Between November 2008 and May 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions sent out fake job applications to 987 vacancies advertised in seven UK cities. Each employer targeted received an application from three fictional, but culturally distinct, applicants – ‘Alison Taylor’, ‘Nazia Mahmood’ and ‘Mariam Namagembe’. The idea being to investigate whether the assumed race of an applicant would affect the success of their initial application. The DWP claims that, worryingly, in many cases it did.
The three candidates were all given equivalent qualifications and experience, including British education and work histories. But in jobs across nine occupations, ‘Alison Taylor’ had to submit nine applications for a positive response, while ‘Nazia Mahmood’ and ‘Mariam Namagembe’ had to submit 16 each. The report concludes that racial discrimination is the only explanation for this discrepancy.
The British Chambers of Commerce disagrees, arguing that the samples were too small – in terms of both the number of replies, and the range of occupations applied for – to be reliable. It also voiced concerns that the whole undertaking was a waste of government resources and company time.
Here at MT we share the BCC's concerns over the statsitical veracity of the results – we’d like to know a lot more about how how the types of jobs and companies to be applied to were chosen, for example, and to look at comparable exercises where race was not an issue to see what the natural variance in response rates might be.
We can also sympathise with those firms which were hoping to meet any or all of the three as potential employees. But nonetheless, the results do raise real concerns, and to try and dismiss the whole exercise out of hand is a mistake.
The DWP claims that smaller employers are more likely to discriminate than larger, perhaps because they are less likely to be worried about the level of public scrutiny they will face. Public-sector employers were also apparently less biased than their private counterparts - possibly because the initial application forms for public-sector jobs are designed to disguise applicants’ ethnicity. Calls for simliar measures in the private sector may now very well follow.
But would they help? If an employer is wilfully discriminating, it is hard to see how getting candidates past the initial stage would help them much in the long run. On the other hand, if the problem is that employers are making false assumptions, about candidates’ skills and language abilities for instance, then anything that can help get them an interview, or even secure a phone conversation with a potential employer could make all the difference.
What do you think? We'd love to know.
In today's bulletin:
Qatari's quick buck on Barclays, Diamond stays put
Apple ripe despite downturn
Greggs plans expansion on back of sales growth
Employers still discriminate on racial grounds, says DWP
Promotion from within increases confidence in bosses