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Why ‘blind’ hiring doesn’t work to eliminate bias

The CEO of Fairygodboss contends that removing identity information can have unintended consequences, particularly for the underrepresented groups it is supposed to help.

Why ‘blind’ hiring doesn’t work to eliminate bias
[Photo: Elina Krima/Pexels]
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America’s current race consciousness is at new heights, going well beyond the public policy and political sphere and into the workplace. While the labor market is in a pandemic-created low point, HR departments and leaders across the country have seized the moment to take action on improving employee diversity.

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Although many are making laudable changes in areas related to training, measurement, and goal-setting, unfortunately, when it comes to recruiting new employees, explicit conversations and actions are still too often taboo and hamstrung. The unfortunate outcome is that well-meaning executives who set employee diversity goals often appear performative or ineffective at reaching those goals, many times because of restrictions outside their control.

There are structural reasons why talent acquisition is a difficult place to enact change. For starters, employers must comply with laws that specifically prohibit discrimination. That sounds counterintuitive but because hiring decisions must be made for reasons unrelated to a person’s demographics, there can be no affirmative action or “quota” logic when it comes to offering the job to an individual candidate.

This isn’t the practice in other contexts where diversity is a priority. Affirmative action has been practiced in higher education for decades. Recently, people have even stepped down from their board of director roles explicitly to make room for someone of a different race or gender.

The most common hiring platforms do not allow recruiters to filter candidates by gender or race because of legal restrictions. Similarly, in the past couple of years, it has become illegal for employers to create employment advertisements targeting people by their gender or race. Therefore employers actively searching for diverse candidates must make assumptions using photos or employ proxies such as common women’s names or affiliations (e.g. National Black MBA Association) to source candidates.

Exacerbating these legal and product barriers is the lack of adequate data about specific talent pools. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and other organizations possess some information about labor force demographics, but not typically at the granular level employers need for setting actionable goals (e.g. how many women data scientists there are in a given city).

So with legal restrictions, recruiting tool obstacles, and lack of data blocking the path to finding diverse candidates, one popular solution has been to simply try to remove hiring bias and be “blind” to candidate information in the recruiting process. It’s becoming increasingly popular for recruiting and talent assessment HR systems to mask aspects of a candidate’s name, photo, and identity during the hiring process in order to minimize bias. Eventually, this information does come out and bias will likely be introduced later in the hiring process.

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Removing identity information can also have unintended consequences. For example, women are more likely to have career gaps on their résumés due to caregiving, so without any context as to why many recruiters will immediately see that as a red flag and pass on the résumé.

Blind hiring is a well-intentioned approach, but it’s ultimately misguided. A company committed to improving employee diversity should instead focus on improving their candidate recruitment process if they want to enact lasting change.

Reevaluate your diversity goals with the data you can access

So many executives set goals that sound great on paper but are not based on any substantial diagnoses of talent pools or internal metrics. That makes them often difficult, if not impossible, to reach.

For example, a company may say they want complete gender parity in their engineering department by the end of 2021 where they’re currently at a 30/70 split, women to men. There are a variety of factors to consider:

  • How many open roles will they be hiring for in this department over the course of the year?
  • What level of seniority are the roles?
  • Where are the roles located?
  • How many applications do they currently receive from women engineers and what happens to those applications?

Only once your company’s data is adjusted to reflect realistic talent pools and you start measuring your own candidate data, can you set practical near-term goals. A vision should be grand but not at the cost of a clear and reasonable execution plan.

Create a talent community or a multiyear talent management plan

Focus diversity recruiting efforts on early-career or entry-level hires where there may be a larger pool of diverse candidates. While this may not make middle-management or highly visible leadership roles more diverse immediately, you can make tangible progress over time. By starting early and cultivating young talent from the start, then investing in those employees, and inclusive talent management processes over time, you’ll increase diversity in a few years.

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Adjust expectations of the cost of recruiting diverse candidates

Candidates from underrepresented groups are, by definition, rare and therefore should be more expensive to recruit. If you hold your recruiters to the same metrics (e.g. time to hire, cost per applicant) they’ve always been held to, you should not expect outcomes to change. Those performance metrics bias your recruiters to strive for candidate volume, which is in direct tension with actions needed to move diversity metrics. Talent acquisition professionals and hiring managers will not meet diversity goals until they are held to and measured against them in their performance reviews. If you want to make diversity a priority, then the actual business objectives for your recruitment and management team need to reflect that.

Make looking for diverse candidates acceptable by design

Don’t force recruiters to pretend to be color- and gender-blind. Ask your hiring managers and recruiters to go to where the diverse candidates are instead. You don’t have to make assumptions about gender if you’re looking for a candidate on a recruiting platform where the majority of candidates identify as women or race if you’re recruiting at an HBCU. If you establish recruiting events or partnerships with these types of organizations as a mandatory step in the recruiting process, it will become second nature to your hiring team and help diversify your talent pool in a genuine way.

Completely ignoring gender or race in hiring practices will only make workplace inequality worse. Gender and racial inequality come from hundreds of years of unfair and disparate societal practices and norms. The solutions won’t be found in quick fixes. Employers need to be intentional with their recruitment processes and develop long-term, sustainable plans, and actions that they can implement in their companies for years to come.


 Georgene Huang is the CEO and cofounder of Fairygodboss.