership positions, researchers also noted higher levels of name discrimination for certain types of roles.
“It was most pronounced for consumer-facing leadership positions,” says Leibbrandt.
“There may be several reasons for that. Whether it’s a perception that, for instance, a non-white leader would need more training, which would be more costly for the organisation, or that the consumers prefer to interact with white leaders, which would in turn also be costly.”
According to the report, ethnic minorities received 63.7 per cent fewer positive responses than applicants with English names for leadership jobs that required customer contact.
The authors refer to ‘implicit leadership theory’ in reference to this finding: the idea that employees develop a shared, implicit understanding of what a leader should look like and behave, due to their socialisation, cultural values and commonly held beliefs.
As a result, many recruiters engage in limited information processing and rely on their general leadership prototype when deciding whether to invite applicants to interview for leadership positions.
The report notes that the disparity in positive responses received by applicants with and without English-sounding names has translated to an acute lack of diversity among Australian executives.
Its findings showed that only 8.4 per cent of Australian workplace leaders were born in a non-English speaking country, despite the fact that 21.5 per cent of the total population was born in a non-English speaking country.
“In one study, when we gave them information on candidates’ cognitive skills and personalities, that almost completely removed the bias.” – Andreas Leibbrandt, Professor of Economics at Monash University
On a more positive note, Leibbrandt notes that follow-up research conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic found that name discrimination against ethnic minorities lessened during this time.
“Although the [overall] likelihood of a callback dropped dramatically during COVID, it dropped twice as much for white people as it did for non-white people,” he says.
Researchers put this down to recruiters being less presumptuous about candidates’ potential in a climate where skills and labour are hard to come by.
Read HRM’s article ‘3 inclusive hiring techniques’.
Reducing name discrimination in recruitment
Prompting recruiters to identify and address unconscious bias is a tall order, given that, according to recent eye-tracking research, the average time it takes them to scan a CV is only seven seconds.
However, Leibbrandt’s research has uncovered two main avenues that employers and HR can take to reduce prejudice against non-English sounding names.
“Firstly, the kinds of discrimination that you observe in these resume studies [tends to] be reduced as soon as recruiters get more information on the candidates,” he says.
“In one study, when we gave them information on candidates’ cognitive skills and personalities, that almost completely removed the bias.
“It all hinges on the idea that this discrimination is based on statistical beliefs about productivity and costs. As soon as you give them more information, it reduces their concerns, and it changes their perceptions.”
The second measure suggested by Leibbrandt is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to conduct a more thorough analysis of the candidate pool.
Given the very limited time that recruiters spend scanning CVs, AI technology is capable of plucking out only the most relevant information to help remove bias from the process, he says.
Technology like this can also provide scoring on psychometric testing and skill capabilities, making candidates easier to compare objectively.
“Recruiters are free to do whatever they want with those scores, but what we observe is that it does influence them – the differences in assessment between minorities and majorities decreases, or gets completely washed away.
“The general takeaway is to give recruiters as much information as possible about the candidates and remove that uncertainty. Uncertainty usually hurts minorities more than it does majorities, because recruiters see these [candidates] as higher-risk.”
Need help taking steps to reduce bias and support inclusion in the workplace? AHRI’s short course will provide you with techniques to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.