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Your blind hiring process is (probably) still biased. Here’s how to change that

Blind recruitment can be a great tool to improve diversity, but not without an organizational commitment to diversity.

Your blind hiring process is (probably) still biased. Here’s how to change that
[Photo: Adrian Naranjo/Unsplash]

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other hacks that attempt to “de-bias” talent processes are on the rise. Hiring, after all, is one of the fastest ways to increase diversity in the workforce. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of companies are adopting blind résumé reviews. And from the outset, it seems like an effective way to minimize the role of problematic humans in talent decision making.

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But is scrubbing names from résumés a silver bullet for improving diversity demographics? Or is this simply the next fad in check-the-box exercises that sound progressive but stop short of addressing systemic inequities? The answer, like most diversity efforts, is somewhere in the middle. Blind résumé reviews can be impactful, but there are several things companies should keep in mind when deciding if the practice is right for them.

Why blind hiring can still be discriminatory

The orchestra auditions—the professional musician’s version of a résumé review—exemplify these considerations. In the 1960s, U.S. orchestras required musicians to play behind a screen to eliminate gender bias from the audition process. After they implemented the practice, the likelihood of selecting women musicians increased by 30%. By the 1990s, there was a 25% increase in women’s representation in orchestras.

Now, this may sound like a strong vote in favor of anonymized recruiting. But there’s a piece of this story that people often leave out. In 1952, when the Boston Orchestra tried to diversify by holding blind auditions, their hiring diversity stats didn’t change. Why not? As told by writer and broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the “clickety-clacks” of high-heeled shoes on the stage gave the women’s gender identity away. When the orchestra requested that shoes come off, nearly 50% of women progressed in the audition process. So, in this case, anonymized recruiting was effective in a tightly controlled environment, and only at a specific stage in the audition process. It wasn’t a panacea for equal representation in orchestras, which remain starkly 69% men today.

So, what should companies that are serious about building a diverse workforce keep in mind when considering whether to anonymize their résumé screens? Here are some ideas.

1. Be aware of identity cues (because they’re everywhere)

We infer identity from more than just names. Everything from zip codes to the sports a candidate enjoys can signal a particular identity and give grounds to subjectivity and bias. If a company wants to adopt blind recruiting, they have to go all the way and eliminate the potential “clickety-clacks” from résumés.

That means removing candidate names, and links to social media accounts like LinkedIn and Twitter. You also need to remove educational pedigree, because even a field of study can unconsciously evoke a presumption of identity. It’s also best to remove home addresses, and extracurriculars like hobbies, volunteering experience, and club memberships.

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After removing all of that information, you also need to be aware that there are still often differences in the language men and women commonly use in résumés. It might not be practical to remove these, but one thing that you can do to discourage this is by ensuring that your job descriptions are gender neutral.

2. Look beyond the resume

Most jobs—and hiring processes—require actual face time. Most companies will want (and need) to see or speak to a candidate before hiring them.

Based on the work that I do at Paradigm, I’ve found that candidates from marginalized backgrounds aren’t just penalized at the résumé screening process. There are usually leaks throughout the hiring funnel, which a company won’t fix by just introducing blind résumé screening.

To minimize bias throughout every aspect of the hiring process, you need to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to attract diverse candidates. You need them to apply to your company in the first place. You need to assess whether your applicant pool skews one way and if so, redesign your hiring policies and protocols to mitigate structural biases. Lastly, you also need to train hiring teams to utilize objective processes, and you need to call out individual biases as they arise without shaming your employees.

3. Be aware of your blind spots

Even a meticulous hiring process doesn’t guarantee equity. Research shows that colorblind diversity efforts often disadvantage the very people they’re intended to help. In an experimental program in France, the interview rate of underrepresented candidates decreased when résumé were anonymized. Why? When candidate identities are masked, hiring managers might not interpret signals like educational background or periods of unemployment in the context of candidates’ specific circumstances. This, in turn, can limit evaluators’ exposure to the insights they need to form culturally competent impressions about candidates. For example, a two-year gap in work experience can be a universal red flag when candidates are anonymized. That same gap may be inferred—accurately or not—as a reasonable amount of time off to raise a family in light of more candidate information, such as gender.

A colorblind approach to hiring can also breed complacency. An organization that “checks the box” on blinding résumés may be less inclined to uncover the root causes of (and solve) structural inequities in hiring and throughout all stages of the employee life cycle.

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Blind résumé reviews aren’t categorically bad or ineffective. Used effectively, anonymized recruiting can be a valuable amplifier of more substantive diversity efforts. But as I’ve seen from my work in Paradigm, for nontraditional candidates to thrive (and for companies to reap the benefits of their talent), the organization needs to value and prioritize diversity. In these contexts, companies view candidates’ contributions to diversity as an asset to celebrate, not a liability to conceal.

There is no shortcut to diversity and inclusion, and the onus is on the company to do the hard work. But companies that are willing to put in the effort will be rewarded for their efforts.


Erin L. Thomas, PhD, is the midwest managing director at Paradigma strategy consulting firm focused on diversity and inclusion—and leads the Chicago office.

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