Posted On 8th April 2012

Yesterday evening, my talent-show loving flatmate introduced me to the latest get-famous-quick phenomenon that is sweeping our screens: BBC1’s The Voice. For the uninitiated, from what I can gather, the judges cannot see the person who is singing so that they judge the person on their singing talent and potential alone, not what they look like. They only get to see what the person looks like if, having heard the voice, they offer to take them on as a mentee. It goes without saying that if this were common practice among music industry talent scouts, popular music would be a very different world.

This brings to mind how the concept might work more broadly in the jobs market. Since so much of what people judge is wrapped up in our image, surely keeping personal identity out of recruitment as far as is possible might be the best way to defeat the “isms” – ageism, sexism, racism and so on? I know that there are laws to militate against all of these but no law in the world can override prejudice. We cannot with a stroke of the pen on the statute book strike out people’s biases and, if they really don’t want to take you on for such a reason, they will simply find another way to say no.

Meanwhile, as candidates worry that their age, their name, their gender, the fact they have a child or the fact that they have a disability is going against them in the jobs market, the sensitivity of the issue means that no-one will admit it can still happen. As such, it becomes much more difficult to address.

One way through this is anonymising applications. By this, I mean that, just as you can no longer be asked to give your date of birth or marital status on your CV, you won’t give your name and address, or anything else which might give away your background. Any recruiter who has worked in Northern Ireland knows that you have to blind sift – that as the application is received, personal details have to be removed before the person sifting the application sees it. (In case you’re wondering, you establish a system so that the personal details can be matched again to the application at the appropriate point). This practice was established in the depths of the Troubles when there were rightly concerns about bias against Catholics.

Similarly, Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, has long been a champion of anonymous applications. Her amendment to the Equalities Act 2010 which would have made it mandatory for all job applications to be anonymous was rejected as the Bill passed through Parliament in the dying days of the last government. However, given her position now as the Equalities Minister, I would not rule out the idea being formally reintroduced again, especially as it has already been adopted by no less than the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office.

Of course, in The Voice the judge’s chair spins around if they press the button to say that they want to take on a singer, meaning that anonymity is lost the moment that the talent has been assessed as being of interest. Similarly, a potential employer will need to meet the candidates and it’s just not practical to suggest that the interview is conducted through some kind of partition. However, it would surely be to our credit and also beneficial to diversity in business if a practical way were found to assess CVs without any risk that prejudice of any kind might prevail. Only then can we claim we’re truly meeting the best people for any particular job.

Heidi Nicholson

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