How Companies Are Taking Unconscious Bias Out of the Hiring Equation

February 21, 2017

While we like to think we are moving away from hiring discrimination based on race, gender, or religious affiliation, a recent study by BBC Inside Out sought to test this out.

To do that, they sent out identical resumes in response to 100 job opportunities from two candidates, one called “Adam” and the other “Mohamed.” The result? Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohammed was offered just 4. In addition, The two resumes were also uploaded to four job sites. Adam was contacted by four recruiters, but Mohamed only two. Overall, after two and a half months, Adam was offered three times more interviews than Mohammed.

Cleary, this study shows that discrimination is alive and well. But the truth is, it’s often the fault of something that is hard to control - unconscious bias: pre-judgments that people don’t even realize they’re making based on someone's gender, race, or even name. And this is a huge problem, as it often leads to a lack of diversity at companies. After all, If everyone is similar, everyone will have the same ideas and come to the same conclusions, which is detrimental to a business’s success.

Fortunately, companies are realizing this and are starting to seek out effective solutions to unconcious bias in hiring. Here are four unique strategies that different companies have used to build more diverse and inclusive teams.

1. Blind hiring to take personal identity out of the picture

For centuries, all symphony orchestras looked more or less identical: a lot of white guys, and not much else. But a few decades ago, when “diversity” was still just a buzzword, non-white and women musicians began applying more pressure to orchestra directors.

In response, some major symphonies switched to blind auditions: directors listened to each prospective new member without ever seeing what they looked like—and the orchestras became significantly more diverse. In fact, holding blind auditions is actually just one example of a popular strategy for combatting discrimination. It’s called “blind hiring,” and it’s caught on with a lot of companies, especially in tech.

The idea is pretty simple: the less you know about a candidate’s personal identity—including their name, appearance, race, gender, and physical ability—the easier it will be to make unbiased hiring decisions.

To kickstart a blind hiring process, many organizations remove candidates’ names from their resumes, a process sometimes called “name-blind” recruitment. It’s a super easy way to combat bias and discrimination. The process can be as simple as having an assistant scrub the names before passing them on to a hiring manager—replacing names with generic titles like “Candidate #4”—though some also choose to remove ages and education levels.

It’s a quick fix that has caught on with companies like Deloitte and the BBC, who now follow a policy of removing names from all applications. That said, blind recruitment is not a complete solution to unconscious bias, as most hiring managers will want to meet their candidates eventually.

2. Voice-changing software to disguise candidates’ gender

Hate the sound of your own voice? Wait until you hear it through Aline Lerner’s, a platform developed to solve one of blind hiring’s toughest challenges.

Lerner, a former software engineer and entrepreneur, realized what most HR departments eventually figure out: you can remove a candidate’s name from a resume, or deliver a test remotely, but at some point you’ll have to interview them. Even if you conduct phone interviews, the hiring manager will probably be able to tell if they’re speaking to a male or female—and that can lead to discrimination, even if it’s unintentional.

Lerner’s software aims to eliminate that conundrum by distorting users’ voices until it’s impossible to tell whether they’re a man or a woman. “One of the things that came up was if you can hear somebody's voice, it's going to be, in most cases, very easy to tell what their gender is. So we were trying to think of how to get around that,” said Lerner, in a segment that aired on NPR’s Planet Money. “We've realized that we could actually modulate people's voices and their pitch in real time.”

Though her approach may sound extreme, many see it as the wave of the future, and major tech companies have expressed interest in the growing platform.

3. Artificial intelligence (AI) to screen candidates for success traits

What’s the biggest source of bias and discrimination in hiring? It’s a matter of debate, but many point to the (often unintentional) snap judgments of recruiters and hiring managers. In an effort to reduce the effect of human error, more firms are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to screen their job candidates.

For example, AI-driven tools can “learn” the traits of successful employees and identify which candidates share those traits. After feeding in the old applications of high-performing employees, an AI tool can use predictive algorithms to find which candidates exhibit similar attributes. And because AI-based approaches are more objective, they’re also less influenced by unconscious biases—and can even be trained to fight back against them.

However, though artificial intelligence offers a promising new solution to discrimination in hiring, the technology itself is still in its early stages and may not be available to all companies.

4. Setting business targets to ensure diversity

Despite frequent claims about the importance of diversity, many companies' diversity numbers show they still have a ways to go. So how do you turn wishful thinking into meaningful action? As any good organizer will tell you, you need to first set concrete, achievable goals.

Increasingly, companies looking to hire diverse talent are using targets or quotas to ensure that their hiring managers make it happen. For example, Twitter announced in 2016 that it would raise its percentage of female employees to 35% by end of year.

There’s one huge advantage to setting these kinds of targets: unlike blind hiring strategies, enforced quotas ensure that your team will actually become more diverse.

Still, some have criticized this approach, usually claiming that targets make the hiring process less holistic—and might even discourage applications from those who don’t fit the quota.

In the end, there’s not a one-size-fits all, perfect solution to the problem of bias and discrimination in hiring. Still, these strategies have shown promise for all kinds of companies. Remember the orchestras that only hired white men? Stunningly, blind auditions not only made those orchestras more diverse, but they actually ended up hiring more women than men.

In the end, it seems that no matter which approach you use, engaging in the fight against unconscious bias can yield some seriously meaningful results.

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