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“Employers need to be as blind as possible” Lucy Mangan on the danger of bias in the workplace

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Obviously, I am completely free of prejudice. Except for hating men with long hair, obviously. And anyone with a devil dog. And devil dogs themselves. Because they clearly are innately savage. Just look at their faces. I also have to dig deep to overcome certain accents. Of course I don’t have one myself.

You, I know, are equally splendidly untainted by such irrationality.

Except of course, we’re not. Bias runs deep. We make judgments all the time, consciously and unconsciously. It is almost impossible to recognise or control for it without outside help. Most of us, fortunately, are not in positions where our prejudices can do direct harm (though we are polluting, in our own small and large ways, the stream of everyday life – have a good day, now, y’all!) but some are. And they need to be stopped.

Which is why I am making an honourable exception this week to a long-held opinion. As regular readers of this column will know, short of finding myself alone on a cliff top with him, ideally overlooking some treacherously sharp rocks below in a stiff wind that could make anything inopportune seem like an awful, tragic accident – I am not one to get behind David Cameron.

But in the wake of his keynote speech in Manchester about ending job discrimination, a slew of big employers have agreed to embrace a name-blind application process to try and reduce the problem of people recruiting – advertently or inadvertently – in their own image, race-, gender-, class- and anything else your moniker might give away-wise. “Steven and Stephen,” a posh friend of mine once told me as authoritatively as only privately schooled young men can, “are totally different people.” Who knew? Apart from a disproportionate number of the people with the power to hire you, of course.

Virgin Money, HSBC and KPMG have all signed up to the deal, while Deloitte even goes a bit further – it blanks out applicants’ school and university details too. That’s hardcore but it encourages us to look even further at what really counts as relevant to how well you are suited to a job. Looked at with clear eyes, ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability and gender (unless you’re applying to be a wetnurse or sperm donor or something of course. That’s a more basic form-filling exercise. Two boxes, maximum – tick one. Congratulations! You are now gainfully employed), all turn to dust.

Consciously, most employers know that. I have to believe they do, anyway, otherwise I will be left with no choice but to raze the entire human experiment to the ground. But unconsciously? No. We need help. Breaking out of a cycle, breaking free of a company/institutional norm is rarely possible without a firm boot up the backside. Internalised prejudice is invisible even to its harbourer. I always think of myself at primary school, refusing to be a doctor in a game because “girls couldn’t be doctors”. The fact that my own mother was a doctor was not enough to give the lie to what I had absorbed by osmosis elsewhere.

Employers need to be as blind as possible for as long as possible in all interviewing processes, and those who say they are completely without prejudice need it most of all. So good on you, Deloitte et al. Congratulations on your step into enlightened darkness.


Photography: Ellis Parrinder

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