Anonymous Applications: Invite Anna, not Ismail – By Dr. Claus Hecking


(Translated by Theresa Herzog, with permission) 

The original article in German was published in Der Spiegel on 22 June, 2017

Discrimination in the workplace and housing market is normal in Germany. Anonymous applications could change this – but companies are shying away. 

Discrimination can be found almost everywhere where people find themselves having to judge others. It is present in the housing market, wherein Hanna is granted the coveted rent contract – and Ismail the rejection letter.

Discrimination rears its ugly head even in job-hunting. It is a due to their foreign-sounding name, being single parents, or happen to be older than the rest of the applicants. One solution would be the implementation of anonymous application procedure, something that is hardly used in this country, as there are far too many misgivings regarding the matter.

Is discrimination in the housing market a common phenomenon?

It is common practice. This is what the latest joint study between the SPIEGEL and Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio) proves, a process that engaged data journalists from both print and radio media to submit 20,000 applications to 6570 apartment advertisements in ten German cities under various names ( One out of every four interested parties with Turkish or Arab sounding names walked away empty-handed if other applicants were invited to a property viewing. Men bearing such names had more difficulties than women.

How widespread is discrimination in the workplace?

Very widespread, as suggested by a study conducted last Fall by the Austrian economist and gender researcher Doris Weichselbaumer. The gender researcher sent out almost 1500 fictitious applications to German companies. The results: 18.8% of employment candidate “Sara Bauer” applications let to an interview invitation, whereas “Meryem Öztürk” who submitted the exact same application, received only 13.5%. Furthermore, if Mrs. Öztürk wore a hijab (head scarf) in the application photograph, the quota shrunk to 4,2%. The means: the fictitious hijab-wearer immigrant had to apply four times more than the applicant of apparent German origin in order to be invited for an interview.

What can be done against it? 

Anonymous applications could prevent such discriminatory treatment, at least at the recruitment procedure level. In countries like the USA and Canada many companies consciously discard  the request of certain details such as name, age, marital status, cultural origin or religion; and quite often they explicitly request the applicant not to submit a photograph. This has been the standard procedure in Belgium in the public sector for several years.

And in Germany? 

The Federal Anti-discrimination Office in Germany began a anonymous application pilot project at the end of 2010. Eight companies and government agencies  – Deutsche Telekom, Post (the  German post office), the cosmetic company L’Oreal, the consumer good producer Procter & Gamble, the adventure voucher vendor Mydays, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, the Federal Labour Office in North Rhine Westphalia, and the city administration of Celle – each advertised anonymous applications for certain job vacancies over a 12-month period. The scope ranged from apprenticeship training to technical professions and customer support to middle management.

The male or female applicants were requested not to submit a photograph, their name, address, date of birth, marital status, cultural origin or nationality. Some companies adjusted their online application tools accordingly. Others opted for a uniform application form that was sent to the applicant, and a third group anonymized the personal data retrospectively. A total of over 8500 people applied, around 1300 were invited for an interview, and 246 were offered a position.

Who benefits from anonymized applications? 

According to the Anti-discrmination Office the pilot project showed that the anonymized applications increase the equal opportunity and help reduce discrimination. Migrants and younger women  in particular could profit from the anonymization. The majority of Human Resources Departments did not miss the personal data. Some of them even acknowledged hiring applicants who were initially not interviewed without the anonymized application procedure.

How widespread is anonymized applications currently in German companies? 

It is practically non-existent in the private sector. Even the pilot project participants such as Telekom, Post, and Mydays still use the traditional job application procedure. A spokesperson for the Post explained that the anonymize applications “did not lead us to any new results in selecting qualified applicants.” There was therefore no increase or decrease in the hiring of male or female migrant job applicants. Even Procter & Gamble writes: “Regarding the diversity of the applicants, the results did not show any difference as compared to our regular recruitment process.” The Telekom explained back then, that the personal impression is much more important than a smooth resume or a good transcript. Mydays implemented the anonymized process for a while, but reverted to the open applications that include names and other personal data. Why this was so, was something the a spokesperson could not explain; the Pilot Projekt took place far too long ago.

The Anti-discrimination Office is only aware of one company that implements anonymous recruitment: the medium-sized electronics enterprise Bürkle + Schöck from Stuttgart. Recently, Siemens has opted to dispense with photographs.

What about in the public sector? 

The use of anonymized applications is somewhat more widespread. Among the project participants, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs as well as the Celle city administration use the procedure. “It is during the initial contact, when the application file is sent in that one is influenced most by such information like the photography, gender, age, or marital status. The anonymized process helps make the selection process be more objective during the first stage of recruitment,” says Human Resources Manager Jockel Birkholz. “And I follow my gut during the interview.” The cities of Karlsruhe, Monheim, and a handful of there communities have announced that they will be implementing anonymized recruitment. The anonymous application s to be come standard procedure in the Berlin administration.

Why is anonymous application process used rarely? 

Companies often admit that the administrative effort is too high. A more decisive factor is that they do not want to be dissuaded from their decision. In particular, many are of the opinion that  they can have a more wholistic impression of the applicant with the personal markers.

The argument is understandable: even if anonymization leads to applicants having to fill out the standard questionnaires that do not highlight their salient qualities. “If the process is so constricted, then there is a great danger that only the conformal person with a conventional resume will be hired and all others with an unusual life story are discarded”, says Weichselbaumer.

In this case, transcripts, diplomas or other supporting documents for the targeted qualification are often anything but objective. “If some one, for example, has a 4 in German in their transcripts, there is the danger that his application will not be considered”, writes a spokesperson for the Telekom. “If, however, they suspect that German is not his mother tongue and he possesses other talents, then he stands a good chance to be interviewed.”

The job interview is and will always be the determining step in the application procedure. At that stage no candidate can remain anonymous anymore, and the judgement of Human Resources is always highly subjective.

Could anonymized applications in the housing market prevent discrimination? 

Regardless of whether it involves recruitment or allocation of a flat: at the end of the day the applicants must submit their names and show their faces. On the other hand, anonymized applications offer significant advantages in the preliminary selection: some candidates, who would otherwise be prematurely filtered out due to their name or appearance, stand a better chance of being interviewed by Human Resources or the landlord, and prove themselves.

Related Articles:

Anonymous Job Applications: German Pilot Project Aims To Reduce Discrimination (Der Spiegel)

Can Anonymous CVs help beat discrimination? (The Guardian)

No Name, No Bias (The Economist)


Wir müssen draußen bleiben*
(*NB: I was granted permission to translate only the above article, not the related results of the studies)

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