If you turn up in a suit and tie for an IT job at a bank, you’ll fit right in. Wear the same to a tech startup, and you’ll likely fail the first interview. But what does wardrobe have to do with your qualifications anyway? How much of an interview is irrelevant chit-chat, affected by the cultural biases of the interviewer?
ByteMark, a U.K. web hosting company, decided to fix this with anonymous recruitment. That is, right up until the final interview, the company would know nothing about candidates other than their suitability for the job.
“We try to avoid the ‘X factor’ of cultural fit, which we’ve seen as an excuse for all kinds of implicit and explicit bias,” writes ByteMark in a blog post. The experiment was such a success that ByteMark has adopted anonymous recruiting as its standard method.
Applicants fill in an online form and then selected applicants are given a first interview via instant message. Next is a several hour hour skills test and finally a regular in-person interview. Until the short list for this final stage is reached, ByteMark asks for no information other than anonymous alias, a cover letter, a list of their five best skills and the five skills they’d like to develop, and an optional disability declaration.
This approach brought immediate benefits. Not only was the result better–“we didn’t have a single ‘doomed’ third-stage interview,” writes the company in a follow-up post–but the process was much cleaner. Because the initial IM interviews could be conducted by a wider range of staff, more candidates could be considered. And because these interviews were shorter and more focused, they could be quickly looked over by senior staff members, and advice offered.
But the real advantages came from the removal of biases. The ByteMark blog addresses it thusly: “Have you ever thought your chances of being hired were affected by something other than your ability to do the job? Hiring biases are real and they are ugly. We don’t even trust ourselves to avoid them.”
Anonymous recruitment automatically filters out biases based on race or gender, as well as less obvious things like shyness. Regular person-to-person interviews punish those with poorer social skills, when those skills might not be relevant to the job. Equally, those who can sell themselves well could charm their way into a job they might be ill-suited to.
The final face-to-face interviews are–of course–not anonymous any more, but by then the candidates’ work has been allowed to speak for itself. “We ended up advancing candidates who seemed hesitant in online chat once we had a convincing picture of their work history and skill set in front of us,” writes ByteMark.
There were slip-ups. Some were technical, and some were down to the candidates. For instance, the initial application requires that you can receive an SMS to sign up. Some applicants couldn’t comply, so they emailed using their personal addresses. Others chose an anonymous alias that gave away some potentially bias-inducing information; according to ByteMark, these aliases “tended to match their gender.”
The nature of the anonymous process makes it hard to test whether the company is attracting a more diverse range of applicants. Because applicants’ gender, age, race, and other details are unknown until the final stage, it’s impossible to know. That’s not too much of a problem. “The true result is the long-term diversity of candidates we hire, not the people we rejected,” writes ByteMark.
Anonymity at the first stage of an interview seems like an easy evolution for many online companies, especially those in which in-person social skills are not a primary job qualification. The application processes already begin with web forms, and interviews are already conducted via telephone or IM. Adding an incognito aspect should be pretty easy.