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Are anonymous applications are failed concept for battling discrimination?

Originating from the US and Northern countries in Europe, the trend to send anonymous applications arrived in Germany a couple of years ago. In the beginning, that approach was praised as a major milestone against discrimination during the hiring process. As soon as there is no picture and no name, age, and gender are listed in the applications, hiring managers are no longer able to consciously or subconsciously select by those criteria.


At first glance, it looks like there is no down side, but in reality some issues arise. Anonymous applications, often enough put together by filling out standardized forms, really only lists qualifications and nothing more. As a result, hiring managers will have a hard time gauging the candidates’ suitability in terms of soft skills. Making the application truly anonymous is also much harder than it sounds, as even hidden hints to the person’s gender, for example, have to be eliminated. And of course it becomes absolutely impossible to give the application a personal touch, or to formulate special interest or expectations. Certificates and references cannot be included, which presents a problem when the job requires a certain diploma or level of education. In summary, for the concept to work, both the candidate and the employer need to find a careful balance.


The recruiting process definitely becomes more complicated, as after the initial round, the winning candidates need to be approached to hand in certificates, testimonies, and possibly pictures in a second round. At least surprises during job interviews can still be minimized that way.


While in the US and some north-western European countries have long adapted anonymous applications as the standard approach, there has so far been only one notable pilot project in 2011. The project itself was praised as an important step in the fight against discrimination, but employers are still struggling with the concept. And that although the General Act On Equal Treatment is settling clear guidelines.

For the 2011 project, run by the federal anti-discrimination office, nine companies (among them Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post, Procter & Gamble, and Mydays) could be convinced to participate. For one year, those companies would only be using anonymous applications in their hiring efforts. At the time, there was heavy media coverage on the project, but true results have been few. In the final report, the overall tenor was positive. Especially women and migrants seemed to have profited. However, all companies but four returned to the traditional hiring method after the project.

Critics raise the objection that the study itself is faulty, as the participating companies, in many cases large multinational entities, overall already had fairly good anti-discrimination guidelines in place. A control group of the average smaller companies that make up the bulk of German employers was missing, and the final report failed to provide hard facts and statistics. The study, therefore, cannot be called representative – but that not even the initiators ever claimed it to be.

Will discrimination happen regardless – only further down the line in the process?

Even though the anti-discrimination office is convinced that anonymous applications will become standard, they remain realistic: Anonymous applications are not a cure-all against discrimination. They are one piece in the larger picture of diversity management.

However, the question remains whether anonymous applications only move the discrimination further down the line. A woman who might otherwise not ne invited because her age makes HR managers assume she might have children in the near future, might end up getting a job interview after all – but not get any further. Rejection letters in Germany stopped listing specific reasons in 2006, to ward off law suits.

Applicant, at least, seem to like the new method. About 40% prefer anonymous applications, and only 20% think the classic approach is more advantageous for them.

The anti-discrimination office isn’t going to give up on anonymous applications. They are projects running in several states now. One in Baden-Württemberg concentrates on small companies and is looking mostly at economic factors. Anonymous applications, so the theory, allows for much more targeted hiring. Overall, the switch toward online applications, which is happening now, is a good opportunity to also adopt anonymous applications in the process.

On the other hand, even Mydays, one of the 2011 participating companies who kept the process, isn’t using it for all job openings. Positions with very specific requirements are explicitly exempt. In those cases it’s usually difficult enough to find a good candidate to begin with. Any further hurdles could well mean the spot can’t be filled over a long period of time. Graduates and others just starting their career would have problems, too, as their resume would not have anything to distinguish then besides basic degree and diplomas and maybe an internship or two.

Overall, the organisational advantage of anonymous applications, which is getting the relevant data of an application into a very structured and short form, still has to counter all the disadvantages outlined this article. It does not look like there will be any legislation concerning this in the near future, neither in Germany, nor EU wide. The topic, though, will stay relevant.

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Herr Daniel Stock d.stock(@)top-jobs-europe.de