The German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency’s final report on “Anonymous Applications” rekindled the discussion on the labour market. It is undisputed that discrimination in the job market is still a big issue. But whether or not concealing information on application documents is useful and, above all, a sustainable method for obtaining equal opportunities, is controversial.
We will work backwards and start with the conclusion of the final report: “If there is anonymization, the trend will be towards equal opportunities for all applicant groups.” This conclusion about the intended fair selection process draws praise and criticism. The critics mostly focus on how time-consuming the implementation process of anonymous job applications is and the associated administrative burden. From a scientific point of view, this leads to more questions, particularly about methodology and the results of the pilot study.
- If, in more than half the investigated anonymous application processes, there were differences in the frequencies of “male vs. female” or “German vs. migrant” applicants invited to move forward in the application process, can you actually say equality has been achieved?
- The results are also questionable. In the procedures that included both anonymous and open applications, the people who submitted anonymous applications received significantly less follow-up invitations.
Unstructured interviews: the greater evil
The dependent variable of this study is the “invitation probability”. The authors of the study assume that stereotypes are biasing and influence the final decision of whether an applicant is hired or not. This has to be considered quite critically. Psychological research continuously shows that what is really biased is the observer’s mistakes in the interpersonal interaction of an unstructured interview. Mistakes which then undermine fair and diagnostically valuable personnel choices. But I will not continue to criticize the study. So, the authors, knowing that not everything will be interpreted perfectly, added a comment: “Therefore, the stated causal effects should be interpreted all together, carefully, and be understood as trends.“
Equality begins with the corporate culture
I approach the topic of anonymous applications slightly differently. The aim of this campaign is to stop discrimination at the first stages of personnel selection. When I think about about how to stop discrimination, it leads to a more abstract question: How can diversity be integrated and supported throughout an entire company? Can this environment be sustained long-term with some application information concealed like “female or male” and “German or migrant”? Or does it seem more useful to motivate the company to change its discriminatory corporate culture and become more respectful?
Concealing application information brings no additional benefits
Some of the companies who participated in the pilot project “Anonymous Applications” had already implemented successful diversification measures. And it showed. For them, using anonymous applications gave them no additional benefit. It only meant more work for the same result. This situation was recognized in the final report: “Where there is […] pre-existing equal opportunities, the effects of anonymous application procedures are, of course, limited.” As indicated above, the question still remains: How can discrimination be eliminated if the “solution” focuses only on early candidate selection?.
Anonymous applications are a method that may increase the probability of previously disadvantaged groups getting interviews. Or not. The results of the pilot study are inconclusive for such a statement. However, if discussions on equal employment opportunities in Germany remain on whether or not to use anonymous applications, then the pursuit of equal rights for all population groups will reach a stand still. Such measures may allow non-discriminatory hiring rates to be achieved, but sustainable rates will, most likely, not be realized this way. Instead, companies should create a comprehensive diversity program. One that is not aimed at concealing diversity and pretending it doesn’t exist, but one that recognizes it for what it is and promotes it.
The final report concludes with a comment about transparent and objective selection procedures: “Define precise requirement profiles and use clear and comprehensible assessment criteria”. Though, to accomplish this, anonymous applications are not needed. Instead, there needs to be good personal diagnostic procedures within a healthy corporate culture.