David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, said racial discrimination in the job market was “disgraceful” earlier this month, prompting observers to wonder what exactly he planned to do about it. On Monday he announced a plan: to introduce “name-blind” recruitment for youngsters in much of the public sector, and encourage employers in the private sector to do the same. Blind recruitment is an idea that has been gaining ground as policymakers and employers worry about social mobility and homogeneous workforces. Is it necessary and does it work? Here’s a quick Q&A.

Q: Is racial discrimination really a problem in the UK labour market?

A: Yes. People from ethnic minority groups have higher unemployment rates and worse rates of pay. A study for the Department for Work and Pensions in 2006 (by Professor Anthony Heath and Dr Sin Yi Cheung) found that this held true even after controlling for different characteristics such as age and quality of education. They also found that second-generation migrants, who were born and brought up in Britain, experienced similar “ethnic penalties” to the first generation, though not quite as strongly.

Q: Why hide applicants’ names from recruiters? Won’t they meet them at an interview anyway?

A: Sure, but the evidence suggests it’s harder to even secure an interview if you have a non-white sounding name. In 2009, the DWP commissioned a study by NatCen: the researchers sent three applications to 987 advertised job vacancies, where all three applicants were equally qualified, but one had a white-sounding name and the other two had non-white sounding names.

When the responses came in, 10.7 per cent of the applications with white names received a positive response, compared with 6.2 per cent of the applications with ethnic minority names.

Q: If you hide everyone’s names, does that gap disappear?

A: There have been experiments in France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands over the past 10 years to try to answer that question. According to a summary of these studies by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labour, anonymous job applications do seem to increase the probability that applicants from ethnic minorities are invited for interview. But the evidence is too patchy to tell whether their chances of a job offer diminish again at the interview stage.

Still, blind recruitment didn’t work in every study. In the French government’s experiment (which took place between 2010 and 2011) applicants from ethnic minorities had worse callback rates. The authors of the study speculated that could be because employers were able to discern their background from other information in their applications, such as their addresses, the schools they had attended, and their language skills.

The authors wrote:

“All in all, using the languages skills as a proxy for foreign background is a successful strategy in 70% of the resumes. Focusing on Arabic, language is even a better proxy for foreign background: when recruiters read in a candidate’s resume that she has Arabic language skills, they can infer that she is immigrant or child of immigrant from the Maghreb, and this will be a bad guess in only 7% of cases.”

There was also an example of an unintended consequence: in a small-scale experiment at a European economic research institution that wanted to increase its gender diversity, the use of anonymous applications got in the way of its goal to boost the number of women via affirmative action.

Q: So it’s not a magic bullet?

A: No, not even if it worked perfectly. Mr Cameron’s initiative only applies to graduates and apprentices, so it won’t affect older job applicants, nor people’s chances of promotion once they are inside a company. Still, the balance of evidence suggests the policy does help to reduce discrimination at a critical moment in people’s careers.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.