How to keep bias out of the hiring process

Blind ambition.
Blind ambition.
Image: Gosia Herba
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By now, most employers are in tune with the importance of a diverse and inclusive workplace. There’s evidence that teams with a broader range of experiences and perspectives perform better, and diverse businesses are more likely to understand the needs of a wider range of customers and clients.

But companies that are growing fast often haven’t been deliberate about their hiring structures, and frequently end up with a system that allows unconscious biases to flourish.

Jonathan Segal, a lawyer who speaks and writes about biased hiring, says, most CEOs understand the concept of unconscious bias, they just don’t believe it happens at their company. But it’s probably there, starting with the hiring process itself.

Rooting it out is the work of HR departments, but also hiring managers and anyone else who crafts job postings, interviews candidates, or simply makes a referral. Employers who think about diversity in their recruiting and stay mindful of it in every step of the process are taking advantage of a much larger pool of potential applicants than those who confine their efforts to a narrow demographic slice. Here’s how to make sure you’re casting a wide enough net.

Start at the beginning

The easiest place to remove bias from the hiring process is in recruitment, says Iris Bohnet, a Harvard behavioral economist and author of What Works: Gender Equality by Design. The language companies use in their job postings, for instance, can discourage women and minorities from applying. In one experiment described by Bohnet, a team of economists placed help-wanted ads on Craigslist for a work-at-home administrative job. More than 7,000 applied, but the mix of men and women varied based on how the job and its compensation were described. When the ads said pay was based on performance, fewer women applied than when applicants were promised a flat wage.

Companies no longer have to guess if their wording is off-putting to women. There’s now software, such as that sold by Textio, that analyzes the language in job postings and recommends changes if the tone is too masculine. There’s also common sense. If you’re advertising for a killer salesperson or a programming ninja to quarterback their team, you might want to rethink your choice of words.

Further Reading

How the language in job ads affects the quality of applicants

Be wary of referrals

Many companies (Quartz among them) swear by employee referrals, and offer bounties to employees when their recommendations produce candidates who are hired. There’s a certain logic to it—current employees understand what it takes to succeed at a company, and they’re more likely to know about potential candidates not actively on the job market.

Further Reading

Employee referral programs are making the workplace a lot whiter

But employees tend to be friends with people mostly like themselves, and building a workforce based on referrals will just replicate whatever tendencies are already in place. Smart employers also stretch outside their comfort zones, and forge connections with campus and professional groups that represent women and minorities.

Blind that resume

Resumes contain a lot of useful information for employers, but also are loaded with details that can signal race, class, and gender. Even the most self-aware hiring managers can turn away qualified candidates because the applicant didn’t fit expectations. In a well-known study of the audition practices of orchestras, when women performed behind a curtain and out of sight of the judges, it increased their chances of advancing to the next round by 50%.

Names are the most obvious detail to remove, but a candidate’s university and activities can be revealing, as well. In another study, of applicants to law firms, men who signaled they were from wealthy backgrounds—they listed polo and classical music among their hobbies—were 16 times more likely to get an interview than those that signaled a working-class background. (In a twist, women who appeared wealthy didn’t do as well, in part because of the fear they would quit the job to raise a family, the researchers hypothesized).

To avoid biasing hiring managers, companies like Gapjumpers will test applicants on their skills, and offer employers a slate of candidates based the results. But companies can also blind resumes internally, with HR removing names and identifying characteristics before forwarding candidates on to hiring managers.

Further Reading

Is blind hiring the best hiring?

Diverse panels and diverse slates

If hiring managers are presented with a slate of only white male candidates, they’re going to have a hard time advancing diversity. Increasingly, companies are adopting a version of the Rooney Rule, the system introduced by the NFL (and named after former Steelers owner Dan Rooney) that required a minority candidate be interviewed for every coaching job. While it seems heavy handed, it meant black assistant coaches who previously weren’t being considered became viable candidates.

Facebook requires at least one member of an underrepresented group be considered for each role, and at 3M, CEO Inge Thulin intervenes to make sure there’s a diverse slate considered for executive openings. But while including a single woman or minority candidate on a slate may feel like progress, statistically, it doesn’t improve the odds that a woman or minority will he hired, research shows. A woman by herself stands out as different; having more than one in a pool helps erase some of that, and significantly increases the odds of a woman being hired.

Candidates also should be considered by a diverse cross-section of managers. A number of companies, including Accenture and Procter & Gamble, require candidates be considered and interviewed by a diverse group of employees. Evaluators with multiple perspectives can help check the unconscious bias of any individual.

Standardize interview questions

Hiring managers use interviews to get to know a candidate beyond what’s on a resume or skills test, and some have one go-to question they believe will unearth the candidate’s true nature.

But letting interviewers pick their questions can mean wildly different experiences for each candidate. Some may be interrogated, while others may end up in a friendly chat. If the candidate has something in common with the interviewer, the conversation may never leave their area of shared interest. In some cases, the candidate will be recommended based on the personal connection, and not their ability to do the job.

To ensure all candidates are treated the same, make sure they’re all asked the same basic questions. At Appirio, an Indiana-based computer consulting firm, job seekers were subjected to as many as 17 interviews, with the last coming from a founder who could derail the entire process. In the past, promising candidates were rejected by interviewers who said “the vibe seemed off,” according to Kellie Hiatt, a member of the firm’s recruiting team.

Last year, the company’s HR team rebuilt the interview process, to trim the number of interviews and make sure they were focused on relevant attributes. The company spent time training its hiring managers, and now all candidates are asked the same questions. As a result, the process is faster, candidates are happier, and while it’s too early to know for sure, the company appears to be on the right track to diversifying its workforce, Hiatt says.

Unstructured interviews can actually hurt a company, because interviewers will latch on to irrelevant details they may feel is important, causing them to overlook more important details. Bohnet, in What Works, has a set of simple recommendations for better interviewing:

Plan ahead, use a checklist for questions, and evaluate candidates in real time, as the interview progresses. Memory plays tricks on us, she writes, and if managers wait to evaluate candidates, they’ll remember the most vivid details instead of the most important ones.

If a candidate is being interviewed by several managers, wait until everyone is finished before comparing notes. And don’t use panel interviews, when multiple interviewers are in the room; the evaluator’s perspective will be shaped by their colleagues.

Further Reading

How Appirio transformed their interview process to drive a better candidate experience

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