All Applicants Should Be Anonymous

Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

Applying for things sucks. And we have to apply for lots of things. We apply for jobs, schools, and clubs. We apply for loans, credit cards, and financial aid. We apply for scholarships, insurance, and governmental benefits. This isn’t a complete list, by any means, but it gives a good idea of the ubiquity of applications. All of these things that we’re applying for suffer from the same set of interrelated problems: favoritism, racism, sexism, ablism, nepotism, classism, anti-LGBTQIA+ discrimination, agism, and good old-fashioned bigotry. Luckily, there’s an easy fix for all these problems and more as well: anonymous applications.

The fact that there are problems with hiring, school selection, and all the other things we apply for should be obvious. All but the wealthy and well-connected have most likely experienced one or more of the problems. But there has been plenty of empirical research done on the topic as well. Perhaps the most famous example is the studies that show that job applicants with “black-sounding names” are less likely to be called for an interview than an identical applicant with a “white-sounding name”. It is well known that credit decisions often factor in zip codes rather than an applicant’s creditworthiness. And schools are so aware of admissions discrimination that they are seemingly always adjusting their criteria to “rebalance” admissions and getting sued by whichever group feels left out.

Before getting to the how and why, it would be best to explain exactly what is meant by anonymous applicants. It isn’t just submitting an application without a name. All information that might be used to identify an applicant has to be stripped from the whole process. Name, address, and phone number are pretty obvious, but it goes deeper than that. Cover letters and interviews are non-starters. Dates of employment or graduation can be used to estimate how old a candidate is, so they’ve got to go. Hobbies, volunteer work, and charities supported can be clues as to how rich the applicant is, so they’re gone, too. Even email addresses can be used to guess ethnicity (because full or partial names are so often a part of the address), so none of those either. No identifying characteristics can be shared at all.

In order to do this, the onus must flip from the applicant describing themselves and saying why they would be a good fit to the organization describing the position/qualifications/etc. and asking if the applicant is a good fit. Each candidate could be assigned a random number and simple yes or no questions would do. That gives the organization all the information they need and doesn’t divulge anything else. There would have to be safeguards that the candidate is answering the questions truthfully. But that’s not much different than it is now. People lie on their applications as it is. There just needs to be a stipulation that a lie forfeits the acceptance.

To give an idea what an application may look like in the new system, consider these application questions:

  • Can you lift and carry fifty-pound bags: Yes or No?
  • Is your debt-to-income ratio below 40%: Yes or No?
  • Is your GPA over 3: Yes or No?
  • Have you been out of work for 30 consecutive days: Yes or No?

Why such a drastic change to the status quo? Well, it’s partly to fix the problems mentioned above. Ageism is impossible if no one knows the candidate’s age. Same for race, gender, and everything else. But there’s more to it than that. The application process does not, and has never, worked well. All the hoops candidates jump through don’t come close to ensuring the best applicant is picked. The application process rewards people who are good at the application process- people who write a good cover letter, give a good interview, and work their connections effectively. At no point does it look at who would be the best fit or who deserves the loan or anything else that matters.

There will be objections, of course, to such a big change. Some of the objections will come from the applicants themselves while others would come from the places they are applying to. Applicants are most likely to complain that they don’t have any way of standing out. The thing is, that’s kind of the whole point. In the current system, there is no fair way to stand out. It comes down to connections and resources. It might be disappointing for people who attended elite schools that they no longer help beyond the education they give, but we’d be better off that way. It’s kind of like setting up a Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance in the application process. The only thing that matters is whether a person is qualified, so we need to stop asking for anything else.

The places accepting and rejecting applications will have a different complaint. They will complain about not getting to know the candidates before making a decision. Again, that’s the whole point. As things stand, organizations don’t really get to know their applicants, at least not as people. They get to know some person acting like they are the best loan candidate/scholar/employee who ever lived. They get to know who’s better at applying than other people. The new system would give organizations all they need. Plus, it would save them time and money in processing, interviewing, and all that.

Anonymous applicants would be a big change, but it would be worth it. It would make sense to start in the financial sector and work out from there. And there would probably be a time where small organizations are exempt since they lack the resources to effectively anonymize their applicants. It might take five years for a full rollout. But think of all the people it will help. It will help all marginalized groups. It will help the poor and middle class. It will help the inexperienced and the over-experienced. The only people it might hurt are the wealthy and well connected. Except it wouldn’t really hurt them as much as put them in the same position as everyone else. That seems like a small price to pay to help everyone else in society.

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