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Posted on Friday, Jun 2, 2017
Organizations with diverse workforces outperform their less-diverse competitors, and many organizations are setting diverse hiring goals and quotas. However, unconscious bias can limit how while these programs work.
Could blind recruitment be the answer?
Blind recruitment involves omitting personally identifiable information, such as name, gender, age and education, from applicant CVs. The aim is to overcome unconscious bias during the recruitment process, which can be counterproductive to a strategy to improve workplace diversity.
“Everyone has unconscious bias,” says Yvonne Smyth, Head of Diversity at Hays. “At its most basic, it is about whether you see someone as part of your ‘in group’. For example, do you have a Caucasian sounding name, as I do? Did you go to the same university as me? However, when it comes to any kind of selection at key points in careers, which could be recruitment, promotion, being put forward for a new project, even giving feedback, this can influence the shape of someone’s career and the opportunities they have.
“Unconscious bias comes into play because you are exercising personal judgement,” she said.
Blind recruitment can help organizations ensure a diverse flow of talent into their selection process. It can also boost your employment brand since jobseekers say they have the opportunity to better position their strengths in an interview.
If organizations are to maximize the benefits of a blind recruitment strategy, managers need to be aware of their own unconscious biases and, through training, learn to recognize and better manage them at key points of judgement and selection.
An early success
One of the earliest examples of the technique being put into practice actually took place in 1980 in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which, up until then, was comprised almost entirely of white male musicians. Recognizing that they had a diversity problem, they tried a different approach to auditioning new members; the recruitment panel sat behind a screen so they could only hear the music of those auditioning for the orchestra. They could no longer see them. They even put carpet down so that high heels could not be heard.
This resulted in a previously all-white, male ensemble becoming a near 50-50 split of male and female, with a lot more diversity and the sound they wanted for their orchestra.
The business case for diversity
Organizations are increasingly aware that businesses with more diverse workforces outperform their less diverse competitors. McKinsey’s Diversity Matters report found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity and ethnic minority board representation became 15 per cent and 35 per cent more likely, respectively, to financially outperform those in the bottom quartile.
But Yvonne warns that blind recruitment is not a miraculous solution to all diversity challenges. “Generally speaking, making CVs more blind than they currently are is a good thing because it does help mitigate bias. However, blind recruitment is not a silver bullet, neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong. It is a tool that you can use to create a level playing field, so use it, but use it with caution.”
As Dan Robertson, Diversity and Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, explains, the same thing happens in recruitment. He says: “When we look at a CV, we judge people based on whether or not they went to university, which one they attended, where they are from, their hobbies and interests and so on; thus, our unconscious biases are working against our conscious efforts to hire diverse talent. By taking out that personal information, unconscious bias and start to make decisions based on people’s ability and competencies to do the job.”
A recent test conducted by the BBC involved sending resumes from two candidates, ‘Adam’ and ‘Mohamed’, who had identical skills and experience, in response to 100 job opportunities.
Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered four. Although the results were based on small sample size, they tally with the findings of previous academic studies.
As employers recognize the negative implications that unconscious bias can have for diversity strategies, interest in the use of blind recruitment gathers pace.
However, as Nic Hammarling, Partner, Head of Diversity at business psychology firm Pearn Kandola, points out, blind screening does not automatically render an organization’s shortlisting processes bias-free. She says: “Letters of reference and even application forms can easily contain information that alludes to someone’s background. Comments such as being a ‘proud father of two’, for example, negate the removal of personal data on the form.”
Organizations that do implement blind recruitment policies almost always see a more diverse workforce as a result, leading to improvements across the business, from teamwork to productivity. Two years ago, EY overhauled its trainee recruitment strategy and introduced a blind CV policy. Maggie Stilwell, Managing Partner for Talent UK & Ireland, says: “We are one of the UK’s top ten graduate employers. Strategically, diversity and inclusion are very important for us, so a blind CV policy was an enabler that gave us a specific advantage as a socially mobile organization.”
Historically, some elements of the recruitment system had worked against people coming from state-run schools. The new system stopped filtering on degree classification, and which school they attended.
“Of course, not everyone will be successful applying for our opportunities,” says Stilwell. “There is a series of aptitude and situational tests to be completed, but the blind CV scheme means that you are looking at people as individuals.”
Law firm Clifford Chance has also introduced a blind CV strategy for graduate trainees, with the overall objective of making sure the firm never loses out on talent, wherever it may come from.
“We need to make sure we hire the very best candidates, regardless of the institution of study, degree discipline or background,” says Head of Graduate Talent Laura Yeates. “Since taking these steps, we’ve seen the number of institutions from which we receive applications, and subsequently make hires from, increase.
“Candidate feedback has also been overwhelmingly positive due to a feeling of being able to position their strengths and unique selling points more effectively in the interview.”
For the time being Clifford Chance is limiting its blind CV policy to its graduate recruitment, and will continue to measure the impact. In other roles and other areas of the firm, relevant experience is obviously more important, and therefore the benefits of using the technique are not as clear-cut.
If organizations are to maximize the benefits of a blind recruitment strategy, it is important for their employees, particularly managers, to be aware of their own unconscious biases and, through training, learn to recognize and better manage them at key points of judgement and selection.
Is blind recruitment foolproof? According to Hammarling, there is some research showing that the introduction of blind shortlisting has made no difference to the gender balance of those shortlisted while others have found that the representation of women in the shortlist actually decreases with the introduction of blind shortlisting processes.
“This may well be the case in organizations where there is a lot of encouragement to attract applications from female candidates,” she says. “As with all diversity initiatives, monitoring and evaluating the impact is key to ensuring it is having its intended effect and at a rate that is still defensible.”
Stilwell maintains that the real challenge for some organizations will be managing the uptick in volume of applications when running a blind CV scheme. EY saw a 75 per cent increase in the number of applications on launching its scheme, but had also invested in a new technology platform to cope with the extra demand.
She says: “Some companies may not have that available to them. However, for us it was an investment decision. As an organization, we want to give our clients the very best people. Looking back, too many assumptions were made about what makes people successful here – exams are important, but by no means the only thing that makes them successful.”
If there are any downsides to blind recruitment, they relate to the limitations of the technique. As Smyth points out, in order to increase social inclusion, it might actually be useful for a potential employer to know the background of the individual – for example, what school they went to and what grades they got. She says: “If you go completely blind, there is a risk that you lose some valuable information. If someone went to a school that generally did not perform well, but still managed to get to Oxford, you want to know that, because that person has super high potential. You can take things too far. This is well intentioned; it is all about widening access to a talent pool and giving opportunities to the widest possible range of people, not just on the basis of actual achievement, but on potential.”
Want to learn more about diversity in the US workforce? Request a copy of the 2017 Gender Diversity report.
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