Looking for a job in Ireland? Don’t sound foreign

Many people from ethnic backgrounds believe stereotyping impedes their chances

Bias in recruitment: prejudice is partially driven by what psychologists refer to as the 'similar-to-me effect'. File photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty

Bias in recruitment: prejudice is partially driven by what psychologists refer to as the 'similar-to-me effect'. File photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty


How do you quantify racial bias in recruitment? No job advert reads: “only whites need apply” and you won’t get turned away at the door of an interview for having the wrong skin tone. But prejudice doesn’t have to be so overt to be present. It’s a concealed barricade that many people of colour in Ireland would recognise. That creeping sense that their applications are being overlooked for reasons beyond the outdated typeface.

Ilaina Khairulzaman believes it to be true. She graduated with her master’s degree earlier this year and, as 23-year-olds fresh out of third-level education are wont to do, began throwing in applications for absolutely everything – temp work, admin work, whatever. Hundreds of applications were submitted. Almost zero responses came back.

Of course, jobs aren’t easy to come by, but speaking to friends in the same situation, Khairulzaman, who is from Malaysia, began to suspect she was a victim of racially charged bias. Jaded by the process, she decided to change tactics. A Twitter campaign was launched, powered by the hashtag #GetIlainaAJob. Finally, Khairulzaman started hearing back from the key decision makers. “This is really good,” they said after looking through her applications. “You’re really experienced.”

My primary strategy: do everything possible to ensure managers knew I was Irish

“It was a validation that I was qualified,” Khairulzaman says. “So it really was confusing why I wasn’t hearing back. Talking to other foreigners, I think we all agree that there might be unconscious racial bias, especially with people who have very foreign sounding names. It’s gotten to the point where I wanted to submit applications under an Irish-sounding name to see if that would at least get me an interview.

“In the back of our minds it’s always a thing, when you move into a predominantly white or English speaking country. Being a person of colour, you do expect some sort of racial bias. I think every person of colour feels that way,” Khairulzaman adds.

Nonhlanhla Banda does. A black woman born in South Africa, she lives in Dublin and works as a trainee solicitor and secretary for the African Professional Network Ireland, an organisation that empowers professionals of African origin through networking. Banda believes ethnic minorities are often the victims of negative stereotyping that hurts their chances of finding employment.

“If people have a stereotype or a narrative of how someone with a certain name should sound and look, they’re going to put [their application] to the wayside and bring forward the ones that they’re comfortable pronouncing. That’s been my experience of it,” says the DCU graduate, whose own belief that it helps to have a name that’s easier for Irish people to articulate has led her to put Nonie Banda on applications.

“If they actually looked at the full CV [they would see] the primary school I went to here, secondary school, university as well. A lot of people my age who would have come to Ireland very young and grown up in Ireland, but they’re still having a hard time getting in the door. On the flip side of it, other people will say, ‘Maybe you just weren’t the candidate they were looking for.’” Banda, however, feels name and ethnicity are significant barriers for job seekers.

Altering a CV

With a surname that doesn’t suggest I’m from this island, reworking the first line of my curriculum vitae is something I was already doing over a decade ago. While in college, I’d hit high street pavements and shopping centre floors with a stack of paper in the hope that sliding one over a counter would snag me some part-time work. My primary strategy: do everything possible to ensure managers knew I was Irish.

My nationality was prominently placed on my CV. I always tried to get in front of the chief decision maker to show that, yes, I could speak English. And, eventually, I changed the name on the top of the page to something seemingly more of this country. A foxy way, I concluded, of side-stepping any potential bias.

These tactics were driven by something I suspected was happening at companies whose internal workings I became familiar with: CVs from white Irish jobseekers were floating to the top of the pile as if by magic. At this point I should say that I don’t believe the managers were ugly, card-carrying racists who would have automatically shoved my own application into the shredder if they found out about my Vietnamese background. I do think, though, that some were influenced by biases – both conscious and unconscious.

Over a decade later and these problems appear to persist across all sectors. Researching this piece, a common issue that came up was the assumption by some potential employers that people born outside of Ireland may experience work permit issues. “There’s been a few times when they’d come back to me and ask, ‘Are you EU’, and I’d say no,” says Khairulzaman, who holds a graduate visa. “They just don’t want to deal with the work permit situation.”

Banda also cites hesitations regarding cultural differences as a fear that exists in companies: “A recruiter and potential employer wants to make sure that you’re going to fit in with the culture. I have friends who are Muslim. [They would say], ‘Okay, they might have a problem with my name, but they might have a problem with my hijab’ or, ‘They might have a problem with Ramadan and how the practicing of my religion factors into my job’. So they’re also up against more potential discriminations.”

Not all bias is inadvertent. Grotesque racism exists in Ireland. And it can infect a company’s recruitment.

Here’s one example: In 2015 , a young Irish professional named Daniel* had just begun work in the European headquarters of a software company. While he was receiving entry-level training, a manager told Daniel and another fresh recruit that the firm received a lot of applications from India but that it wasn’t keen on having people relocate for work. The manager told the pair that if he saw applications with “Indian-sounding names”, he often just skips over them.

“I was shocked when he said it. There was no other patterns of racism that I could identify in the company,” says Daniel. “Everyone in the room was a white male,” he says, adding that such comments are less likely to be questioned in companies with low diversity.

If you’re not getting diverse candidates, you have to go and actually seek them

A piece of 2015 research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that between 2004 and 2010 ethnic minorities and non-nationals reported greater levels of discrimination when it came to trying to find a job. According to the research, most non-white ethnic groups are more likely than white Irish or other white Europeans to report discrimination.

The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Ireland would like to see these issues addressed through political leadership and a natural action plan against racism: “It’s very clear that you have a better chance of getting a job if you are white and Irish and have an Irish-sounding name then if you don’t meet all of those criteria,” says Shane O’Curry, director of ENAR Ireland.

“There’s indisputable structural inequality when it comes to ethnic minorities. The evidence that we pick up through our reports systems suggests cultural and institutional attitudes that are at the very least not conducive to rectifying that and, in fact, probably make it worse.”

The reality of bias

Bias exists in recruitment. That’s an unavoidable reality that’s probably existed since the early days of market economies. It’s partially driven by what psychologists refer to as the “similar-to-me effect” which leads to interviewers having an unconscious tendency to favour people just like them. It’s been discussed as a factor that holds back not just people of colour, but as one of the reasons men continue to dominate senior management positions.

“Bias does exist. Bias has always existed,” says Frank Farrelly, co-founder and operations officer of Sigmar Recruitment. “It went on when Ireland was a homogenous society and it still goes on. It’s probably easier to see with [racial] bias and gender bias – these are things that are easier to identify. What I say is that a ‘similar-to-me bias’ exists, and that often has one of the biggest impacts on recruitment,” says Farrelly, who is also president of the National Recruitment Federation.

For many of the world’s biggest firms, creating a culture of diversity across gender, race and ethnicity is seen as an absolute necessity. Consider Apple, which has shown ongoing commitment to greater inclusion in the belief that a variety of perspectives enhances its creativity and inventiveness. “Because we know new ideas come from diverse ways of seeing things,” reads the tech giant’s website.

A smaller company’s efforts to do the same runs into some barriers. For instance, there’s a good chance that at some point in your life, you got a job because a friend recommended you. But referrals just tend to produce people from the same background.

Farrelly believes companies have to be proactive when seeking out candidates from a more diverse pool: “If you’re not getting diverse candidates, you have to go and actually seek them, so you’re headhunting them into the process,” he says.

And that comes down to details as apparently minor as how a firm’s website looks, the wording of the job adverts and where the adverts are posted.

From there, one of the strategies Sigmar deploys is to anonymise candidates’ CVs, making the shortlisting for interview as neutral as possible. That means no names or other specifics. So instead of naming institutions, a candidate’s application will indicate that they worked for, say, a “large domestic bank” or an “international insurance company”.

Critics of diversity policies claim they strip recruitment of an important tenet: that every applicant should be treated on merit. Farrelly shoots down this argument, though, saying the strategies he champions simply ensure everyone has equal access to the process.

“Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t have equal access to the job and some people, because of the way they feel about societal bias against them, won’t even apply. You can judge people on merit when you get people into an interview process, but the key thing is to get them into the interview process, number one. Number two is when you have them in the interview process, you have to make sure that the interview process is judging everybody to an equal standard.”

These are issues that probably never enter into most senior managers’ minds. And yet, these creeping, persistent biases are highly corrosive to those whose lives they affect.

Nonhlanhla Banda managed to buck the trend, but recognises that, in doing so, she successfully thwarted an ongoing problem.

“When I got into the legal profession, I went via an internship,” she says. “I always thanked them. Even on my last day I said, ‘You guys took a chance on me. You looked at my name and said get this girl in and we’ll see what she can do’, and a lot of people just won’t do that.”

* Name changed to protect identity

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