Can Blind Hiring Improve Workplace Diversity?

Can Blind Hiring Improve Workplace Diversity?

Stripping identifying information from resumes may reduce bias in recruiting—and you don’t need expensive software to do it. (A Sharpie works fine.)

By Daniel Bortz March 20, 2018
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​As an HR department of one, Katherine McNamee, SHRM-CP, knew she didn’t have the resources or technology to implement a sophisticated blind recruiting platform that would strip identifying information—such as a candidate’s name and college graduation date—from resumes. Yet the director of HR at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a nonprofit with 40 employees in Arlington, Va., was determined to take a fresh approach to reducing hiring bias when she was filling fellowship positions at AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. 

“There has been a lot of discussion about diversity in the museum field, and we wanted to experiment with blind hiring,” she says. “We felt we were attracting the right candidates, but we also wanted to broaden our applicant pool.”

So she took a simple step toward eliminating key data from resumes—by telling people not to include it in the first place.

“We decided to ask job applicants to not include their name, address, college name, or graduation date on their resume,” she says. After receiving resumes for a position, McNamee assigns each candidate a number and refers to applicants by their number until people are brought in for interviews.

Not every applicant follows the instructions in the job posting—and McNamee doesn’t manually remove any identifying information she receives—but taking this small step toward blind hiring has paid off. “It has changed our mindset as an organization,” she says. “We’re more aware of hiring biases. We’ve clarified our evaluation criteria. And because we’ve taken a collaborative approach to blind hiring, I think it has improved the candidate’s experience with our hiring process.”

McNamee’s story is an example of how, with a bit of creativity and resourcefulness, anyone can adapt some of the big ideas coming out of Silicon Valley startups to make their own workplaces better. Although the concept of blind hiring isn’t new—it dates back to at least the 1970s—the strategy of hiding certain candidate information until the late stages of the recruiting process has become more popular in recent years, thanks to new tech tools and an increasing awareness of the importance of building diverse workforces. 

Of course, it isn’t the right solution for every organization—and the jury is still out on whether the practice actually prevents discrimination in the long run—but this unique form of talent selection may be worth considering if you work in an industry dominated by a single demographic.

The Case for Diverse Hiring

Research shows that diverse companies are better at recruiting top talent, retaining employees and registering economic results. For example, recent McKinsey research of 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians. Meanwhile, a 2018 study from North Carolina State’s Poole College of Management found that taking steps to foster diversity made companies more innovative, as measured by product development, number of patents created and citations on patents. 

Yet lack of diversity remains a problem for businesses, in the tech industry and elsewhere. White men account for 72 percent of corporate leadership jobs in the U.S., a 2017 analysis of 16 Fortune 500 companies found. Even juggernauts such as Google struggle; black employees make up only 2 percent of the company’s U.S. workforce, according to 2017 demographics data

Unconscious bias, which occurs when individuals make judgments about job candidates based on gender, race or other prohibited factors without even realizing they’re doing it, fuels the problem. According to a landmark study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, all else being equal, resumes with “white-sounding” names (the study suggests “Emily Walsh” and “Greg Baker”) got nearly 50 percent more callbacks than those with “black-sounding” names (the study suggests “Lakisha Washington” and “Jamal Jones”). Moreover, a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that managers of both sexes were twice as likely to hire a man as a woman.

Even with proper training, recruiters and hiring managers are susceptible to unconscious bias, says Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting LLC, a Florida-based talent management and organizational development consulting firm. “It’s part of our circuitry,” he says. “Our brains make rapid, snap judgments when we meet new people”—and even before that, as the studies on resume names indicate. Blind hiring helps take some of people’s preconceived notions about others out of the hiring equation, at least initially.

Tips for Implementing Blind Hiring

Here’s some expert advice on how to incorporate blind hiring into your company’s talent selection strategy: 

Create a goal. “Like any new business practice, you should set goals from the outset,” says Mikaela Kiner, CEO at Seattle-based consulting firm Uniquely HR. “For example, your goal might be to increase the number of women in executive positions over the course of a year.”
Pick what to redact. In addition to stripping names, consider removing home addresses (a possible proxy for race and income) and dates (which can reveal age). 
Train recruiters and hiring managers. Educate employees on unconscious bias and the value of diversity, and teach them how to ask skills-based interview questions. 
Start small. Introduce blind hiring in small steps and for specific roles so you can fine-tune your methods before applying them companywide, Kiner advises.
Measure results. Gather data on diversity demographics—age, race, gender—and employee retention, and solicit candidate feedback. After all, “the better the job candidate experience is, the more likely candidates are to refer other talented people to your organization,” says JoAnn Corley, founder and CEO of The Human Sphere, an Atlanta-based talent management consultancy. Pro tip: Host a debrief meeting with your HR staff to discuss results. 

How It Started

​Many believe the practice originated in the 1970s with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which at that time was made up almost entirely of white male musicians. In an effort to diversify, the orchestra began using partitions to conceal the identity of those who were auditioning. This led to a tremendous shift in the way the whole industry brought on talent, with blind auditions becoming the norm. As a result, the ratio of female musicians in the top U.S. orchestras increased from less than 5 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in the 1990s, according to a 1997 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In the 2000s, tech startups emerged to make it easier for HR teams to integrate blind hiring practices. These vendors build their technology to integrate with existing applicant tracking systems (ATSs), which generally aren’t set up to strip out candidates’ identifying information. 

One such platform, GapJumpers, was launched in 2014 by a company of the same name. The software enables employers to evaluate candidates based on relevant performance challenges. 

​“We’ve essentially applied software technology to allow companies to experience the same kind of results that orchestras have achieved with blind hiring,” says Petar Vujosevic, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “With GapJumpers, the applicant is a black box.”

​“We’ve essentially applied software technology to allow companies to experience the same kind of results that orchestras have achieved with blind hiring.”Petar Vujosevic

Blind Tech

​Here’s how it works: First, an employer creates an assessment, or “challenge,” that directly relates to the skills required for the job opening. A GapJumpers plug-in syncs with the employer’s ATS so people who apply to jobs on the client’s website are redirected to GapJumpers to take the assessment. 

Next, GapJumpers technology grades the exams and creates a scorecard for each candidate. The client company then receives a ranking of applicants by performance—without any identifying information. Hiring managers select which job seekers to bring in for interviews based squarely on performance metrics.

One employer that has leveraged the service is Return Path, a global e-mail data solutions provider with 410 employees headquartered in New York City. Cathy Hawley, the company’s senior vice president of performance, came across GapJumpers at a conference in 2015. “At the time, we didn’t have very many women in technology roles,” she says. Return Path’s leaders had tried a couple of blind hiring processes on their own, where recruiters stripped out names and ages from resumes, but had encountered challenges. “We found it was useful, but it was completely manual and very time-consuming,” Hawley says. 

The technology helped streamline hiring for engineering and data science jobs. “Anecdotally, it’s been successful,” Hawley says. “We’ve only been doing this for about a year, so we don’t have a ton of data yet. But we’re filling roles quickly, and using GapJumpers has helped us cut down on how much time our recruiters put into the hiring process, since they’re not sifting through resumes.” Hawley and her team plan to introduce blind hiring practices for other positions. 

Another online platform called interviewing.io lets companies interview candidates anonymously using chat rooms and voice-masking technology.

[SHRM Member2Member Solutions article: Lessons Learned About Unbiased Hiring Practices]

Other Solutions

​These high-tech approaches are intriguing but may not be feasible for smaller organizations that don’t have the resources or infrastructure to make them work. “We’ve seen more success with larger companies that have stable hiring processes already in place,” Vujosevic says. 

But as the AAM’s experience shows, do-it-yourself (DIY) is also a viable option. You could try hiring a contractor or assigning an intern to manually redact names and other identifying information, says Kelly Marinelli, SHRM-SCP, president and principal consultant at Solve HR Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

Or simply invest in more black markers, suggested Mary Ila Ward, SHRM-SCP, owner of Horizon Point Consulting Inc., a talent management service in Decatur, Ala., at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition last October. “Just pull out your Sharpie and mark out things [on resumes] that are not relevant [to performing] the job,” Ward told attendees. 

​DIY can be more elaborate as well. For example, HR leaders at FCB Worldwide Inc., a New York City-based global advertising network with about 8,000 employees, decided to build an extensive blind hiring system last year, says Cindy Augustine, the company’s global chief talent officer. “As an organization, we want to bring in a diverse group of job candidates,” she says. “We know diversity leads to creativity and innovation, which is why I love blind hiring. It takes a lot of subjectivity out of the selection process.” 

FCB’s leaders created their own assessments, which they call “challenge statements,” to test candidates’ technical skills—anonymously. After all tests are scored and interviews are arranged, the company releases the identities of the candidates to the hiring managers. Judging from the increased levels of diversity they’ve achieved since implementing the assessments, the new process seems to have reduced unconscious bias, Augustine says. “We did analysis on the people we hired, and we found that there were 19 percent more women.” In addition, 38 percent more ethnically diverse candidates came in for job interviews, she says. 

The challenge now, though, is finding a way to automate. “It takes time to develop a challenge statement, and we learned you need a vendor that has technology that can be integrated with your talent acquisition system,” Augustine says. “Otherwise, you have to do everything manually”—which is what her team has been doing. Company leaders are currently searching for a vendor that can offer the right blind hiring technology for the company’s needs.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Discipline of Human Resources Technology]

Innovating Interviews

Like AAM, Cockroach Labs, a database solutions provider to enterprise businesses, takes a tech-free approach to blind hiring—but with a twist. “While our recruiters see each candidate’s resume, the interview team doesn’t see any of the resumes,” says Lindsay Grenawalt, head of HR and recruiting at the New York City-based startup, which has 50 employees. 

After Grenawalt does an initial screen, she passes along a few notes to the hiring team. “Instead of sharing the resume, I include the experience level of the candidate, and in cases where the candidate has a Ph.D., I share the focus of their thesis so the interviewers can explore their work,” she says.

To ensure that the interview focuses on skills, Grenawalt trains the hiring team leading the conversation to steer away from questions like “where did you go to school?” Such queries can lead to so-called “like-me” bias, which happens when people favor a certain candidate based on irrelevant commonalities such as a shared college major, professional contact or alma mater. Instead, everyone is asked to respond to the same skills-based questions and given applied exercises. 

Grenawalt’s goal in setting up the process was to recruit more women. “When I joined the company, we had very little gender diversity,” she says. “I sat down with our founder, and we decided we wanted to build an inclusive environment for women.” Since the company rolled out its blind hiring initiative 16 months ago, the number of female employees has increased by 50 percent, with women now making up 30 percent of the total workforce and 30 percent of the management team.

What’s in a Name … or Address or Graduation Year?

​Demographic Factor
​Possible Source of Unconscious Bias
​Name
​Often reveals race and gender. Studies show that “black-sounding” names result in fewer callbacks than “white-sounding” names on resumes with identical credentials. 
​Address
​Possible proxy for race or income.
​Dates, particularly for educational milestones
​Often indicates age. Older candidates are less likely than younger ones to be called in for an interview, research indicates.
​Hobbies and interests
​Could reveal religion, age or whether the person has children (think Little League coach).
​Volunteer work
​May indicate religion, race or political affiliation.
​Name of college
Some experts point to unconscious biases around non-Ivy-League schools or institutions that are rivals of the hiring manager. Could also be linked to race. 

One Piece of the Puzzle

​While blind hiring can help get diverse candidates past an initial screen, it’s no guarantee that bias won’t creep in during interviews—and it does nothing to ensure that your workforce is welcoming to different people once they walk in the door. At best, it’s one tool in a bigger diversity and inclusion (D&I) toolbox. 

“At some point, you’re going to interview candidates face to face,” Marinelli says. She recommends that HR leaders couple some blind hiring techniques with D&I training for employees. “Explain to your staff what you’re trying to do and why, and train hiring managers about job interview techniques,” she says. You could also appoint an HR team member to oversee the blind hiring initiative. 

Cockroach Labs and FCB Worldwide both have workshops on unconscious bias for employees. “Organically, we needed to have a conversation about the topic,” Grenawalt says. “We also needed to have buy-in from all of our employees before we began blind hiring.”

​Also be sure to have clear metrics in place to track the outcome of your efforts. Regularly review diversity demographics and assess changes in employee retention, experts say. Also ask candidates for feedback on your hiring methods. 

“For us, it’s a learning process,” AAM’s McNamee says. “We’re by no means experts on blind hiring. We’re taking small steps. But if a tiny organization like us can adopt blind hiring, any company can.” 

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Illustration by Ryan Inzana for HR Magazine.

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