How do you improve diversity without using controversial strategies like quotas and positive action?
Here’s a promise: by using a blind hiring process, you will hire better people from a more diverse range of backgrounds.
Here are a few key findings from our own research:
Hiring teams using our blind hiring software found that they have up to 3x as many offer-worthy candidates (and you can achieve similar results just by following our methods below).
In a randomized control trial, we found that 60% of people hired ‘blind’ would’ve been missed in a traditional CV sift.
Diversity will improve as a bi-product of bias removal too: blind hiring could bring you 4x more candidates from ethnically diverse backgrounds…
And companies ranked the top quartile for diversity financially outperform those at the bottom by 33%.
For more stats like these, you can read our short guide to Blind Hiring Statistics.
What is blind hiring?
'Blind' or anonymous recruiting refers to the technique of removing personal information from candidate applications during the assessment process. This is most often candidate names, but in some instances, like when using Applied, it goes further: aiming to remove all socio-demographic details that might affect decision-making, such as age, home address, and even education.
Blind CVs have emerged in recent years as a popular solution to the fact that (even if we don’t realize it) we respond to candidates differently when we know details about them, and that can stop us from being fair.
Whilst blind resume screening can help us overcome some of the unconscious biases that result in people from more diverse backgrounds being overlooked, this is only the tip of the iceberg...
What is unconscious bias?
You’ve been around the block.
You know your stuff.
But the data doesn’t lie: when it comes to hiring, your gut doesn’t help you find the best talent.
Broadly speaking, unconscious bias is a term that describes any implicit preferences or prejudices that can affect how we judge a person’s skills, abilities or character.
When we are making these types of judgements, we are unaware of the fact that we are not making objective, rational decisions.
While there are many different types of unconscious bias, they all lead us to make assumptions - be they positive or negative.
Affinity bias, for example, describes how we are psychologically more inclined to hold someone in high esteem if they remind us of ourselves. These assumptions can be based on various characteristics including:
- Educational background
- Social class
How does unconscious bias work?
Our brains are designed for efficiency; they seek to find patterns in our experiences that help us to make faster decisions. Most of the time, these heuristics make our lives considerably better: the world is full of informational inputs, and heuristics can help us chart a faster path toward a decision.
We subconsciously draw on information stored away in our mental lockers to make associations - this information could be from your past experience, what you've seen in the media and stereotypes.
For the most part, this is a good thing...
Life’s too short to spend hours deliberating on every tiny decision.
This is why our brains use two systems for decision making...
System 1 brain: Used for quick decision-making, relying on mental shortcuts and associations - e.g. walking to work
System 2 brain: Used for one-off, more considered decisions - e.g. managing a work project
Whilst we need System 1 to simplify our lives, unconscious bias comes into effect when we use shortcuts and patterns to jump to conclusions.
Unconsciously, we form impressions of the world around us that sometimes means we fail to see it on its merits, and this can be particularly the case when we’re cognitively overloaded like when we’re tired, time-poor, or have lots of choices to make.
The problem is: for the most part, we’re not in control of which system we’re using to make decisions.
But what you can do is design a hiring process that forces you to use System 2.
As researchers explain: “Decision-makers who are rushed, stressed, distracted, or pressured are more likely to apply stereotypes – recalling facts in ways biased by stereotypes and making more stereotypic judgments – than decision-makers whose cognitive abilities are not similarly constrained.”
How does unconscious bias affect hiring decisions?
Rough estimates suggest that recruiters and hiring managers spend as little as 10 seconds reading your CV before they decide whether they want to bring you in for an interview.
And we know that for many roles, there are upwards of 100 candidates for every job advertised.
That’s a lot of quick thinking going on, which can open up opportunities for inadvertent cognitive biases to creep in.
In fact, studies have consistently shown that these precious 10 seconds can be critical.
Researchers the world over have now studied how small, irrelevant personal details on a candidate’s application can alter their chances of being selected to go through to the next stage.
The set-up of these types of experiments - often referred to as 'correspondence studies' - is quite simple: researchers create a fictitious (but realistic) candidate CV and then send it out to thousands of real employers.
But before they do so, they subtly alter one or two small details on the CV so they have created two or more nearly-identical CVs, with the only exception being a name or other detail.
They then randomly assign different variants to different employers. And then they sit back and wait for these prospective candidates to get calls to attend an interview and they measure the extent to which these small variations affect call-back rates.
One such study, done in Germany in 2016, looked at the extent to which ethnicity and religion - signalled through the name and the photo on the application - influenced a candidate’s likelihood of getting an interview.
They randomly assigned 1,500 real employers to receive an (otherwise identical) application from Sandra Bauer, Meryem Ӧztürk, or Meryem Ӧztürk when she was wearing a headscarf.
The names were specifically chosen to evoke either a person with a German heritage (Sandra Bauer) or Turkish heritage (Meryem Ӧztürk).
They found - astonishingly - that while Sandra was invited to interview 19% of the time, when the exact same application was received from Meryem without a headscarf, she received a call back just 14% of the time, and when Meryem was wearing a headscarf, she got a call back just 4% of the time.
Studies like this one have now been done in almost every continent of the world, and have explored the impact of subtle cues of gender, race and ethnicity, caste, obesity, sexual orientation, age, and even home address (signalling wealth) can affect the rate at which candidates progress to the interview stage, and found rather depressingly that minority groups tend to be systematically overlooked in hiring processes.
(Side note: similar studies have also replicated findings in other markets such as rental housing, retail or even AirBnB).
A study conducted in the US found, for example, that people with a ‘non-White’ sounding surname would need to send approximately 50% more applications out to get the same rate of call back for an interview, or another way of thinking about it is they would need to have almost 8 more years of job experience to get the same response rate.
What’s particularly frustrating about the exclusion of ethnic minority applicants, as well as other minority groups, is that sociodemographic factors are rarely - if ever - relevant to whether they can do the job at hand.
This represents a huge potential loss to individuals and to the teams who miss out on the vital benefits of blind recruitment and the diversity it brings.
Another similar study from here in the UK had similar findings...
Researchers found that candidates with Muslim-sounding names are 3x more likely to be passed over for a job than their white counterparts.
Did you know job descriptions often show an implicit bias towards male candidates? our gender decoder tool reveals examples of biased language and suggests gender-neutral alternatives to ensure a diverse applicant pool.
Does blind hiring work as a recruitment strategy?
Does anonymous recruitment work? Well, so far the evidence suggests that removal of names and signifiers of ethnicity can be an effective technique, particularly in teams that don’t positively discriminate or have a strong affirmative action policy in place (which is most employers).
For example, a recent set of studies coordinated by the Victorian Government concluded that: “The result of the five pilot studies provide strong support for and useful insights into the broader implementation and further evaluation of CV de-identification in public and private organisations in Victoria”.
Interestingly, their studies showed that the impact of de-identification, or blinding, differed across job roles and organizations.
Depending on the setting, it had the effect of increasing the success rates - and reducing or even sometimes reversing the success rate gap - for women, non-Australian-born candidates, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds amongst other groups.
These effects were not uniform and seemed to relate to different contextual challenges in each setting, with occasional evidence that the effect increased the success rates of non-minority groups in parallel.
But even in studies where the effects have been more mixed - there is almost always evidence that blinding affects the shortlisting process.
At a minimum, that’s an indicator that whether we realize it or not, we’re treating candidates differently based on their name or some other factor, which ultimately corrodes the fairness we expect from job application processes.
And given the wealth of studies pointing to the presence of discrimination in recruitment practice against minority groups, it’s likely that the average effect of removing these potentially distracting details will be positive for equality of opportunity overall.
Despite all of the evidence, many hirers are still wary about using blind hiring for senior roles.
Want to dig deeper on whether or not anonymous recruitment could work for you? Check out our deep dive on Blind Hiring Pros & Cons.
What other ways can I remove bias from the hiring process?
While blind applications should certainly help your efforts to reduce unconscious bias, it’s still only one piece in a more complex puzzle of how to truly create a fair and equitable hiring process.
For example, even with a blind hiring process, you’re selecting candidates based on how many all-men’s weightlifting championships they’ve won, then you won’t make many inroads into your diversity.
Once you've anonymized candidates, you'll still need to make sure the assessments you use are fair and inclusive.
The more we over-index on someone's background, the less inclusive our process is likely to be.
Whilst introducing a blind CV process alone won't transform your diversity and bring you the best talent, it's a great first step to start off with (we put together this blog on How to Anonymize CVs to show you what to do).
How to achieve a truly ‘blind’ application process
Step 1: Anonymize applications beyond names
Name blind recruitment is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Where a blind resume review falls short, however, is that even without identifying information, it still signals someone's socioeconomic background via work experience and education.
Although this information could be proxy for someone's ability, it's extremely difficult to adjust for the start in life someone had.
Those from underprivileged backgrounds are less likely to attend top universities and therefore gain the best looking experience, which doesn't mean they don't have the skills needed for the job.
Most hirers believe that education and experience are key factors in someone's ability to do the job. But the evidence simply doesn't support this.
Education and experience do tell us something about candidates (hence their predictive validity is higher than 0), but they're just a proxy for skills.
Extensive experience alone doesn't make someone the best person for the job...
But skills learned through experience do.
Here at Applied, we take the blind resume screening step further by ditching CVs completely...
Step 2: Use ‘work samples’ to ensure a skills-based approach
At the top of the chart above, you'll see 'work samples.'
Work samples take parts of the role and turn them into questions or tasks. They’re designed to simulate the role as closely as possible.
Rather than make educated guesses based on background, work samples simply get candidates to perform small parts of the role.
To create a work sample question…
- Start by defining the core skills required to do the job.
- Think of a real-life task or scenario that someone in the role would encounter that might test one of those skills.
- Turn the scenarios into a work sample by posing them hypothetically (by asking 'what would you do?')
- Repeat to create 3-5 work samples that test each skill
Depending on the situation, you can either ask candidates how they’d approach the task, or simply ask them to perform it. You might ask candidates how they'd prioritize a list of jobs or deal with an issue a customer is having. Or you might simply ask them to perform a task - like drafting an email or blog post.
Work samples essentially get candidates to act as if they were already in the role instead of attempting to work out whether not candidates can do the job based on their experience and education alone.
They're similar to a standard 'tell me a time when...' but instead of asking how someone has worked through a challenge in the past,
By asking forward-looking questions, you can test direct for potential, rather than relying on past experience.
Why is this fairer? Well, not having encountered a specific situation before doesn't mean you don't have the skills to deal with it in the present... and this style of questioning also favours those who self-promote the most (something women are less likely to do) or even outright lie.
Using this process to hire our own team here at Applied, we found that we wouldn't have even met 60% of hires using a CV process.
Step 3: Data-proof your hiring using scoring criteria
When it comes to best practices in recruitment, scoring criteria is vital.
Knowing what you're looking for and judging candidates only against this criteria will keep your process objective.
To produce quantified scores for candidates, try scoring answers using a scale (we use a 1-5 star scale).
This will give you number scores to make fair, justified hiring decisions based solely on the skills needed for the job.
Step 4: Remove ordering effects and lesser-known biases
Did you know? Applications reviewed first tend to be scored more favourably.
Beyond the obvious, surface-level biases, there all also other ways our brains misfire that tend to lead to unfair outcomes and poor decisions.
Who is viewed before you, how close to lunch you're reviewed or a single good or bad attribute can have a significant impact on your chances of being hired.
This is why here at Applied, we use the following process to further debias the hiring process...
Remove all non-relevant and personal information from applications and assign candidates a number to identify them.
Next, you’ll want to make sure applications are sliced up so that you’re comparing candidates’ answers question by question, as opposed to reviewing answers candidate by candidate. This is to minimize halo effect - if a candidate answers one question particularly well, we’ll likely have a tainted view of all their answers.
The next step involves randomizing the order in which answers are reviewed. Even once applications are blinded, there are still ordering biases at play. So, by randomizing like this, you’ll be able to make better, more data-driven hiring decisions.
Research has found that collective judgment is generally more accurate (and less biased) than that of a single person - this is know as 'Wisdom of the Crowds'. Have three members of your team review applications independently and average their scores to build a candidate leaderboard.
When you put this all together, it should look like the process below:
Step 5: Use a structured interview process
When meeting candidates face to face (or via Zoom), there's going to be some degree of interview bias - unless you're going in blindfolded.
That being said, there are measures you can take to keep interviewing as objective and predictive as possible.
A structured interview (the second most effective assessment on the predictive validity chart) is where all candidates are asked the same questions in the same order.
As for the interview questions themselves, the best practice for blind recruitment is to ask work sample-style questions, rather than delve into candidates' backgrounds. This means that you can see how candidates would think through problems should they actually get the job.
For example, you could ask candidates:
- To give a presentation (you'd obviously need to give them the relevant details ahead of time)
- To draw some quick insights from some fake data
- To look at your real-life strategy and critique it (for senior roles)
- To role-play a client meeting
Tasks like these enable you to see how candidates would perform in the role, without having to dig into their work history.
If someone can do the job to a high standard, does it matter what their experience is? If done right, your blind hiring process will leave you confident that the candidate you hire has all the necessary skills, having tested them objectively.
Even if you implement all of the above - your hiring will still be swayed by bias without scoring criteria to judge against.
Simply outline what a good, mediocre and bad answer might look like at each end of your scoring scale.
In terms of your interview panel, three reviewers is the magic number.
Why three? This number has been found to be the most optimal - adding any additional reviewers will bring diminishing returns.
The more diverse your panel, the less biased the scores.
Do you need specific software to implement blind hiring?
All of the core practices we use to debias the hiring process can be used without our platform... or even spending a single penny.
However, what a platform like ours will do is automate some of the most manual parts of the blind hiring process (anonymisation, scheduling, feedback etc), with all the data you need to track and report on diversity, efficiency and ROI.
Applied is built on 100+ years of science and research, with the sole purpose of making hiring fairer and more predictive.
When we designed our process, we looked only at what's been proven to work.
Whatever your process looks like right now, we'd encourage you try some of the strategies above... try anonymising candidates and using work samples alongside your current screening process, you'll likely find that those who you shortlist wouldn't have made it through based on their CV alone.
Blind hiring won't improve diversity overnight...
But by testing only for what matters and reducing bias, you'll see genuine, measurable change in the long term.
- (Blog post) The Business Case for Applied
- (Blog post) 5 Tips Before You Pilot Anonymous Hiring
- (Online course) Start the Applied Academy
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.