Blind Hiring May Be Missing the Point

Companies that want to increase the diversity of their workforce and eliminate intentional or unconscious bias from their recruiting process may try “blind hiring” techniques to help prevent discrimination when considering applicants.

By Roy Maurer Feb 4, 2016
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Companies that want to increase the diversity of their workforce and eliminate intentional or unconscious bias from their recruiting process may try “blind hiring” techniques to help prevent discrimination when considering applicants. But experts disagree about the utility of this well-meaning practice, and stress that cultural fit remains the most important determinant for choosing whether to advance candidates.

Research shows recruiters and hiring managers tend to choose candidates with a similar demographic background as their own. They also are impressed by mention of a big-name former employer or alma mater, such as Google or Yale University—though association with well-known institutions is not necessarily indicative of job performance.

To counter these phenomena, so-called blind hiring techniques include:

  • Removing specific identifying information like the candidate’s name and educational background from applications and resumes, or eliminating the resume requirement altogether.
  • Assessing candidates based on skills testing or sample projects, then inviting the top performers in for interviews.
  • Conducting anonymous interviews, such as by using chat rooms and voice-masking technology.

According to recent media accounts, a smattering of companies and the U.K. government are experimenting with these approaches. San Mateo, Calif.-based cloud-storage firm Compose Inc. asks job applicants to write a short story about data, spend a day working on a mock project and complete an assignment. Deloitte’s U.K. arm announced in 2015 that it would begin asking for applications with candidates’ names and other identifying data redacted.

But while many people laud the intention behind these kinds of practices, not everyone is on board with the actual execution.

“These practices may be well-meaning, but they are not well-thought-out,” said Scott Wintrip, president of Wintrip Consulting Group, based in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Not only does front-loading assessments and testing turn off talent, especially top talent, it unnecessarily lengthens hiring processes that are already too long.”

This criticism has been borne out at Compose, where some candidates have refused to apply once they found out about the mock project, saying they won’t work for free.

Then again, in certain industries like IT, practical, project-based interviews have been common for years, said JoAnn Corley, founder and CEO of The Human Sphere, a talent management consultancy based in Atlanta. Corley believes that candidates will be willing to do something unorthodox if it serves the message that “we want the best and it matters to us to give every candidate a fair shot.” People are often frustrated by traditional interviewing, and if nothing else, these methods are creative and forward-thinking, she added.

However, talent acquisition experts tend to be most disturbed by how these blind hiring practices can limit recruiters’ ability to judge cultural fit from face-to-face interactions.

“When you design a hiring and interviewing process that’s so removed from the objective of what the actual interview is supposed to lead to, then you end up with a very dangerous situation,” said Danielle Weinblatt, co-founder and CEO of New York CIty-based Take the Interview, aimed at helping HR improve the interview process. “Interviews are a mutual process, where the candidate is also interviewing the employer. This type of interaction can’t be done in any meaningful way with a disguised voice or through chat. People aren’t able to showcase their personality or who they really are.”

Blind hiring methods also can negate the value of emotional intelligence in the hiring process, said J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of career services site Careerealism, based in the Boston area.

“There is a reason that emotional intelligence has become such an important part of successful teamwork and productivity. To ignore the human aspect and only hire based on experience and aptitude misses a vital point. You can have the most talented and experienced person in the world, but if their personality doesn’t mesh well with the team, it won’t work. Any manager who’s hired on experience or skills only and then finds out that the person is a horrible fit learns that lesson.”

Mixing Best Practices

Weinblatt said that using assessments to try to level the playing field early on when there are lots of applicants “is not a bad concept,” but that such assessments can’t be the primary determinant for a hire. Instead, recruiters and hiring managers should be trained on how to evaluate the substance of resumes and interview responses so as to check unconscious bias.

Organizations can build a system that challenges why each candidate is being chosen, so recruiters and hiring managers can make the case that it isn’t due to bias, O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell recommended that employers:

  • Review their employer brand from top to bottom if hiring bias is suspected. “Start with changing the brand, and then train on how to recruit for that brand,” she said.
  • Implement team-based hiring that removes the hiring decision from a single hiring manager. “People don’t work in a silo and shouldn’t be hired in one,” Corley said.
  • Conduct a cultural audit. “If you want to change how you hire, it’s worth it to find out if culturally your company is biased,” O’Donnell said. “If a company can figure out where their general bias lies, they could employ bias disruptors and train everybody to think differently, right down to the kinds of questions being asked in interviews.”

Most companies trying blind hiring may intend to simply redact names and other identifying information before bringing people in for interviews, where cultural fit can then be established. “That’s interesting,” O’Donnell said, though she pointed out that eventually the person will come in for an in-person interview. “You’ve [still] got to ask yourself: Is your team trained? To bring candidates that far only to be rejected by ingrained bias doesn’t make the situation any better.”

Weinblatt said if diversity is the goal, it can only be celebrated when you know who you’re hiring. “Candidates want to feel that the environment they’re working in will embrace what makes them unique. If employers are looking to improve diversity, blind hiring could potentially disadvantage that initiative.”

Melissa Llarena, an interviewing and career coaching expert and the owner of Career Outcomes Matter, based in the New York City area, said that eliminating identifying data from resumes can partially eliminate the risk of biased hiring.

However, simply getting diverse candidates through the door is not the ultimate answer to corporate America’s diversity challenge. “The solution to diversity is more than figuring out an objective feeder system that gets employees into a company. We would need to figure out how we can remove bias from the promotion process once folks are hired and then how we’ll get diverse senior executives into decision-making seats.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMRoy

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