Feds try to blank out bias

Government testing ‘name-blind recruitment’

Feds try to blank out bias
Treasury Board president Scott Brison (seen here in Ottawa in 2015) says a pilot project on name-blind recruitment could expand across the federal public service. Credit: Chris Wattie (Reuters)

The Canadian government surprised many recently when it announced six federal departments would be testing “name-blind recruitment” in the interest of strengthening diversity and inclusion. The pilot project will compare outcomes associated with the traditional screening of applicants with screening where managers are blinded to applicants’ names.

A person’s name should never be a barrier to employment, said Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, in announcing the initiative.

“We want to do more to ensure that our public service reflects the diversity of Canada,” he said. “It’s important for us to take concrete steps to explore the mechanics of name-blind recruitment. The results of this pilot project will help inform our thinking on potentially expanding the use of name-blind recruitment of hiring across the federal public service.”

The pilot will explore the effects of concealing applicants’ names, email addresses, country of origin and employment equity information from externally advertised jobs. A final report on the project is to be released in October.

It’s hoped the project will provide research and findings that will inform the rest of the government, said Ahmed Hussen, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, and “hopefully creates that positive challenge to other orders of government, and also the private sector, to examine name-blind recruitment as a way to diversify and include more people in their hiring process.”

It’s a very encouraging move, according to Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto.

“It’s a fantastic first step — it’s not just good, it’s great. And I say that because it’s the first time we’ve seen a large, very public employer doing something that is a very bold step to start to call out people’s biases,” he said.

“This is certainly a good practice if it can be implemented to help eliminate the biases, unconscious and otherwise, that people have as it relates to things like a name or where a person is from.”

But a big underlying question is whether the public sector is discriminating by name to
begin with, because if it’s not, then masking names is not going to help, according to Philip Oreopoulos, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Toronto, who has studied the issue.

“At the very least, this sends the message to employers that this is something that might be worth trying,” he said. “I’m always in favour of more evidence-based policy.”

Benefits of blinding

Canada’s move follows a similar approach announced by the United Kingdom in 2015, when it said the civil service would introduce name-blind recruitment for all roles below the senior civil service level. Other top graduate recruiters such as KPMG, HSBC and the BBC, along with local government, also committed to deliver name-blind applications for all graduate- and apprenticeship-level roles.

Concealing a job candidate’s name is the first phase of the recruitment process that can surface bias in the government, said Bach.

“If, suddenly, they have a significantly higher level of newcomers, as an example, who are getting job interviews, then that sends the message ‘OK, we’ve got a problem.’ And my hope… is they’re tracking to some extent to say, ‘OK, now we’ve got a higher level of newcomers who are getting job interviews and they’re not making it past the first interview, the phone interview or they’re not making it past hiring managers’ interviews,’ and start to surface ‘Here’s where the roadblock is.’ So they can then step in and start to address those roadblocks in a far more specific way, as opposed to… painting everyone with the same brush because, let’s face it, the hiring process involves humans, which means it’s open to all sorts of situational bias and whatnot that allows for people to be excluded.”

Typically, there’s a recruiter trying to flip through a pile of resumés, having to quickly choose a few candidates, said Oreopoulos.

“A stereotype may come to mind, whether they want to or not, especially when they arrive at someone’s name who they can’t pronounce or someone who’s clearly not from Canada. And what’s supposed to happen is they’re supposed to peek at the rest of the elements of the resumé, carefully assess whether they have the credentials and other elements on them that would make them a good candidate. The name itself shouldn’t impact the decision and yet it’s the first thing they see, and so without realizing it… most of the people are being put on the ‘do not interview’ pile… because of that initial reaction, that first impression. And masking the name would get rid of that type of behaviour.”

Typically, companies that remove a candidate’s name and university see about a five to 10 per cent increase in the diversity characteristics of people going through the pipeline, according to Kedar Iyer, CEO of GapJumpers in San Francisco, which specializes in blind auditions.

“If you look at implicit bias in the recruitment process, the resumé process happens to be the first showcase of a candidate of sorts and, unfortunately today, we don’t have a better way or a better proxy for the capabilities of someone as opposed to what’s required on the job, so we use the resumé as a sort of proxy or shortcut, where we look at a resumé and we make a snap judgment in 30 seconds.”

Getting started

Thankfully, employers have grabbed hold of the conversation on unconscious bias, said Bach.

“They recognize they can do something about it, and the biggest part of doing something about unconscious bias is making people aware of what unconscious bias is and how it can be affecting decisions in the workplace. So we’re seeing a lot of training and awareness-raising being done around unconscious bias, which is great — that’s exactly the direction we want to go.”

However, there are not a lot of employers actually doing name-blind recruitment, he said, with many saying it’s too hard or their systems aren’t set up for it.

“And the truth of the matter is where there’s a will, there’s a way, and as is the case with this government, there’s a will. I don’t know that I will necessarily call it an excuse but, at the same time, I’m not really seeing the will (among employers),” said Bach.

“That said, there’s also the reality of ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ and change is hard — people are not necessarily always hankering for a massive shift in the way something has been done, so that’s where we see the resistance start to boil up.”

At a large organization, the momentum to change is always difficult, said Iyer, but starting with just a few elements of the resumé can help.

“Then it’s achievable and trackable and measureable and you can hold people accountable for it. Because one of the big issues today for diversity is implicit bias tends to put the responsibility on the person in the process, but most often the issue is not the person, because we all have implicit bias; the issue is the process, and very often we tend to confuse that and when the word ‘bias’ comes up in a meeting, people get defensive. And that’s going to hinder change and progress,” he said.

Some employers claim they want to know the candidates’ names so they can do a Google search to find out more about them, said Oreopoulos, but if it’s just about getting people to the interview stage, it wouldn’t be too costly to get rid of the names at the start.

“For larger organizations where they take in online applications, it’s not difficult to tell a computer not to spit out the name when considering the applications; it’s not that much extra work,” he said.

“(It’s about) just saying, ‘Let’s experiment and explore how different approaches to the hiring process affect who you interview,’ and then from there, who ends up being the best candidate. So there’s this final stage where the employer has some decisions and if they’re still not happy with picking someone who had foreign experience or a foreign-sounding name, they don’t have to go with them. So I think the process invites itself to more research even on the employer’s end to learn what works best and what doesn’t.”

Ahmed Hussen, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, was the first to introduce the idea of name-blind recruitment for Canada’s public service. Credit: Chris Wattie (Reuters)


Further steps

Going forward, the ideal situation would be blind auditions, as seen with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s when it had musicians audition behind a screen to boost the diversity of its musicians, said Iyer.

“The best-case scenario in blind hiring is to actually evaluate people based on their capability,” he said. “So, at the entry point, if you take away the proxy and move to a system where you can actually evaluate someone based on their actual outputs and what they’ve actually done or what they can do on the job, then you have a much closer match between what you’re looking for in terms of skills and the quality of the candidate, without knowing anything about the candidate — no name, nothing, purely the output. And that is the end goal… you want to get from a label-based selection process to a skills-based selection.”

That could mean redacting many parts of the resumé, such as degrees, previous employers, the candidate’s age or job titles — almost all of which lead to judgments, he said.

“If you go down a resumé, there are roughly about 18 to 20 different signals that are all triggers for implicit bias, the name being just one of the 20 different signals, so if the (Canadian) government wants to take this really further, most of it (should be) redacted — blank out a lot of stuff.”

Some employers in the U.K. have concealed candidates’ education out of fear prominent schools such as Oxford and Cambridge universities were being favoured, said Oreopoulos.

“For example, you may very well prefer to hire the top student at a less-well-known school compared to a D or C student at the University of Toronto… (but) the school itself, the degree, should not be the be-all and end-all in deciding, in signalling ability.”

It would be great to have a process where the hiring decisions are based on bona fide occupational requirements, as opposed to some of the jargon that ends up in job descriptions, such as “good communicator,” said Bach.

“There are these buzzwords we feel the need to put into job applications which are not bona fide occupational requirements, so what is the actual requirement, what do we actually need? And that will then start to completely shift how job applications are done because, of course, I’ll be looking at very factual, ‘This is what I need,’ and the subjective piece will come out.”

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