Diversity & inclusion10 min read

PREVIEW: How to strip bias out of your hiring process

Kaleidoscope from Hive Learning is a guided inclusion programme, designed to help leaders and managers build a more inclusive culture starting today. Delivered in a unique weekly cycle that helps users Understand, Practice, and Reflect, the programme gives managers a practical toolkit to make the small everyday changes critical for driving inclusive growth.

Here’s an exclusive preview of some of the content in the programme.

In a perfect world, we'd give everyone a blind audition

What do we mean by “blind audition”?

Well, in the TED Talk below Yassmin Abdel-Magied tells the story of how the Boston Symphony Orchestra concealed candidates’ gender for a truly blind audition. Their aim was to eliminate gender bias and diversify their largely male orchestra back in the 1950s.

So auditionees took to the stage to play from behind a screen to conceal their gender, in the hope that more women would make it past the first round of auditioning. Initially they saw a minor uptick in the number of female musicians who made it through, but the judging panel still sent disproportionately more male musicians to the next round. Why? Well, incredibly it turns out that the sound of the women’s heels could be heard as they walked on stage – tipping off the judging panel to their gender and subconsciously influencing their decision-making. When this was uncovered, musicians were asked to take off their shoes for auditions. And (perhaps unsurprisingly) almost 50% of the candidates who made it to the next round were women.

By the 1990s a study by Harvard and Princeton revealed that female musicians were slightly more likely to be hired than males – and today blind auditions are the norm for orchestras globally. How can those of us in the corporate world borrow from this thinking?

If you have the time, Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s TED Talk below (14 mins)  is worth a watch – totally optional.

Points that gave us pause

⏯️ “The idea of finding someone different to mentor… is about opening doors for people who couldn’t even get to the damn hallway.” [10:25-10:38]

⏯️ “Structural change takes time. And I don’t have that level of patience.” [12:30-12:34]

⏯️ “Opening up your world will make you realise that you have access to doors that they didn’t even know existed and you didn’t even know they didn’t have.” [13:16-13:25]

Understand

Read on to learn our four top tips to practically de-bias your recruitment process – plus three major dangers ⚠️ to look out for along the way.

Demand diverse candidates

Be aware of the power of the status quo

Several Harvard studies show that you need at least two members of an underrepresented group in your finalist pool to have any chance of hiring outside of your status quo. Why? According to the research, “Having only one woman or minority in a pool of finalists highlights how different he or she is from the norm – and decision-makers often unconsciously associate difference with risk or even incompetence.”

But there is a bright spot here: the reverse is true, too. You can use bias in favour of the status quo to actually change the status quo. For instance, if your team is male dominated and your aim is to hire more women, you want to bring in as many qualified female candidates as possible at the first stage. Ideally you’ll end up with a majority of women by the final round, which significantly increases the likelihood a woman will be hired. (Data below.)

The relationship between finalist pools and actual hiring decisions

So it’s important to challenge your recruiter here.

First, set expectations at the get-go. Articulate the demographics your team is thin on, and ask your recruiter to seek out candidates to help you diversify. Obviously they have a vested interest in making the process move as quickly as possible. But unfortunately that means that their picks may be the “lowest-hanging fruit” and reflect the talent you already have on your team.

Then be challenging when the initial pool you’re given isn’t diverse enough: “That’s not good enough, I need to see more diversity before I’ll draft a shortlist or hold any interviews.”

⚠️ WARNING ⚠️  Beware that it’s when we’re time-pressed in hiring that we tend to fall back on our biases. Data shows that when we feel rushed we’re most likely to revert to our assumptions, and make what we see as the most risk-averse hire we can (again, this will be totally unconscious..). So don’t rush it.

Anonymise CVs

In the last decade a number of tools have emerged that mask identifiers on CVs, basically interrupting our biases just like the Boston Symphony Orchestra did back in the 1950s.

These platforms work by stripping out signifiers like names, home address, education and gender that are prone to unconsciously trigger prejudice. And they often pair the stripped down profile with a much more valuable and relevant assessment that actually reflects the candidate’s capabilities. For instance, Gap Jumpers (a major player in this space) works with its clients to build tests based around key skills for the job – and the candidate’s test score is presented first, before any other details. According to Gap Jumpers, with traditional CV screening they found that just 20% of applicants who were not white, male, able-bodied people from elite schools made it to a first-round interview. But using their form of “blind auditions”, 60% did. That’s the staggering impact of interrupting our biases.

Obviously you may not have the power to decide if your business uses a tool like Gap Jumpers. But you can borrow some of this thinking by giving candidates a screening task or assessment to assess how well they’ll do the job, or even asking your recruiter to manually strip out identifiers in their initial shortlist (admittedly this is not scalable!). Just remember that 20% ➡️ 60% statistic, and think critically about who you screen out in the very first stage of the process.

Interview better

We’ve all had that experience of interviewing someone and immediately hitting it off. Perhaps you went to the same university, or have the same wacky passion for windsurfing. Either way, the interview went off-piste as you swapped stories and developed a close connection.

That’s a problem not just because their likeability clouds your judgement – but more importantly, the actual discussion you had is an unfair judge of their capabilities. In that 15 mins you spent talking about windsurfing with Candidate A, you were asking tough questions of Candidates B and C. So your ultimately assessment won’t be comparing apples to apples.

The solution: map out your interview questions in advance based on competencies and attributes required for the role. Ask each candidate the same questions, in the same order. Don’t let organic discussions allow you to stray from the course. Note that it might help to kick off the interview by explaining that you’ll do this – occasionally it can feel you’re awkwardly shifting topics. But of course you can still probe and ask follow-on questions to deepen the line of inquiry as needed.

⚠️ WARNING ⚠️  Beware of groupthink. Group interviews aren’t good, and hearing others’ assessments before you interview an individual isn’t great either. These common practices make us more liable to groupthink, and less likely to think independently and critically. The purpose of interviews with multiple people is to maximise the quality of thinking and quality of assessment of candidates. Don’t diminish that by letting others’ opinions cloud your own.

Challenge assumptions - your own and others

You need to be aware of your biases throughout the hiring process, especially when making a final decision or taking a candidate out of the running. Be critical of your own thinking and test for real evidence: what’s the data that indicates your favoured candidate is actually best for the job? Or another is unsuitable for the job? Is it possible your unconscious assumptions about him or her influenced your lens in the process? Challenge others on the interview panel to question their thinking, too.

Be particularly aware of your (and others’) assumptions of “the kind of people” who usually do this job. That’s loaded with bias favouring the status quo.

⚠️ WARNING ⚠️  Beware of “cultural fit” thinking. The idea behind “fit” is that you want to hire people like you to build a harmonious team – usually people with a similar background and personality. It’s at odds with building a truly diverse team, diverse not just in inherent demographics but also in subtler dimensions like personality, ways of thinking and communication styles. That’s not great if you want to reap the benefits of diversity we’ve covered.

As Celia de Anca writes in Harvard Business Review, “We might be creating a situation in which companies will be very diverse in appearance, but intrinsically homogeneous. They will be hiring the same profile of people even though they might have very different backgrounds. Thus the company will appear diverse — but we know that appearances can be deceiving.”

The solution? Instead of hiring for culture fit, hire for culture contribution. Analyse what’s missing from your culture, and go out of your way to recruit people who can bring that to the table.

Further resources

The Resume of the Future – Oliver Staley, Quartz

Learn why traditional CVs are “terrible” (in the words of former Google HR director Laszlo Bock) and some forward-thinking strategies – including masking identifiers – to improve your hiring decisions

Hiring: It’s About Cultural Contribution, Not Cultural Fit – Diego Rodriguez, Executive Vice President, Chief Product and Design Officer at Intuit

More about the concept of cultural contribution and why hiring for “culture fit” is a bad idea

Here’s our best practice checklist for hiring — the top 7 ways to de-bias your hiring process

✅  Set expectations with your recruiter that you’re looking for a diverse shortlist
✅  Be challenging when the initial pool of candidates you get isn’t diverse enough; don’t progress until you’ve received a more diverse selection
✅  Bring an element of “blind auditions” into your hiring process where possible via assessments and/or stripping identifiers out of CVs
✅  In interviews, ask each candidate the same questions, in the same order
✅  When interviewing, allow each interviewer to form their own decision before swapping notes on the candidate
✅  Challenge your own and others’ thinking throughout the hiring process, watching out for signs of bias
✅  Ban the term “culture fit” in your team, explain why it’s problematic – and share this to anyone you hear using it in your broader business

Reflect

Reflect on the concept of cultural contribution for your own team. What’s lacking in your team? (See below for some ideas.) Where could you diversify? Comment below to share.

Some considerations:

  • Personality and ways of thinking
  • Cultural fluency – understanding different cultures and perspectives
  • Global experience and worldview
  • Tech savvy
  • Languages spoken
  • Cross-functional knowledge
  • Military experience
  • Educational background
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Age
  • Race / ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Disability, including physical, sensory, learning, mental health and chronic illness
  • Nationality
  • Religion

To request a demo of Kaleidoscope or to discuss how you can create a more inclusive culture starting today, get in touch: edwin.abl@hivelearning.com.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest posts in your email