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French Firm Tests Colorblind Hiring
'Anonymous Résumés' Fuel Debate

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 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.

Most of the youths who took part in the violence were from black and Muslim immigrant families that have lived in France for more than a generation but have never fully integrated into French society. Lack of decent-paying jobs was one of their main grievances.

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.

"The idea of diversity is really only a year old here -- we were so sure of ourselves in terms of equity and equality that we never recognized that we had a racial problem in France, because a man was a man and nothing else," said Laurence Mehaignerie, an adviser to France's minister of equal opportunities. "It had to be something very violent, like these recent events, before we recognized that discrimination was at a very high level, and we started to realize there was a racial problem."

Among whites and minorities interviewed here, almost everyone agreed that there was racial prejudice in France. Some whites expressed concern that anonymous résumés would lead to minority quotas or affirmative action-style programs that could discriminate against them.

Serge Simon, a 21-year-old French youth whose parents are Haitian, said he liked the idea. "I think that with an anonymous résumé, a person will be hired for what they are -- for their qualifications and not for the color of their skin," he said.

But Simon, a salesclerk at a clothing store in Place de Clichy, a working-class neighborhood in northern Paris, said he was skeptical about whether the idea would prove effective because, in the end, the French government couldn't mandate change. "The bosses have to change their behaviors and ideas," he said.

Hassen Akremi, a Tunisian with a master's degree in international public law, said he had studied and worked legally in France for 12 years -- but only in menial jobs. "Racism is cultural," he complained. "It is in the conscience of the French mentality." Simple programs such as anonymous résumés will not erase it, he predicted.

"The French people think the immigrants should always be at the service of the French," said Akremi, 37, who works at a Parisian cybercafe. He said he had sent out 1,000 résumés but never been called for a single interview, even though he speaks French, English and Arabic. The only jobs he has held he acquired through the Arab community in Paris, and most were minimum-wage, Akremi said.

It was France's refusal to confront discrimination or even discuss it that led the Montaigne Institute, a private Paris research center founded by Bebear five years ago, to study the issue. The goal was to "help solve it by describing accurately what it is, and breaking the taboos and the mythology about the integration of individuals regardless of their national origin," said the institute's director general, Philippe Maniere. "We live in a world of prejudice and myth. We wanted to show that discrimination exists and help France correct itself."

A report the institute published in 2004 cited a study showing that a job applicant with a French-sounding name was five times more likely to be called for an interview than someone with an identical résumé but an Arabic- or North African-sounding name. That bias contributed to unemployment rates as high as 40 percent -- four times the national average -- among young men in low-income communities outside Paris, according to the report.

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.

"If I hire someone not because he's competent but because he's black, immediately everyone in the company is going to think that blacks are unqualified," Bebear said. To him, affirmative action should principally mean better education, so that minorities will have "the same level of confidence as the others."

AXA adopted the use of anonymous résumés in January 2005. Peugeot began using them about eight months ago. Other companies have expressed interest in the idea and are working toward implementing it, but they are having problems devising software and other systems to ensure anonymity across large, diversified businesses, officials said.

Another problem is that, under French law, companies are not allowed to build databases that link the names of employees with their race or ethnic group. That, said Maniere, the Montaigne Institute director, is a deeply rooted reaction against the roundup of people from different ethnic groups during World War II.

Mehaignerie, the aide to the equal opportunities minister, said anonymous résumés were "a good tool," but she cautioned: "It seems to me we won't be able to go very far if we can't have data. If you can't know who's being recruited and how they're being promoted, how can you validate who's doing good and who's not?"

Samuel Thomas, vice president of the anti-discrimination group SOS-Racisme, said there were many ways to gauge whether a company discriminates in hiring without fancy software programs and extensive databases.

"So many people want to analyze more than they want to do," he said, calling anonymous résumés "a very important solution" to the problem of achieving colorblind hiring. "The first problem is not to study discrimination," he said. "The first problem is to fight discrimination and stop it."

Special correspondent Caroline Hout contributed to this report.

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