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In hiring, going blind (selectively) can help to reduce bias

Target in 2017 said it would revise how it uses criminal background checks, a step meant to quell complaints it discriminates against Black and Hispanic job applicants.
Target in 2017 said it would revise how it uses criminal background checks, a step meant to quell complaints it discriminates against Black and Hispanic job applicants.NYT

Resumes are riddled with landmines that can hurt a person’s chance of getting hired. A name can reveal gender and ethnic background. An address hints at socioeconomic status. A community college could imply less-than-stellar academic performance.

Bias lurks everywhere in hiring, in fact, holding back women and people of color, in particular. But a movement is growing to level the playing field. Some employers are ditching resumes altogether and focusing on skills tests. Others are using blind platforms that remove names, addresses, and colleges from applications. Job descriptions are being reworked to remove higher education requirements that could screen out lower-income candidates.

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The Body Shop, a retailer, announced that this summer it will start hiring people on a first-come, first-serve basis, part of a movement known as open hiring (which has the added bonus of bringing in more applicants in a tight labor market). No background checks, drug tests, or interviews.

The Billerica education company Curriculum Associates is, among other diversity efforts, changing its job descriptions to avoid masculine words that could discourage women from applying. Even “adventurous” is off-limits.

“When I say it, I think of a man climbing a mountain,” said the company’s chief people officer, Sabrina Williams.

These initiatives go beyond the unconscious bias training and diversity goals that have become commonplace — but haven’t necessarily nudged things in the right direction.

The Black-white wage gap, for example, grew from 10.2 percent in 2000 to 14.9 percent in 2019, according to the Economic Policy Institute, even when controlling for gender, age, education, and region. The wealth divide between whites and other races and ethnicities remains a chasm.

“We’ve been in the awareness phase,” said James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which just launched an identity-blind internship hiring platform to increase diversity at local companies. “This becomes the ‘What do you do about it?’ phase.”

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Majed Yusuf landed an internship at John Hancock through the chamber’s new Skills First Internships program, which partners with nonprofits and colleges with diverse student populations and helps applicants translate their resumes into detailed experiences, with no name or college attached. Of the five interns hired through a pilot program last summer, four were people of color, and one was a Northern Essex Community College student. Yusuf, 24, who was an undergraduate at Suffolk University when he applied and is now a graduate student there, said that if he went to Harvard, more doors might be opening.

“If I was coming from an Ivy League, the situation would probably be different,” he said. “Maybe I’d have even more interviews.”

Yusuf, who is of Palestinian descent, is not aware of being discriminated against because of his ethnic background, he said, but people of color have long been at a disadvantage in hiring. A 2004 study of fictitious resumes sent out for real jobs found that applications with white-sounding names like Emily and Greg received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than those with Black-sounding names like Lakisha and Jamal. Traditional resume screening leads to interviews for 29 percent of candidates who are ethnic minorities, but that share jumps to 62 percent when it’s anonymous, according to an analysis of more than 400,000 applications from the anti-workplace bias consultancy GapJumpers. For women, the rate rises from 21 to 63 percent when screenings are blind.

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Efforts to increase diversity in hiring have been going on for decades, including blind orchestra auditions — in which musicians perform behind a screen —aimed at increasing the number of women. But calls for inclusivity have been growing stronger. Goldman Sachs, for instance, said in January that it would no longer underwrite initial public offerings of stock in the United States or Europe for companies whose directors are all straight white men; next year, boards must have at least two diverse directors.

Resumes, in particular, are problematic, said Joseph Fuller, cochair of Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work initiative, especially as more companies use applicant-tracking systems driven by artificial intelligence that can screen out people with gaps in their resumes or no college degree. “The way most companies set up their hiring process has the inadvertent effect of excluding a lot of candidates,” he said.

Among local startups seeking to reduce hiring bias is Skillist, a Boston job-application platform that highlights candidates’ skills and can hide names, addresses, schools, past employers, and dates. One Skillist applicant, asked to describe five customer-service-related skills, wove what she learned working at a kennel, fitness center, and high school into a compelling argument that ultimately landed her a job at a prominent Boston company.

“That became the story of her application, not that she hadn’t finished her associate’s degree,” said Skillist cofounder Ananth Kasturiraman.

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This allows candidates to build a comprehensive case for their abilities right off the bat, well before an interview, he said.

Skillist posts jobs at community colleges and nonprofits, as well as on sites like Indeed that attract a broad array of applicants but that are avoided by some employers because of the flood of applications they elicit, Kasturiraman said.

That’s how Felicia Armijo found her customer-service job at ezCater, the Boston corporate catering marketplace. Armijo, 34, who works from home in Denver, said Skillist supported her through the process and allowed her to “really showcase myself rather than just words on a resume.”

Armijo, who is Black, is one of a number of hires ezCater has made through Skillist, 42 percent of whom are Black or Latino and 42 percent of whom don’t have a college degree.

Students who attend schools such as Bunker Hill Community College or the University of Massachusetts Lowell are often in desperate need of jobs because of student debt or family obligations, and yet they get fewer opportunities than those who graduate from more prestigious institutions, noted Joseph Alim, a Northeastern graduate and cofounder of the hiring platform ScholarJet. This can drive them to take low-level jobs in retail or hospitality. And then they get stuck.

To combat this, ScholarJet has applicants demonstrate their abilities through projects — making a short video, for instance, about how to improve their favorite restaurant for a job in business development. Along with getting interviews, top applicants get prize money from the employer to pay down their student debt.

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Hollister Staffingin Boston is listing two recruiter jobs through ScholarJet as a way to attract more diverse candidates, said Phoebe Hyde, its director of organizational development. “When the person reviewing the resume has a connection with a school, an address, a ZIP code, we may be more inclined to call that person," she said, "which then has an adverse effect on diversity because we end up hiring more people like us.”

Making hiring less biased won’t fix everything, noted Pratt Wiley, president of the Partnership, a Boston nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity in leadership. What underserved populations really need, he said, is the same access to the networks that white people have.

A 39-year-old Boston-area molecular biologist felt this lack of connection when he started applying for jobs in biotech last summer. The biologist, who is of Cuban descent and spent years as a postdoctoral fellow, applied for roughly 100 jobs over six months and received only a handful of callbacks. The majority of the interviews he got, including for the job he eventually landed in Cambridge, were through Scismic, a Cambridge-based hiring platform that matches applicants’ skills with employers’ needs without revealing biographical information.

Scismic’s mission is to diversify the life sciences — the biotech workforce is 6.1 percent Latino and 6.9 percent Black, according to Nature Research — in order to ensure the industry’s decision-makers are aware of the needs of people from all walks of life, said cofounder Danika Khong.

The biologist, who asked not to be identified to protect his privacy, understands the power of names. His mother named him for his father and grandfather but anglicized it to help him fit in. Still, he can’t escape his Latino last name, and he knows the fact that it’s not an all-American one could work against him.

“If your last name is Kennedy, even if you’re not one of the Kennedys,” he said, “you might have a better shot.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.