Business

Key to merit-based job hunt: blind hiring

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Hiring managers have long played the role of corporate clairvoyants, trying to discern from a few clues — a résumé, an open-ended question — whether a potential candidate would be a good fit.

The problem, of course, is that managers aren’t oracles. They’re just humans, burdened by all the biases, conscious and unconscious, that people lean on when making decisions.

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Hiring managers often “go with their gut”: relying on instincts that can easily be swayed by cultural similarity, and valuing something like shared leisure activities above core analytical and communications skills. And despite deliberate attempts to remain open-minded, they often overlook women and minority candidates or those without prestigious degrees.

“In study after study,” said Joan C. Williams, professor and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, “women, blacks, individuals with disabilities, tick off the group — all of them have to be more qualified than white men to get the same number of opportunities.”

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All of this leaves talented workers on the sidelines even as companies lament a lack of skilled labor. But there is a way to interrupt well-documented biases and still predict whether an applicant might excel in a given job: Remove the identifying information from a candidate’s résumé and have them interview or even perform a job-related test without revealing their gender, race, or educational background.

This is the common-sense concept behind blind hiring, a buzzy business practice being used to limit bias and improve hiring decisions. “On the whole, blind auditions are a really good way to address prove-it-again bias, which affects any group that’s stereotyped as less competent,” Williams said.

Long before the concept was popularized by NBC’s sing-off series “The Voice,” the blind audition originated in Boston. In 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra — which was dominated by men, like most orchestras at the time — began using a screen to mask the gender of auditioning musicians. As the practice caught on, women’s share of orchestral positions rose from 5 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 1996, according to a 2000 study. Auditioning behind a screen, the study found, increased a woman’s odds of advancing to the next round by 50 percent.

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Today, many technology companies are under fire for their own male-dominated and less-than-diverse workforces. Some are looking to the BSO songbook, placing a digital screen between job applicants and managers in an effort to find the most capable candidates.

Aline Lerner, founder of Interviewing.io, is eager to ditch résumé-based recruitment. “I hope résumés as a top-of-the-funnel filter die a horrible and fiery death,” said Lerner, a software engineer who fell into tech recruiting by accident, and slowly realized the process was broken. “The kind of discrimination I’ve seen in my career goes beyond gender and race, though those are certainly palpable and very, very real. But it’s discrimination against people without pedigree as well.”

Lerner says she would often present candidates she knew were qualified, only for companies to turn them away “because they didn’t go to MIT or Stanford. . . . I decided résumés couldn’t possibly be the best way to judge engineering talent.”

So she started Interviewing.io, where engineers can anonymously practice their technical interview skills with real managers, and identities are only revealed afterward if both participants agree to it. Lerner is even planning to roll out voice modulation software this summer that can effectively (but not creepily) disguise a person’s gender.

Interviewers, who range from managers who are actively hiring to engineers testing out new questions, can discover untapped talent, while users gain free practice and feedback on their interviews — not to mention a fair shot at impressing a top tech company who may be hiring. “Over half the candidates we present to companies like Yelp, Twitch, Dropbox, and Asana make it to onsite interviews,” Lerner said.

Another résumé-shredding startup is GapJumpers. Here, companies — including Bloomberg, Dolby, and the BBC — design job-related challenges for prospective candidates to complete anonymously on the site. Managers then receive a short list of the top performers, whom they can call in for an interview. With both parties confident that the candidate has proved his or her abilities, the focus stays on the work even after identities are finally revealed.

The benefits are twofold: The upfront challenge weeds out unqualified applicants, cutting down on wasted interviews and reducing hiring time by almost 40 percent, according to CEO and cofounder Kedar Iyer. And the blind, skills-based nature of the audition acts as a “bias interruptor,” allowing women, minorities, self-taught coders, and individuals with disabilities a fair chance to prove themselves to hiring managers who might otherwise ignore them.

“In the end, every manager just wants someone who can do the job and isn’t a total [jerk],” said Petar Vujosevic, GapJumpers cofounder and COO. “By getting hiring managers to make a public declaration that an applicant has passed the technical threshold, before revealing the applicant’s identity, we see a change in perception happening that’s very powerful.”

Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Boston. He can be reached at JonGorey@yahoo.com.
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