Use Blind Auditions to Reduce Hiring Bias

"Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests. But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception." – Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University researcher

You Are Biased

Very few hiring managers actually intend to decrease the diversity of their teams. Even fewer set out to hire a lesser qualified candidate. But because of our unconscious biases–automatic, subtle cognitive processes which influence our perception and actions–we often hire against our team's best interests.

Unconscious biases come from two sources:

  1. Personal experiences: e.g., all of your math teachers growing up were male
  2. Social learning (AKA cultural beliefs): e.g., you were told by your parents, your friends, and/or your culture that men were better at math than women

Our own experiences, and the lessons we've learned from those around us, influence how we judge candidates, even before they've had a chance to demonstrate relevant skills or experiences. Unchecked, these biases reinforce harmful stereotypes and further cement racial, gender, and cultural barriers in our organizations and in society at large.

Researchers have quantified the effects of unconscious biases through multiple experiments which have involved submitting thousands of resumes for open positions. These resumes were identical, except for information which signaled race, gender, sexuality, or cultural background:

  • A 2014 study found that the more customer-facing a position, the more difficult it is for candidates with traditionally black names to even get an interview.
  • A 2012 double-blind study found that male candidates were more likely to be hired, more likely to be paid a higher starting wage, and more likely to receive mentoring than female candidates.
  • A Harvard University study found that just holding a position at a campus gay student organization decreased a candidate's chances of being interviewed by 40%.
  • A Chicago University study found that mothers were perceived as less competent than non-mothers and thus received fewer interviews and lower compensation; this same effect did not apply to fathers.

So while you may be actively trying to increase your team's diversity, you may be harming your chances even before you sit down to interview a candidate.

Eliminate Unconscious Bias with a Blind Audition

The-Voice-2014-Recap-Blind-Auditions-3042014

In order to avoid your unconscious biases during the hiring process, it helps to reduce your own access to information superfluous to the actual hiring decision. Yes, just like The Voice. One of the most famous real-world experiments in reducing unconscious bias comes from professional orchestras in the 1970s and 80s:

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn't until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s. What is the source of this change?

[...]

In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began using blind auditions. Candidates are situated on a stage behind a screen to play for a jury that cannot see them. In some orchestras, blind auditions are used just for the preliminary selection while others use it all the way to the end, until a hiring decision is made. Even when the screen is only used for the preliminary round, it has a powerful impact; researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to the finals. And the screen has also been demonstrated to be the source of a surge in the number of women being offered positions.

By the way, even a screen doesn't always yield a gender blind event. Screens keep juries from seeing the candidates move into position, but the telltale sounds of a woman's shoes allegedly influenced some jury members such that aspiring musicians were instructed to remove their footwear before coming onto the stage.

It seems impractical to imagine evaluating someone but remaining ignorant of their sex. But the orchestras show us: it can be done.

The Blind Audition format reduced the amount of unnecessary information that may have unconsciously biased the interviewer. In turn, orchestras became increasingly more likely to hire women. This case study, decades old, still interests researchers to this day for a very simple reason: more traditional diversity training programs focused on the hiring process rarely, if ever, prove to increase diversity. Some even reduce diversity within a company.

How to Hold Your Own Blind Audition

In order to hold your own blind audition, you have to construct a metaphorical screen between the candidate and the hiring manager.

  1. Define the skills required for the position. Before you even start to look for candidates, tick off the required skills needed for the role, being specific about the unique requirements of your team and organization. For instance, if your team is already challenged by poor communication, be sure to include communication skills as a key requirement of the job. Then, rank the individual skills in terms of importance (and consider inviting the rest of your team participate in this part of the process).
  2. Develop a prompt for your audition. Take the top skills required for the role and brainstorm an exercise for them to complete. Be sure to keep the audition short (something the candidate could complete in 30 minutes)—a lengthy audition process could be biased against someone working long hours and caring for a loved one. Also, be sure to brush up on your local hiring laws and regulations: often, any test given to a candidate must prove to a) have questions specifically related to the job, and b) must be administered equally to all candidates. Lastly, like a structured interview, be sure to develop a rubric for how you'll grade the audition BEFORE you administer it. As you think about the format of your audition, consider these types of questions:
    1. Aptitude: Best for technical positions, develop a quiz that tests the candidates' competency with the required tools and systems they'll be using. Example: Describe the difference between a Selection Sort and a Bubble Sort and when it's best to use each.
    2. Behavioral: Ask the candidate how they responded to a specific work challenge in their past.  Example: Describe a past situation that required you to get others on your team to align with the outcomes of an unpopular decision. How'd you do it, and what did you learn?
    3. Case: Best for strategic roles, give the candidate a strategic scenario and ask them how they might respond. Example: What should the company do if the minimum wage were suddenly raised? What steps would you take, and what would guide your decision making process?
    4. Situational: Present the candidate with a situation they are likely to find on the job and ask them how they might respond. Example: What would you do if you saw a co-worker taking products from the office home without asking?
    5. Draft a colleague. Now that you know what you're looking for, it's time to start reviewing candidates. But if you're responsible for making the hire, you'll need someone else to help you censor incoming resumes and referrals (for information which could bias your decision) before it reaches you. This person should be someone you trust to avoid passing judgement on applicants. Their job is to merely pass on candidate materials with key redactions.
    6. Decide what information to screen out. Sit down with your colleague and agree on what information should be withheld during the initial interview process. To start, we suggest having your colleague redact the candidate's name along with any indicators of gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, race, age, or parenthood. This could mean removing the candidates address, club associations, hobbies, dates of graduation, and even their educational background on any materials they submit.
    7. Direct the candidate to an online form with the audition prompts. If the candidate seems qualified based on their redacted resume, their application should progress to the Blind Audition stage. Keep it simple by using a tool like Google Forms, Typeform, or Survey Monkey. Only allow your colleague to see the raw submissions so he/she can redact the applicant's name before sharing with you. Collect the responses and assess them based on the grading rubric you developed along with the audition
    8. Narrow down the candidates via anonymous chat. Finally, rather than bringing the candidate in, consider doing a short text-based chat to ask deeper questions about their audition responses. Services like ChatStep.com make it easy to quickly create an anonymous chatroom that you can share with the candidate. Have your colleague send the candidate the URL, a day/time, and the instructions not to use their real name when logging into the site. Ask the candidate how they approached each question, and if there's anything else they'd add. Once you've followed these steps, you should have a clear understanding of each of your top candidates without being exposed to information that might unconsciously bias your decision.

The Benefit of Blind Auditions

Hiring for diverse teams isn't just a fashionable trend, it's good business. In study after study, diverse teams have proven more productive, more creative, and more profitable. While these steps may seem new to you and unlike how you've hired in the past, that's exactly the point. Hiring is perhaps the most critical activity of any business because who you choose will in turn make critical choices for the business itself–don't let this important of a decision be derailed by your unconscious biases.

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