In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously attempts to downplay the significance of Romeo’s surname by declaring, ‘What’s in a name? That which is called a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Now, we all know how that story ends, and that – unfortunately for the protagonists – Juliet’s youthful optimism in overcoming unjust preconceptions turns out to be misplaced. But we also know that her statement was quite simply wrong – there’s actually a whole lot in a name. For a start, it gives away our gender. It might give a clue as to our age. And often, it discloses additional information about us; for instance, whether we’re British or foreign-born, which ethnic group we belong to, and even the social class we spring from. We may prefer not to disclose some of this information in case it (subconsciously, at least) influences someone’s decision to employ us, but that’s not usually an option – our name quite simply gives it away.

The Government is now seeking to address this issue as part of its social mobility strategy, first announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg last April, which aims to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed in life. On 12 January Mr Clegg announced that, to date, over 100 UK businesses have signed the Government’s ‘Business Compact’ on social mobility and committed themselves to opening their doors to people from all walks of life, regardless of their background. More specifically, the businesses (from the finance, retail, legal and energy sectors) have pledged to ensure that recruitment processes don’t allow people to be inadvertently screened out because they went to the wrong school or come from a different ethnic group. Where appropriate, this will mean using anonymised application forms and CVs, and omitting school details. Mr Clegg hopes this will ensure that employers ‘recruit fairly and without discrimination’.

The idea of CVs without names is by no means new – Lynne Featherstone, before she became Equalities Minister, suggested a clause to that effect when the Equality Bill was making its way through Parliament. The amendment was later withdrawn, but the Department for Work and Pensions decided to investigate the issue by sending 3,000 fake applications to employers to determine whether applicants with foreign-sounding names were disadvantaged in the recruitment process. The results showed widespread racial discrimination: an applicant who appeared to be white had to send nine applications to get a positive response, whereas ethnic minority candidates had to send 16.  

Anonymised application forms and CVs and omitted school details will go some way towards ensuring a level playing field for all applicants. However, such steps would only eradicate potential discrimination at the initial recruitment stage. There would be nothing to prevent an employer rejecting a person after the interview for discriminatory reasons – at which point the employer will clearly be aware of the applicant’s race, sex, age, etc.

Nor is the risk of suffering discriminatory treatment because of one’s name entirely removed once the applicant is offered employment. In Jain v Teachers 2 Parents Ltd (ET Case No.1900007/11), the employer asked its Indian and Asian staff to use anglicised names when dealing with customers. It argued that there had been problems with e-mails going missing because customers had misspelt them. The claimant was recruited to market a new product by cold-calling potential customers and was asked to change his first name, which was Rahul, before taking to the phones. He didn’t think his name had ever caused communication problems with customers, but felt he had no choice and so agreed to adopt the name ‘Rob’. He later made a successful complaint of race discrimination before an employment tribunal. In the tribunal’s view, the correct use of an employee’s given or birth name is very often a fundamental step in building respect within working relationships. An instruction, as here, that a different name must be used was clearly detrimental treatment and, as no colleague of white British ethnic origin would have been asked to do the same, the treatment was discriminatory. For all Juliet’s musings on her balcony, names, it seems, are far from interchangeable.