What’s in a name: Battling unconscious bias in the workforce

With one opinion piece, UNSW PhD candidate Usman Chohan sparked a national debate on discriminatory hiring practices and the appeal of name-blind résumés.


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“It is better not to know whether that stellar résumé on your desk came from an Ali, an Albert, an Alison, or an Aliyah.”

With those words, UNSW Canberra PhD candidate Usman Chohan sparked a national debate about discriminatory hiring practices in Australia, and the systemic biases that can exclude visible minorities from the workforce – even if they have the requisite education and skills.

“Résumé-based discrimination in Australia against foreign sounding names is both statistically significant and worryingly pervasive,” Chohan wrote earlier this year, in a piece published on The Conversation website.

“It has been found that discrimination against persons with East Asian and Middle Eastern names is particularly rife, while in the public service the ‘alarming’ absence of Indigenous Australians is also noteworthy.”

In the piece – ‘Skin deep: should Australia consider name-blind resumes?’ – Chohan argued that anonymous resumes could help overcome these often subconscious racial and gender biases, which plague the recruitment process.

Résumé-based discrimination in Australia against foreign sounding names is both statistically significant and worryingly pervasive.

His message struck a chord. It was one of the website’s most read articles of the year, and Chohan was invited to appear on Channel Ten’s The Project, where host and media commentator Waleed Aly took a keen interest in the issue.

Later, the article was republished by SBS in multiple languages, including Hindi and Korean. Even more people took notice, and started talking.

Now, change could be looming. In May, the Victorian State Government announced plans for an Australia-first trial of anonymous resumes. Details such as name, age, gender and address or location, will be left off all CVs submitted for public service jobs over an 18-month period.

“By removing unconscious bias, we really hope to create an equal opportunity for all Victorians,” Robin Scott, the state’s minister for multicultural affairs, told the ABC.

“Ultimately this is about fair employment practice and enabling Victorians to apply for jobs without fear their personal information will affect their initial application,” he said.

While it’s not yet a law, Chohan says it’s an example of “progressive policy thinking” that could have a significant long-term impact.

“It’s great that they’ve got the ball rolling,” he says. “Hopefully it will foster a more thriving multicultural fabric in the country.”

The Victorian trial, which has been more than a year in the planning, follows the lead of a similar program happening in the United Kingdom, where name-based discrimination has been flagged as a barrier to a more egalitarian labour market.

In late 2015, Britain launched a blind-recruitment process for all graduate applicants into the Civil Service and local government. A number of high-profile employers, such as HSBC, Deloitte, KPMG Virgin Money, and the BBC, also agreed to adopt the practice.

In Canada, where Chohan grew up, there have been debates in parliament about the need to adopt name-blind recruitment for government jobs.

This policy is being championed by Ahmed Hussen, the country’s first federal Member of Parliament born in Somalia.

“The parliamentary discussion around the issue of ‘making Canada less racist’ in the workplace is gaining increasing traction, led in part by the proactive approach to social inclusion encouraged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which is perhaps best exemplified by the remarkable diversity of his cabinet,” wrote Chohan.

Combatting discrimination is an important step for a multicultural society, and failing to do so can have noteworthy consequences.

Chohan says these biases can undermine Australia’s current immigration policy, based on a points system related to an individual’s capacity to join the workforce; they can hinder efforts to de-radicalise youth in Australia who feel marginalised; they can prevent fairer outcomes for migrant women in workplaces; and they can compound the disenfranchisement experienced by minorities, who may face additional prejudices in the housing and education markets. Anonymous résumés also head off any potential sex and age-discrimination in the recruitment process.

At UNSW, one of the first tasks of the University’s new Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Board will be around unconscious bias. The University will work with Professor Robert Wood, an expert in unconscious bias from the Business School, to develop ways to help people identify otherwise hidden beliefs and attitudes regarding gender, race and culture and overcome them. 

“If we want to change our profile so that we reflect what is in the community and are truly a university that speaks to a contemporary Australian community, we have to address unconscious bias. Once we begin to be aware of it, we have to take literal, concrete and bold steps to do that,” says Professor Eileen Baldry, who is the Board’s Academic Chair. “This means targets but could also mean providing more flexible workplaces, increasing the availability of childcare, providing more scholarships for Indigenous Australians and people from low socio-economic backgrounds, and putting in place support to help women seeking promotions,” Baldry says.

Elsewhere in Australia, the issue of name-based discrimination has remained in the media spotlight after featuring at this year’s Logie Awards, where The Project’s Aly won the coveted Gold Logie for most popular TV personality.

In his now famous ‘Do not adjust your sets’ acceptance speech, Aly recounted the story of an Australian television actor who had wished him luck prior to the ceremony.

“‘I really hope you win’,” Aly said the man had told him. “My name is Mustafa. But I can’t use that name because I won’t get a job’.”

The actor was later identified as 26-year-old Tyler De Nawi from the popular TV sitcom Here Come The Habibs, which parodies the interactions between a Lebanese Australian family and their xenophobic white neighbours.

De Nawi admitted he had changed his name to play down his ethnic background.

Despite having a foreign sounding name, the New York-born Chohan stresses that he’s never been on the receiving end of name-based discrimination, having been fortunate to work at large international organisations like the World Bank, where diverse staff are commonplace.

But his stance on the matter is unequivocal.

“I see it as a big element of life in Australia for people from an ethnic background,” he says. “It’s fantastic that I helped the discussion along.”