French Firm Tests Colorblind Hiring

John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, Jan. 29, 2006

PARIS—When the prime minister of France wanted a powerful, unimpeachable voice to recommend how to end job discrimination in the country, he turned to Claude Bebear, an outspoken takeover artist who had built a small regional insurance firm into the world’s biggest.

Bebear, who saw racial discrimination as one of France’s most deeply rooted and insidious problems, did not disappoint. In a report 14 months ago, he brought a largely hidden topic into full public view. Bebear laid out a series of proposed remedies, including a colorblind recruiting tool known as the “anonymous résumé.”

Typically, in France, “they throw away the résumés of people who are from bad parts of town which are supposed to have Arabs or blacks,” Bebear, 70, said in an interview. “When you have somebody whose name is Mohammed and he lives in St. Denis,” a low-income community outside Paris, “you say, ‘I won’t bother with that one,’ and so they don’t even answer them.”

The solution, Bebear said, is to strip résumés of anything that could tip off recruiters to a person’s racial, ethnic and national background or other information that could be used to discriminate—name, age, sex, even residential postal code. “Then the man who is in charge of recruitment will look at that and say, ‘Oh, that résumé is a very good one. Send me that guy,’ and in the folder he has in front of him is an old black woman or a handicapped person.”

Today, Bebear has made his company, AXA—a 112,000-employee behemoth that receives 40,000 résumés a year in France alone—a testing ground for anonymous résumés. The results from the first year are not yet in, but after minority youths rioted across France last fall, the concept is attracting growing support and helping to fuel a legislative debate.

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French President Jacques Chirac recently endorsed the use of anonymous résumés, and other politicians, big businesses and anti-discrimination groups are following suit. The powerful French bureaucracy, however, has been slow to embrace the idea, preferring to study it and weigh potential legal problems. Some people blame the government’s tepid enthusiasm on a French mind-set that has hindered public discussion of the country’s discrimination problem for decades.

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Armed with such data, Bebear and the Montaigne Institute have persuaded about 300 companies—including the Total energy group, the car manufacturer Peugeot Citroen, the steel giant Arcelor and SNCF, the national railway—to sign a charter pledging to oppose discrimination and make their companies “reflect the diversity of France.”

Among the recommendations in an accompanying report were that companies use anonymous résumés in hiring, produce annual reports charting progress in ending discrimination, and create internships to start young minority people on career paths.

Bebear said the proposals were meant to correct inequities without American-style affirmative action programs, which are illegal under French law and viewed by many people here—Bebear included—as antithetical to French culture and society.

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