Posted by: Trina | May 15, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name

Numerous studies have been done in the US, UK and France concerning discrimination in the hiring process. Although the official stance in a meritocracy is that education, skills and experience are the basic key to a fair hiring policy, if the truth be told something as benign as your first or last name often prevents some applicants from even getting to first base in their search for gainful employment: namely an invitation to a face-to-face interview.

Especially for the second immigrant generation in places like France and the UK, as well as the generation of black Americans born after the height of the civil right movement, education was touted as the great equalizer. Many parents readily endured discrimination in their own lives, hoping that a sound education would spare their children the same plight. In many cases, however, the second and third generations are arguably more frustrated than their elders. Hassen Akremi, quoted in a 2006 article in the Washington Post entitled “French Firms Test Colorblind Hiring” by John Ward Anderson, is just one example of this phenomenon. A Tunisian living in France with a master’s degree in international public law, he has studied and worked legally in France for 12 years, but – because of his ethnicity – has only been able to land menial jobs.

In his article, John Ward Anderson quotes Claude Bebear, a well-known and unimpeachable French takeover artist who openly admits the findings of his own experience and research: “…they throw away the résumés of people who are from bad parts of town which are supposed to have Arabs or blacks.(…) When you have somebody whose name is Mohammed and he lives in St. Denis (a low-income community outside Paris) you say, ‘I won’t bother with that one,’ and so they don’t even answer them.” This assessment was further supported by a 2007 study of applicants from France’s Ile-de-France suburb which investigates – among other factors – how applications from young people with North African- versus French-sounding surnames are treated in the recruitment process.

The solution Bebear proposed to the former French prime minister? An anonymous application process which would give no information about an applicant that could be construed as a cause for discrimination.

Similarly, in an article published online in 2002 in the The New York Times, Alan B. Krueger writes about the discrimination of job applicants in the US based on their so-called ‘black-sounding’ names. His article, “Economic Scene; Sticks and stones can break bones, but the wrong name can make a job hard to find”, summarizes the results of an experiment conducted at M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. In the experiment, nearly 5,000 applications were sent out in 2001 and 2002, and their progress in the hiring pool tracked. These applications were randomly assigned first and surnames usually associated with either black women, black men, white women or white men respectively. Apart from the difference in names, applicants had the same level of education, skills and experience. The big question: How would Tamika or Tyrone fare vs. Kristen or Brad?

According to Krueger’s article, a 50 % advantage for names associated with whites in terms of interview requests held true in both Chicago and Boston.

In an entry entitled “On having a black name” on her blog, Daisy’s Dead Air, one white woman with a ‘black-sounding’ names tells about the discrimination she unwittingly experiences in the workplace simply based on assumptions people make about her based on her name.

Krueger, a professor at Princeton University, differentiates between two main types of marketplace discrimination:

  • Taste-based discrimination theorizes that minority applicants can be discriminated against because of the preferences of employers, customers, co-workers or supervisors. This form of discrimination takes place despite the knowledge that this individual (or group) is equally as productive as a non-minority applicant. In other words, decisions to discriminate are made in direct opposition to economic best practice.
  • Statistical discrimination, on the other hand, assumes that employers have no personal prejudice, but feel unable to predict the level of individual productivity, and therefore bases their assessment on assumption based on a person’s racial group. This type of pre-selection could arguably benefit the an organizations bottom line, if there were any accurate information confirming these assumptions.

This kind of discrimination is obviously not new to Germany. Applicants with foreign-sounding names are often (still) not considered suitable for positions in certain professional sectors if those names carry with them a specific type of stereotypical baggage. Add to that the German practice of including a photo along with your application, and anyone with the wrong ‘look’ – or skin color – can easily find his or her application automatically landing on the ‘no go’ pile.

However, at a time when organizations are finding it more and more difficult to recruit the skilled workers they needs to remain successful in the (global) marketplace, companies who are already feeling the crunch are beginning to proactively and consciously reassess their own hiring practices. Whether this initiative is internally driven or facilitated by external consultant, for the sake of your company: May the best (wo)man win!


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