What's in a name? When you are making a hotel reservation do you care whether the person taking the call is called Sam Mahmood, Sam Namagembe or Sam Taylor? When applying for a loan, does it matter to you that the person handling your account may be the son or the daughter of an immigrant? When visiting the doctor does it matter to you that the qualified practitioner you are talking to may have a social background radically different to yours?
The easy answer is no. None of it matters. So long as people are qualified and know how to do their jobs, their social background does not matter.
But that is only a half-truth. When applying for a job having the right surname can provide an entry into an otherwise closed door, just as having the wrong surname will close doors shut with a loud thud. Last October the British government published the results of an investigation into racial discrimination in the workplace. A team of researchers sent almost 3000 job applications, three for every job offered. One was sent in the name of Alison Taylor, the second in the name of Nazia Mahmood and the last in the name of Mariam Namagembe. The only difference was the name. All the false applications used a similar profile with the same standard of qualifications and work experience. The results were somewhat predictable: The applicants with the foreign sounding names, despite being British citizens and showing a British education, were almost half as likely to get a positive response.
We all know employers discriminate and that social background is an important factor. I have a friend who was interviewed for a job in a hospital. The panel interviewing her, an august panel of doctors and administrators, spent five minutes asking her about her qualifications and 25 minutes chatting about her family. Her great grandfather was an important man, someone notable enough to have a street named after him. She got the job. Now she is amply qualified for the job and more than deserved to get the post, but all things being equal, she would have been given preference over someone with a distinctly less patrician surname.
Part of the problem lies far deeper within our psyche. We like to deal with people we know. It is easier to form relationships with people who are familiar. Employers are perhaps naturally keen on building teams with people who come from similar or "better" backgrounds. Similarly there is an idea that clients like to deal with people they can identify with.
If this kind of discrimination is commonplace in Europe, in the Middle East it is so normative as to not even be considered discrimination. Many Arab friends were highly amused at all the hoopla over Nicolas Sarkozy's failed attempt to install his son as president of EPAD, the organization that runs Paris's La Défense. Can you imagine that happening in an Arab country?
When I go to my local bank in London, I stand in line until an anonymous teller deals with my transaction. It's not exactly a pleasant experience. It is usually hot and stuffy, the lighting is dim and unpleasant and the bank employees are clearly bored and under pressure. It is most definitely a chore to be over and done with as fast and efficiently as possible. I contrast this with a recent experience in Jeddah where I waited for an hour, very comfortably in a leather armchair with a television to entertain me, whilst the presentable bank employee from a very good family dealt with a number of women whom she knew on first-name terms and who greeted her with a kiss on the cheek before finally deciding that she may have a moment to deal with my query.
And what's wrong with nepotism? Surely the whole point of being in a position of influence is that you can help your friends and family go up in the world? And why should you not help people you know? Why should you give a job to someone whose family you have never heard of, worst still a foreigner, when there are so many people from good families seeking work?
Nepotism is one thing. Discrimination another. Part of the problem is that you cannot do one without the other. By giving preference to someone whose social background is advantageous, you automatically discriminate against someone from a less privileged background. Moreover, the more you encourage the appointment of people with the right surname, because after all it's all about contacts, the more you promote the mediocre at the expense of the able. Not only is it unfair toward those already struggling to make it in life but you also often end up with a mediocracy instead of a meritocracy.
Are anonymous CVs the way forward? It is a scheme the French government launched recently and something many large employers in Europe and the U.S. already do. Essentially when a job application is received, a computer program automatically hides the name of the applicant. Those processing the application are forced to make their decision based on the qualification and experience of the applicant. Often, not only the name but other factors associated with discrimination are also removed, for instance gender, age and postal address. Axa the French insurance giant has been testing anonymous CVs since 2005. One result has been a significant increase in the number of women it recruits.
It is a fallacy to believe that people make it solely because they happen to have been born to a particular family, just as it is wrong to believe that those born under a less illustrious star are doomed to stay at the bottom of the social ladder. The reality is that those with dedication, talent and determination can make it in the world, and there are plenty of examples to prove it, but they have many more obstacles to overcome.
Anonymizing a CV may make it easier for someone with a name like Nazia Mahmood or Mariam Namagembe to obtain an interview, but it does not change much once they are called up for interview. Does this process not simply move discrimination further down the recruitment line? Perhaps it does, but still it removes one more obstacle from an already arduous course. Anonymous CVs are a flawed solution, but the problem is real and until the necessary cultural changes occur they may be a good idea.
*Published in the Saudi based ARAB NEWS on Nov. 14, 2009.