eliminating-hiring-bias20160317.jpgAs I wrote last week, tech companies are making huge strides toward overcoming the homogenous structures of their talent forces. Slack’s report on diversity demonstrates not only a strong commitment to inclusion, it shows how a culture that celebrates differences can flourish. Unfortunately, many organizations still find themselves struggling with a workforce composed of incredibly similar people. It’s what some analysts have called the dark side of cultural fit. Even the artificial intelligence in modern HR technologies runs the risk of giving into unintentional biases. So how do we move forward in resolving this challenge? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in a contradiction. In an era where social recruiting, pedigrees and video interviewing sharply influence our perceptions of candidates, a blind hiring process could open our eyes to the best talent.

How Blended is the Blended Workforce?

When we discuss the rise of the blended workforce, we’re not just describing the various categories of labor. It’s true that over 40 percent of the active talent pool is populated by contingent workers — temps, contractors, freelancers and consultants — yet the groups and divisions that make up a company’s operations are themselves growing more diverse, dispersed and blended. In fact, the modern notion of workplace diversity has expanded to encompass values — the motivating factors that inspire talent to join a company, embody its organizational visions, strive to make meaningful contributions and reach higher levels of productivity.

You’d imagine that the proven benefits of diversity, combined with the attention given to placing the right workers in the right environments, would substantially curb biases in the hiring process. Despite improvements, biases persist. And in some ways, our attempts to contain them could be backfiring.

Consider the use of artificial intelligence in recruitment. Employers can utilize Big Data to evaluate skills, experience and knowledge before shortlisting prospects and scheduling interviews. When interpreted correctly, these datasets can also predict success based on matches between a candidate’s characteristics and similar traits found in the target group. AI presents a potential method for automating essential aspects of candidate profiling and resume ranking. Yet because of the way it’s often benchmarked — using an employer’s existing talent population — it can lead to accidental discrimination: if biases already prevail in current hiring processes, the AI simply perpetuates them.

The interesting question is what would happen if we stopped looking for similarities and differences? In her recent article for The New York Times Magazine, Claire Cain Miller makes a compelling case for blind hiring.

The Revealing Vision of Blind Hiring

“A few years ago,” Miller writes, “Kedar Iyer, an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, became acutely aware of a problem in his industry: A surfeit of talented coders were routinely overlooked by employers because they lacked elite pedigrees. Hiring managers, he thought, were too often swayed by the name of a fancy college on a résumé.”

Last year, British labor analysts discovered that this same bias continued to run rampant through modern legal firms in the United Kingdom. The problem isn’t new. However, the “new solution” HR professionals seek could lie in the past. Miller brings up a fascinating perspective in her piece.

Until the 1970s, symphony orchestras were filled mostly with white males. So a novel approach was implemented as a test: blind auditions. The idea was actually pioneered more than 20 years earlier by the Boston Sympathy Orchestra. As Miller explains: “Musicians auditioned behind screens so the judges couldn’t see what they looked like, and walked on carpeted floors so the judges couldn’t determine if they were women or men — the women often wore heels.”

The result? Female musicians became more likely hires than males. And that spawned a surge of new musical talent — underrepresented yet gifted performers who once lacked the confidence to audition.

Steps We Can Take to Eliminate Bias from Recruiting

Poor hiring decisions can have profound impacts on a business culture: low morale, waning motivation and even degradation of an employment brand. Social media shapes opinions, and negative reviews matter. Removing bias from the hiring process is essential. It reduces the risk of underwhelming hires while increasing workplace diversity and inclusion. The good news is that overcoming bias isn’t difficult to do. Here are some steps we can take.

Blind Resumes. If you want to embrace the Boston Symphony concept, you can adopt a blind resume evaluation process. And you’d be following in the footsteps of industry leaders such as Deloitte, Household Bank, KPMG and many government agencies. How does it work? All contact and personal information is removed. These details — especially when they hint at age, gender, culture, hobbies and other attributes — can form unconscious biases in the minds of reviewers. A blind resume includes only skills, objectives, work experience and education. Truly blind resumes even edit details of education to display only academic data, such as degrees achieved and honors awarded. Removing the name of the university or institution can go far in preventing bias.

An Open Marketplace Model. An open marketplace encourages anyone to apply and helps remove intrinsic bias. Rather than scrutinizing a worker’s background, this model gets to the heart of what matters most: finding talent who perform and produce results at the highest levels. Often times, we discover that what a worker may lack in terms of established skills or longevity, he or she makes up for through motivation, a willingness to learn, a desire to succeed and a drive to overachieve. This is what an open marketplace enables.

Redefine Cultural Fit. Placing workers in environments that complement their values, support needs, work-life goals and ongoing development leads to success. When focusing on fit, emphasize characteristics that demonstrate alignment — how a worker’s aspirations and potential contributions mesh with the prevailing mission and values of the company.

Use Technology. There are actually tools that help employers discover and conquer biases in their hiring processes. Harvard University designed a popular online application called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). It’s currently used by military, media, Fortune 500, educational and other organizations. The data reveals any unconscious biases, which help firms recognize the nature and inclination of these instances. Ultimately, this intelligence assists HR professionals in making a business case and gaining adoption from decision makers to create fairer hiring solutions.

Interview the Interviewers. To avoid interviewer bias, try this exercise. Sit as a group with the decision making committee or hiring team, and then work out a series of questions (no more than 10) that you would all ask candidates. This gives you the opportunity to identify and weed out biases within the group, standardize the questions and create relevant evaluation criteria. Think of it as a proactive assessment, because you’re also defining the answers you’re looking for in optimal hires. This process ensures that interviewers are on the same page in determining what an ideal candidate looks like. More importantly, this strategy helps you formalize a set of checks and balances. We’ve found this process to be instrumental in quickly identifying the right talent — professionals who will thrive in our culture and evangelize our brand.

Formalize Training. Hiring and interviewing are acquired skills. In some ways, they’re equal parts art and science. Training your staff in fair hiring practices can make a difference. Educate hiring managers and recruiters on regulatory policies, employment law and compliance standards. Develop structured criteria for resume assessments, screening protocols, approved interview questions and a decision committee made up of diverse members in the organization. A panel of this nature fosters differing perspectives that lead to a more impartial, unbiased hiring determination.

Open Minds Can Open Up New Opportunities

We naturally gravitate toward like-minded individuals. Familiarity breeds comfort, and we often seek out peers, friends and colleagues who share similar qualities with us. And that creates an unintentional bias. If you really think about it, your friends and loved ones may not be ideal co-workers. Love and admiration aside, they might not fit your business culture or the job at hand.

Matching candidates to business cultures is an essential technique in modern hiring models. And it requires thoughtful introspection, examination and formulating questions that will enlighten candidates, hiring managers and recruiters in the process. Yet there exists a dark side to cultural fit — defining a culture that is ethnically, ideologically, racially and sexually the same. An environment that propels the status quo ultimately stagnates within these limitations. Fortunately, we have the know-how and resources to create an equitable hiring process that will expose us to new ideas and new innovations.

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