The anonymous application - a nightmare for HR managers?

The anonymous application - a nightmare for HR managers?

A picture as an entry ticket into German recruiting processes

In many German companies, an application without a photo still leads directly to the wastepaper basket #1. Sometimes those responsible proclaim this self-confidently, and offensively, sometimes they admit it behind closed doors - a photo opens the door to the heart of the hiring manager or the HR manager.

A photo looks at us, and we think we see the person. And we got a picture in tenths of a second, consciously or often unconsciously, with the help of our famous "gut feeling".

It was always helpful to us, our gut feeling! It has always served us well.
Or has it?

Spoiler: The gut feeling that comes across when looking at the photo is nothing more than a thrown-together, unique set of biases - preconceptions, unconscious cognitive distortions.
That is why there are no application photos in other centers around the world, such as the USA, Canada or the UK. In addition, information on marital status or religion may no longer be part of application documents or interview questions.

And in Germany, too, there is no longer the need for a photo for the application. But we diligently send it on, because we know: without a photo, our chances are worse compared to those who send a photo. (Unless you wear a headscarf.)

Why do German companies remain in love with photos, despite knowing about unconscious bias?

Differences in anti-discrimination efforts between Germany and the USA

Germany differs greatly from other countries, such as the USA, in preventing discrimination in job application processes.

Why is Germany so obviously lagging behind here? An attempt at an explanation: the legal situation.

Anti-discrimination laws have a long tradition in the USA. In a web of different laws and rulings, working conditions and protection against discrimination based on race and ethnic origin, gender, pregnancy, age, disability, genetic information, family obligations , military service, financial circumstances or citizenship are regulated here.

The national Equal Employment opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established to ensure compliance with the regulations and to monitor the requirements, and it was given its own legal standing as early as 1972.

A big difference to Germany: US courts can impose financial penalties in the millions for discriminatory employers.

The differences to Germany are first of all that certain dimensions of discrimination are not covered in this country, such as the family situation or the socio-cultural background. It is also difficult to prove discrimination - if a discriminating company is only threatened with compensation for proven financial damage (although the claim to lost wages in the event of discrimination in job applications is still disputed) and further claims for compensation are capped, it is hardly worth the effort for applicants to file a lawsuit.

A relatively convenient law for companies, which, as a result of its passage, simply stopped providing any feedback on rejections and declared application processes as a trade secret.

And so we continue to paint an image of ourselves for the application documents in order to match the desired form as far as possible.

It is eye-opening to google "application photo". Here, the abyss of self-marketing and collective deception opens up: “How should you look in the photo? Should you smile? What should you wear?” are the questions that Google promptly dictates to your mind.

This shows what HR managers actually believe they can read from a photo - or even worse, unconsciously construct from a photo:

  • Is the person likeable? 
  • Does the person “fit” into our company?
  • Does he or she look like someone who fits the qualifications?
  • Do people have the “right” age?
  • Is clothing and photo quality appropriate, meaning he or she has the appropriate social status
  • Do facial expressions, posture, body language show the "desired" image?
  • Does the hairstyle (especially of women) show their professionalism, youthfulness, dynamism, personality

The crux of bias strikes again and again

Let's move on and take the people by the hand who - educated in diversity awareness trainings - have been shouting for many lines "but we don't have application photos anymore!" - because there are other discriminatory dangers lurking beyond the photos .

Bias play tricks on us throughout the application process. They lead to misinterpretations and wrong decisions. And they not only lead to unfair treatment of candidates - which would be bad enough. In times of a shortage of skilled workers, they lead to something much more fatal - from the company's point of view: They may overlook the perfect candidate. Or they may not find a suitable person at all. I don't need to calculate here how much unfilled or badly filled positions can cost a company.

An example Bias for you: meet the inGroup Bias

I would like to give you a small example of a bias that has a variety of effects in recruiting: the inGroup bias. This bias describes that we prefer members of our own group over those from another group. For example, sharing a hobby may result in being a member of my group.

The candidate is a member of the same golf club? – Boom! – now Christian, the board member, has a favorite candidate.

There is a study that proves that polo or sailing as a hobby open the door to well-paid positions in the US - especially if the applicant is male.

The proven most effective measure to prevent discrimination in recruiting is to remove all criteria that can lead to discrimination. In addition to the photo, this is also the date of birth, gender, marital status, origin, training centers and periods, and much more.

The most effective way to ban bias from recruiting is to apply anonymously.

I can hear you shouting again: "But the anonymous application just moves the bias to the interview".

That might be true.

But it could also be that the information from the anonymous procedure gives you a completely different picture than your bias would have given you. And you then see people completely differently, and, even more important: you see them at all!

Dear Recruiters!

I know you have a lot of work on your desk. So many people have to be sought out, recruited, spun off, reassigned, cared for. And now I come and say: please recruit anonymously. Does it sound like more work? That sounds like doing things differently, rethinking things.

But now please imagine for the moment that the position you are currently filling will NOT end up on your desk again in 5 months. Because you did it a little bit better than before. And you've also done something for your employer brand. And for diversity. And maybe just a little more excitement in your everyday work: who is really behind this great, anonymous, profile. 

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