Two years ago, my son was applying to a high school in Seoul. The application procedure included an interview. In the waiting room for the interview, teachers of the high school handed out blue gowns and shoe covers. Applicants were requested to wear the gowns on top of their middle school uniforms or plain clothes, and put on overshoes. The purpose? They were intended to hide school uniforms that would indicate which middle schools they were attending and hence which districts they were from. Even plain clothes and shoes had to be covered as the brand names may indicate the financial status of the families of the applicants -- extreme measures to ensure fairness through total blindness.
Similar gowns and covers will now be brought into the employee application procedure of governmental agencies and public corporations nationwide. Riding a wave of social justice, starting from this fall governmental agencies and 300-plus public corporations will have to conduct a full-blind evaluation of their applicants -- mainly college graduates. No mention of college names, hometowns, or family information. Forget about color photos taken within the last three months also. Unless the job specifically requires language skills, English standardized test scores will be prohibited too. The government sees a bias in this information: Information like this fogs the eyes of evaluators and makes fair evaluation difficult. In particular, information on the names of graduating colleges will favor one group of applicants over the other.
Pressure is also being placed on private corporations to follow suit. Reportedly private companies are baffled as to how to evaluate their applicants if core information is missing. The only information available to them will be some basic personal information such as names, addresses and perhaps national ID numbers, and the performance during a face-to-face interview. First impressions matter, but are not always an accurate barometer of success.
Sadly, Korea has a serious social problem, no question about it. The crazy education fever of Korean society forces parents to engage in an arms race where they pour their financial and non-financial resources into their children’s education, so that their children can go to good colleges. Good colleges then lead to good jobs.
If good colleges do not mean good jobs anymore, then the social fever will go away, so goes the government logic. Will this new blind scheme work magic on the social problem? I strongly doubt it.
A new hiring experiment may simply lead to the creation of another type of competition. Students may have to train themselves in new ways. It is an easy bet that private corporations will develop their own subtle ways of soliciting relevant information by formulating unique question sets: employers will not ask the name of the college an applicant graduated from, but they may pose shrewd questions about extracurricular activities associated with certain colleges; they will not ask for a TOEIC score but may ask about experiences of persuading foreign friends. Asking questions about any activity within the past several years will easily turn up information on college education. So, the new scheme may not be able to achieve what it purports to.
From the students’ perspective, their only chance now is the interview. In order to excel in interviews and show stellar oral communication skills, they will have to do what they usually do: go to private teaching or coaching institutions. Given what has happened before concerning entrance exams or hiring applications, it is a much easier bet to expect the emergence of private institutions in college towns sporting their expertise in interview training in the age of blind testing. They may have already started to develop their new business model. Young people will flock to private institutions to learn how to excel in this new system of application. They just have another thing to study, prepare and pay for. Many of them will appear at interview sites, thoroughly prepared and fully rehearsed.
Quite possibly, employers’ evaluation and selection of applicants with this information of outer appearance and spontaneous response during a brief encounter is no less biased than college names. Unless we figure out a magic formula to cure Korea’s serious social problem of extreme competition at every stage, unfortunately any cover, blindfold or redaction will only mean replacing one bias with another.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.