Virgin Atlantic: Foreign sounding names need not apply



On Monday 15th April 2013, Max Kpakio, a black British man will take Virgin Atlantic to an employment tribunal. The Liberian-born, International Relations graduate applied for a call-centre job with the company in Swansea.  His application was rejected without being called to interview and he suspected that the rejection was because of his ‘foreign-sounding’ name. He then re-applied for the same job, with less qualifications listed, under an ‘English’ pseudonym ‘Craig Owen’. He was subsequently invited for an interview and received a string of messages saying how much they were looking forward to meeting him.

The 36-year-old graduate who has lived in the UK for the past 10 years and is now a British citizen believes that the enthusiastic response to the second application proves that his initial rejection was based solely on racial discrimination.

He said,

“It occurred to me that my ethnic origin may have something to do with the rejection. I then decided to make a further application to Virgin, using the name Craig Owen. They were in touch with me seven or eight times, and kept coming back to me when I didn't respond.”

He claims the rejection is as a result of racial discrimination and is taking  Virgin Atlantic to an employment tribunal. This is particularly embarrassing for Virgin boss Richard Branson, who is using the world's most celebrated athlete, Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt, to sell his global brand.

Sadly, Kpakio’s experience is not unusual.

Research done over the past few years have suggested that job applicants with ‘foreign-sounding’ names face obstacles to being hired in many lines of work.  In December 2012, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community published a study on employment and ethnic minorities. They discovered that ethnic minority women suffer from more than double the rate of unemployment compared to their white counterparts. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women have an unemployment rate of 20.5 % and the figures are similar for black women with 17.7% unemployed. This is more than twice the unemployment rate for white women, which stands at 6.8%.

The study revealed that racial bias did play a factor in the prospect of gaining employment.  Some Muslim women revealed that would remove their hijabs and anglicise their names to increase their chances of employment. Some BME women reported that they were asked about their future plans for marriage and children during job interviews. The assumption of employers is that BME women are more likely to leave work and have a family, which is why they do not employ them.

The report found that employers’ attitudes worsened when they ‘discovered’ that the women with ‘European’ names were not white. 

A number of practices verify this pattern of discrimination.

The Guardian interviewed a City-worker who was tasked by his boss to look through job applications. He was told to eliminate anyone who “sounded black” in order to reduce the pile of applications. They also interviewed a senior manager at a leading recruitment company which says he sees bias in favour of ‘British sounding’ names on a daily basis.

He said,

"It's awful. Our job as recruiters is to send what we deem to be the right CVs to our clients. If I put forward a candidate with an unusual or foreign name, 90% of the time I will hear nothing. They don't say no, they just infer they're not interested by pretending they never saw that CV. It's even more extreme if the vacancy is customer-facing."

He went on to say,

“As recruiters earn their living through placing an applicant in the advertised position as efficiently as possible, when there are 300 CVs to go through a day, any foreign name is likely to be deleted without even being opened. We feel dreadful about it, but essentially it's a matter of time-saving".

There are proposals and even legislation which has been passed in order to tackle this issue. In 2010 the Government passed the Equality Act which was designed to help make the work place fairer and brought in additional processes to hold employers to account. Some of the proposals being put forward to help tackle name bias selection is making all CVs anonymous, as was done in France. However, this ran-into complications in France because anonymous CVs seemed to do little for ending job-discrimination. Making CVs anonymous also meant that the French government couldn’t measure the success or failure of their project.

In 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg championed a similar scheme when he set-up the social mobility compact. The compact encouraged companies to use applications forms which had no names or school education listed. The scheme was voluntary and as of December 2012 only 143 companies signed up for it.

What cases like Max Kpakio highlight is that we desperately need new legislation, as well as, greater education for employers. The problem has not gone away and if it is not tackled, it will increase social alienation of certain groups from society. In effect, it is time for the government to get tough with companies to eradicate the scourge of racial prejudice.

Usman Butt