How to Anonymize CVs for Fairer Hiring

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
December 12, 2018
min read

Anonymous CV Toolkit

What is an anonymous (or blind) CV?

An anonymous (or blind) CV is when identifying information is concealed from a CV, resume or cover letter to conceal the backgrounds of job applications. By removing irrelevant information, you're eliminating the likelihood of unconscious biases affecting hiring decisions. Instead, candidates will be assessed on what matters, which is their ability to get the job done. If you want to create a fairer recruitment process, this is an essential step.

Although it sounds simple enough, anonymising or blinding CVs and applications is sometimes easier said than done, for a variety of practical, logistical and resource availability reasons.

We’ve used anonymous hiring for 3 years now and none of us would ever go back. We've also gathered volumes of quantitative and qualitative feedback from companies who have used our recruitment platform. The data is clear; you will recruit a more diverse range of skilled candidates if you use anonymous recruitment rather than relying on traditional CVs.

Why you should anonymize CVs

Unconscious bias is pervasive in recruitment processes. Unfortunately, none of us are impervious to this (check out our article Is my recruitment process biased? if you're not yet convinced).

But cognitive biases aren't anyone’s fault, it's just how the human brain processes large amounts of incomplete information to make decisions.

As easy as it would be to point to a minority of bigoted, explicitly biased hirers that, if removed, would make for fairer outcomes, this simply isn't the case.

We're all biased, no matter how well-intentioned we may be.

Bias brings unhelpful noise into complex decisions such as hiring someone to join your team. The good news is that talent acquisition professionals are at the forefront of this battle. They are often very well-versed on the negative impact of this bias and are therefore well poised to combat it.

Before we get into ways of tackling bias, let's take a quick look at how it actually happens...

Our brains use two systems to make decisions.

System 1: Fast and intuitive, used for everyday decisions (like walking to work on 'autopilot').

System 2: Slow and conscious, used for bigger, more important decisions (like planning a one-off trip or a big project at work).

System 1 uses mental shortcuts and associations to help make the 1000s of micro-decisions that we encounter every day. These are the sort of decisions that if you had to think long and hard about, you’d probably never get out of bed in the morning. So, System 1 is absolutely necessary to lighten our mental load so that we can focus on the more important decisions.

However, unconscious bias arises when we default to using System 1 when we should be using System 2...and the more rushed or fatigued we are, the more likely this is to happen.

The first port of call when addressing this issue is often unconscious bias training, which according to the research, has mixed results...

A meta-analysis of 426 studies (involving more than 80,000 participants) found that although there was a reduction in bias immediately after training (a very slight one), this wore off after about 8 weeks.

Why doesn't it work? Well, given that most bias is actually unconscious, awareness alone just isn't effective. You can't tell someone to stop doing something that, for the most part, they're not even aware that they're doing!

For more, read our article: Does unconscious bias training work?

The next well-known method is blind hiring and the easiest-adopted approach to that is often anonymised CVs/anonymous resumes.

There are 30 years of research that points to the dangers of including names and other identifying information on an application and blind hiring with anonymised CVs is one of the ways to mitigate these risks (check out this blog: What is blind hiring?).

Unconscious bias training doesn't work because it attempts to change human nature.

Even if this is possible, it would take an eye-watering investment of time and money.

Instead, what has been proven to work is changing processes, rather than people themselves - which is why anonymous resumes are a must.

So, we believe that anonymized CVs are an important first step to start removing bias from the hiring process. Find out more about how Applied's recruitment software can help managers implement a blind hiring and anonymised applicant screening process to make better hiring decisions and build diverse teams.

A case for anonymized CVs and name-blind recruitment - backed by data

If we look at a 2019 study from the University of Oxford, we can see why anonymised CVs are necessary...

Identical applications were sent out to employers, with only the candidate's name being changed to reflect ethnicity.

Candidates with white-sounding names were far more likely to progress to the interview stage, whereas minority applicants had to send 80% more applications to get the same results as a White-British person.

The worst part? Researchers found that this rate of discrimination had barely changed since similar experiments back in 1969.

This isn't an issue exclusive to the UK...

We tend to see similar outcomes all across the western world. For us, this makes an even stronger case for rolling out name-blind applications and anonymized resumes as the new standard.

Needless to say, bias during the job application process applies to more than just race.

Job seekers can be also be discriminated against based on their:

  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability status

For more research, check out our Recruitment Bias Report.

The types of information you should remove

A typical CV or resume is riddled with unnecessary information that, at best, has nothing at all to do with their ability to do the job, and, at worst, sends misleading and erroneous signals to a hiring manager that the person is not suited for the role.

We’ve broken down the types of information that you'd typically find on candidate CVs and listed the biases that might come into play, along with an urgency that this type of information should be removed.

CV bias examples

Sacre Bleu! Get these off of CVs right now

  • Photos - what you look like very rarely has anything to do with how well you can do a job (except maybe modelling - but even then beauty is subjective). A photo can subject you to affinity bias causing you to prefer people who look like you.

  • Name - someone’s name sends a lot of signals about their background. If someone’s name is like yours you are more likely to assess them positively. If someone’s name is “unusual” to you, you’re more likely to make misleading assumptions. As mentioned previously, this is a massive obstacle for ethnic minorities seeking success in the job market.

  • Age - age is just a weak indicator of how much someone has practiced their skills. Instead of looking at that, how about assessing skills more directly and getting a better signal?

  • Gender/religion (and other PPC) - personal protected characteristics (PPC) are called this because they are protected by law. You cannot discriminate based on these characteristics and they’re not really anyone’s business in the first place.

You might want to ditch these too

  • Hobbies - you may argue that this gives an insight into the character of the applicant or whether you would like to work with them. These considerations may be important, but care has to be taken that they are not catch-all terms for ‘they weren’t like me’ or ‘I couldn’t go to the pub with him’. Also if you share a common hobby (polo or yachting for example), this might make you view their application more positively than those that are different to you and therefore could bring something different to the team.

  • Professional affiliations - professional certifications are reasonable enough, but otherwise, these types of information are ambiguous in their value at best. Do they seek to confirm that a job candidate comes from the same club as everyone else? If it’s not 100% valuable - it doesn't belong on a resume.

And if you want to take it up to 11

  • Educational institute names - Number of years of education is one of the least predictive forms of assessing if someone will perform well in a role (check out the seminal Schmidt study). Additionally, the name of an institute may be a proxy for intelligence, but it also signals a whole host of other socioeconomic stuff mushed in together. At the end of the day, it is a proxy for a skill or ability you are trying to assess. Don’t rely on proxies, assess based on the skill itself.

  • Previous company names - you see so many job ads that say ‘must have worked in top 4 <insert industry> firm’. Again this is a proxy and if you rely on it you will always recruit the same type of person.

3 Practical Anonymous Resume Screening Methods

Here are 3 ways of anonymising and blinding CVs, resumes and cover letters in ascending order of ease and effectiveness:

1. Manually

This is the way that many pioneering Talent Acquisition professionals have been blinding their hiring processes for years. The approach is simple; print out the CVs and take a sharpie to the sensitive bits - you've got yourself an anonymized resume! We’ve done this before and with high numbers of applicants, it isn’t fun and can get very confusing very quickly.

This is much better than an unblinded CV sift but still involves a lot of work (that being said, it’s definitely worth it!).

2. Using an Applicant Tracking System

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are a great way to track which candidate is which by helping to streamline your recruitment process. The problem is, as the name suggests, they are very one-way, kind of like attaching an ankle tracking device to someone and then forgetting they are human as they filter through your process.

Blinding is often done on these systems as an afterthought. The way it works is to first require your poor candidate to re-enter their entire professional history into a series of clunky pull-down menus and radio buttons. Once the candidate is thoroughly annoyed, the ATS then simply does not show the name of the person to the review. The problem is that the rest of the sensitive information is usually shown - why? because it’s an afterthought.

3. Using a People Decision Platform

A People Decision Platform is built around the core concepts of diversity, inclusion and quality of hiring decisions. These platforms have the benefit of being both highly efficient and people-centric.

Firstly, these systems are positioned to care about the skills and ability of a candidate, not the misleading proxies that you typically find in a CV. Secondly, they will carry out the blinding and much more to remove even more bias from a recruitment process as second nature. What’s more, they will prove that the anonymisation has made a difference by using real hiring data as a feedback loop to show the improvement. Surprise, surprise, Applied happens to be a People Decision Platform.

Beyond anonymized CV and blinding

Anonymising CVs is just the first step in structuring your applicant data to de-clutter your hiring and quickly get to the substance and skills of an applicant. There are dozens of other behavioural science methodologies that can be woven throughout a process to improve its effectiveness. Have a read of our article on How do I remove bias from my recruitment process? for more information.‍

Beyond CVs and Resumes - Work Sample Questions

The days are numbered for CVs and resumes, after all, they have been in use for hundreds of years (far too long). They’re riddled with bias, full of misleading proxies and are actually one of the least effective predictors of job performance. There are lots of alternative methods to CVs out there, the one we recommend is simply using the most predictive forms of assessment upfront.

For most roles, this involves using ‘work sample questions’ which challenge the applicant to think through a realistic challenge that they could meet on the job.

Work samples test for skills directly instead of relying on proxies like education and experience. This is a fantastic way to ascertain a candidate's skills. Our recruitment platform allows hiring managers to create their own work sample questions, so they can be laser-focused in finding their ideal candidate.

Work samples are created by identifying which skills are needed for the job and then building questions that will test these skills.

Here’s a work sample we used for a recent Community Lead role:

You’ve been invited to be on a panel on hiring & recruitment. You’re the only D&I expert (possibly the only one that thinks it’s important there) in the room. What are your opening lines to the audience to convince and engage them on the subject?

Skills tested: D&I Knowledge, Communication

The best work samples are those which mirror real-life tasks/scenarios most closely.

At Applied, candidates submit 3-5 of these work samples anonymously instead of a CV.

Embrace the future of hiring with the Applied recruitment software

Applied uses anonymized - or 'blind hiring' technology so managers can ditch the CVs and focus on what really matters, how well a candidate can actually get the job done. By making hiring decisions based purely on skills and abilities, companies can increase their recruitment ROI by reducing staff turnover, as well as focusing on channels that are consistently producing the best candidates.

With our software, you will get a centralised platform so you can refine and manage every stage of the hiring process. From creating job applications that will appeal to the widest possible audience, to creating work sample questions and scheduling interviews, you’ll have everything you need to build your ideal team.

Applied is the essential platform for fairer hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring ethical and predictive, our platform uses anonymised applications and skills-based assessments to improve diversity and identify the best talent.

Start transforming your hiring now: book in a demo or browse our ready-to-use, science-backed talent assessments.