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Editorial – Jamal, Jobs and Justice

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ says a smitten Juliet as she declares her love for young Romeo. But if William Shakespeare was a young person from an ethnic minority looking for work in the West today, I doubt if he would be quite so confident that names don’t matter.

This month, as our sons and daughters head off to higher institutions of learning urged, as all good parents of African origin are wont to do, to succeed or not return home, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that however hard our offspring work, the system in which they operate could be working equally hard against them.

Depressing though this sounds, it is borne out by the evidence.

What’s in a Name?

Research over past years has examined race discrimination in recruitment and the evidence clearly shows that it’s not a case of over-sensitive minorities looking for excuses.

In the United States, a notable study by Sendhil Mullainathan and Marianne Bertrand, an economist at the University of Chicago, illustrated the impact of names on one’s chances of employment. The researchers sent thousands of resumes to employers with job openings and measured which ones were selected for interviews. Using the same resume, they randomly assigned stereotypically African-American names, such as “Jamal”, to some and stereotypically white names, such as “Brendan”, to others. The findings showed that the same resume was almost 50% more likely to invite an interview if it had a “white” name. Because the resumes were statistically identical, any differences in outcomes could be attributed only to the factor they manipulated: the names.

The findings showed that the same resume was almost 50 % more likely to invite an interview if it had a “white” name.

Benchmarking Race in Recruitment

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the stark contrast between the fortunes of those from different racial groups in the UK when it comes to employment. Research shows that in the past year, the unemployment rate for ethnic minority workers has risen three times faster than the rate for white workers.

TUC analysis of the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures found that between April and June 2020 and the same period in 2021, the unemployment rate for ethnic minority workers rose 31 per cent, up from 6.1 per cent to 8 per cent. However, the unemployment rate for white workers only increased by 11 per cent from 3.6 per to 4 per cent, meaning the growth of the rate of unemployment for ethnic minority people was almost three times faster.

Black and brown people, then, are clearly not getting (or keeping) jobs at the same rate as their white peers, and research proves that when it comes to recruitment, be it within education, medicine, technology, or finance, the message is identical. Applications receive a more favourable response if a stereotypically white name is used.

If you had the foresight to give your minority offspring ethnically neutral names, you can pat yourself on the back in the knowledge that at least the first hurdle has been bridged. But with a quarter of the UK’s population projected to come from a black or minority ethnic background by 2051, it is well past time for businesses to do better in recruiting from all communities.

The encouraging news is that many more companies are aware of the dangers of unconscious and systemic bias in recruitment policies and are prepared to do something about it. Employers that recruit proportionate numbers of ethnic minority and white candidates are far more likely to train their recruitment staff in unconscious bias, involve minority staff in interviewing potential recruits, and monitor the progress of minority candidates right through all the stages of the recruitment process. They generally also set targets at all levels within their companies and brief any external recruiters about their targets.

Diversity – Good. Business. Sense.

A diverse workforce makes good business sense and progressive companies are increasingly extending their recruitment channels beyond traditional routes and adopting fairer and more inclusive recruitment practices to break down the barriers excluding talent and widen access to career opportunities for people from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds

As humans, even when we have good intentions, we are all susceptible to racial bias, and good employers train their staff to be aware of unconscious systemic bias in their recruitment and promotional activities and ensure that their policies and processes are fair and transparent and provide a just platform for selecting on merit.

When it is time for your offspring to seek employment, encourage them to research employers that meet the benchmark for diversity in their recruitment processes and that offer a level playing field. As parents, advisers, and carers, remaining vigilant and encouraging our youngsters to seek out businesses that do the right thing, might finally get us to the day when justice is served. Because it is only when the efforts of Kwaku, Toyin and Jamal can compete equally with those of Kenneth, Tina, and James that our names really will smell just as sweet.


Founder & Managing Editor, ReConnect Africa

‘Imperfect Arrangements’ ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

* This article has been updated from an earlier version

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