Home addresses and educational background may need to be hidden too.

Private and public-sector employers are being asked by the government to remove names from application forms in an effort to stop unconscious bias against potential recruits from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. A number of major employers, including HSBC, KPMG and the BBC, have already pledged their support.

Tackling unconscious bias makes good business sense and, if it works, then ”name-blind CVs will open doors” not just for black and ethnic minorities, as David Cameron hopes, but for everyone disadvantaged because their name indicates their gender, ethnicity or marital status.

In its simplest form, the system requires applicants’ names to be hidden from recruiters sifting applications or compiling interview shortlists. Studies suggest bias at this stage is significant. In 2009 a study for the DWP (pdf) found applicants whose names appeared to be white needed to send nine applications before getting a positive response from an employer, compared to 16 applications from equally qualified applicants from minority groups. Studies in the US produced almost identical findings and a report from think tank Demos in October, ‘Rising to the top’, found only 16 per cent of British Muslims held professional or managerial jobs compared to a national average of 30 per cent.

Discrimination in the recruitment process is prohibited by the Equality Act 2010 (Section 39:1). What is meant by the ‘recruitment process’ isn’t defined by statute but case law suggests it starts with the decision about how and where to advertise. If a workforce is made up of people who are all the same, advertising internally will do nothing to improve diversity. Advertising externally is wrought with pitfalls though – employers need to be able to show the decision to advertise in a publication seen mainly by a particular group is justified. Getting it wrong could potentially lead to a discrimination claim.

An employer can take positive action to address under-representation in its workforce, such as encouraging applications through targeted adverts or running mentoring schemes to support and give under-represented groups the confidence to apply for jobs, develop in the role and be promoted. Direct action under Section158-9 of the Equality Act allows employers to show preference to a candidate with a particular characteristic (say colour, gender, age, or disability status) over another equally qualified candidate to address an imbalance in the workforce. This is a power given to employers rather than an obligation to meet a quota system, offering a potential defence to what otherwise appears a discriminatory decision.

Anonymous applications could be a positive move, provided they are not used in isolation. Recruiters may not see the applicant’s name but other indicators of background, such as address, school and college, are visible. There are more Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faith schools and academies than ever. Earlier this year a study of the 2011 census by the Muslim Council of Britain showed there are many local authority wards where Muslims make up over 40 per cent of the population. Recruiters who are ‘unconsciously biased’ against names will have to close their eyes to the applicant’s educational background and address too.

There are critics of the scheme, mainly due to the fact it will only apply to the initial sift or short listing stage. While potentially leading to a fairer mix of candidates making it through to the interview phase, the opportunity for bias when recruiters meet the candidate in a face to face interview remains. It is unlikely many employers will go to the effort of one orchestra which concealed candidates from the selection panel by a screen during auditions. Also, while concealing a name is something a large employer can undertake quite easily, it is difficult to implement in SMEs as the person receiving the application is often the same person conducting the interview.

On the face of it, hiding an applicant’s name levels the recruitment playing field. However in practice, complicated problems are rarely cured by simple solutions. If the government’s efforts to address the disadvantages experienced by black and ethnic minorities through name-blind CVs fails, then there is little doubt that further action will follow.