Reality check: Does name-blind hiring help improve diversity?

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WATCH ABOVE: A panel discussion on the importance of diversity in the film industry was held in Halifax on Saturday. Alexa MacLean reports – Mar 4, 2018

There will be no names on the hundreds of resumés the hiring committee of a Toronto law firm sifts through this summer.

Lenczner Slaght plans to remove every name from every resumé submitted as part of the 2019 summer student hiring process, which begins next month and will see upwards of 450 candidates whittled down to fewer than 10 hires.

It’s an attempt to prevent unconscious bias from seeping into hiring decisions and knocking white women and men and women of colour out of the running on the basis of non-white and non-male sounding names.

“It’s not a magic bullet,” says Shara Roy, a partner with Lenczner Slaght and co-head of its student program, but it is the firm’s way of trying to translate diversity within law schools into diversity on Bay Street.

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Will it work? Does name-blind hiring make it easier or harder to diversify industries dominated by white people?

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The answer isn’t that simple, says Eddy Ng, a professor in economics and business at Dalhousie University.

“Name-blind hiring only works if you have implicit bias.”

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It worked for symphonies, he says, that have used a version of it since the 1950s, putting up physical screens so that musicians were judged on talent alone. Between 30 and 55 per cent of the increase in female new hires in American orchestras between 1970 and 1996 is attributed to that practice, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

It didn’t work for the federal government, whose 2017 foray into concealing personal information on job applications — name, citizenship, phone number, address, languages spoken, religious references, and educational institution — found fewer people of colour actually made it through the first screening round than when that information was front and centre.

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That’s where you have to really know why you’re using it, Ng says: do you want to diversify or do you want to counter implicit bias?

“(Civil servants) get sort of hammered with that message: you cannot discriminate. So they’ve already removed a lot of implicit bias at the hiring level,” he says.

As long as it’s done right, says Michael Bach, founder of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI), it could be a step in the right direction.

“It’s not as simple as taking off their name,” he says. “You also have to take off what school they went to, if there’s any indicator of where they grew up, all of that information so it just gets down to their skills and experience.”

Regardless of how intensive the blinding is, Bach says it’s important to remember the resumé is just “the first hurdle.” Successful applicants will still need to be interviewed. The strict, nationwide application process makes it impossible for Lenczner Slaght to pull more than just an applicant’s name from the resumé, says Roy, although it isn’t their only diversity initiative.

The firm has started implicit bias training, which is mandatory at the partner level, and is changing its interview model in order to ask more standardized questions.

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“What we all have to realize is that we all have biases,” Roy says. “Our goal isn’t to remove them, it’s not possible. Instead our goal is to look at those biases and really study and consider them when we’re making our decisions.”

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It’s a measure all businesses should consider employing, says Philip Oreopoulos, co-author of a 2012 study from the University of Toronto that found job applicants with Indian or Chinese names were less likely to receive callbacks than their counterparts with English-sounding names.

“Though there are some costs to doing so, the benefits could be worth it,” he says. “Hopefully through these experiences we will learn more about the value and challenges from avoiding reacting to the name.”

The only drawback, Bach says, is that it can make hiring managers less culpable for a dearth of diversity.

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“I don’t love the idea of name-blind hiring because I think it takes away the responsibility of the issue,” he says. “If there’s bias in the system, we need to deal with the bias.”

There’s a risk to people using it to legitimize their hiring process without actually diversifying, Ng says.

“They can say, ‘hey look we keep hiring certain groups of people but it’s not our fault because we went through this process where we treated everybody fairly,’” he says. “It’s sort of like hiring in the dark, you’re hiring essentially based on merit and that’s not really helpful to diversity.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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