IWD: Every Organisation Can Reduce Unconscious Bias for Free

Brian Nolan
Mar 6 · 7 min read

(Update 23 March: thankfully we have welcomed Cindy van Niekerk to the Finteum team! We believe our process of avoiding unconscious bias helped us to interview Cindy and a diverse range of other talented candidates)

Every startup, team and small organisation with at least two people is able to reduce unconscious bias during hiring, and it doesn’t need to cost money. In recognition of International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March, at Finteum we are taking a moment’s break from bank treasury and intraday liquidity to outline below how we took simple, practical steps to reduce unconscious bias in our recent hiring process.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias means that, without knowing it, we all form stereotypes in our minds. If I were to say, “close your eyes and picture a supreme court judge”, most men and women would picture a male judge because we have been conditioned that way. The conditioning comes from seeing male judges on the internet and on TV, and from other sources. It’s not that we picture a man because we are evil people, we do it without thinking. The first step with unconscious bias is recognising that it exists for everyone.

In the hiring process, when hiring managers receive CVs or resumes, their unconscious bias kicks in when they read the name, address, years of experience, languages, etc. Hiring bias comes from the gender-career part of your brain. If you are interested to test whether you have any bias, or how strong the bias is relative to other people, then this is a good one from Harvard. Testing for bias is a good first step towards recognising and understanding it.

Why is unconscious bias important? The Harvard Business Review recently published an article about anonymising, or “blinding”, job applications, as a way to reduce bias. The authors cited the famous 1970s example of how blinding symphony auditions increased female participation in orchestras from 5% to 25%. The authors represent that similar practices in STEM fields today could improve female participation from 18% to 30%. As McKinsey and others have shown, diverse teams are more successful and make better decisions, so the increase in female participation improves the bottom line.

So, what can small organisations, or small teams in larger organisations do about this? Isn’t anonymising CVs something that only HR departments in large organisations can consider doing? Actually, no. At Finteum, we decided we would take a pragmatic approach to anonymising CVs.

How Finteum Reduced Unconscious Bias

Finteum started hiring for a product manager in London in January 2020. We had no budget for recruiters and no HR team (we only had 3 people in London). We put a job ad on LinkedIn (the ad cost £40 for a week) and on AngelList (which cost £0). We received more than 90 applicants in the week and we had to close the ad to give ourselves time to assess the candidates. About 40 of the candidates were automatically screened because they didn’t meet our initial criteria, e.g. if they didn’t have a work visa for the UK. This left 50 to be assessed.

Here is the process we followed:

1. Decide in advance that Person A will anonymise, and Person B will do the initial screening and assessment of the anonymised CVs. Person B should understand in advance what skills, experience, values, etc. they are looking for in the CVs — it is a good idea to write these down and assign a weight to them for relative importance.

2. Person A manages the access to the candidate portal, (e.g. company portal, or LinkedIn and AngelList) and downloads the candidate CVs. In our case, Person A was also responsible for communicating with candidates.

3. Person A opens each CV, removes the name and saves as an assigned number (1, 2, 3, etc. ascending for each candidate). Person A doesn’t need to review the CV at this point. For Finteum, we decided to also remove the address to avoid giving unfair preference to UK residents, or to people that live in well-regarded areas in the UK. We removed languages because they often give away the nationality of the person, which brings other bias. If the CV is in MS Word format, for example, anonymising is very easy — just delete the text. If it’s a PDF, open in Preview or Paint or a similar application and draw a black shape over the information you want to hide or redact. It’s worth noting that Person B needs to buy into the whole process, otherwise they could just delete the black shapes. They won’t if they understand the importance and value of anonymising the CVs.

Step 3: Before and After (template, not a real applicant)

Credit: http://www.template.net/editable/3963/basic-resume-template created by Template.net

4. (Optional) Person A records the number assigned to each candidate and the name of the candidate (this isn’t strictly necessary, but it helps later).

5. Person A uploads the numbered, anonymised CVs (1, 2, 3, etc.) to their choice of cloud, or to a team shared drive, and shares with Person B.

6. Person B evaluates each CV and records their notes, or the weighted score, for each numbered candidate. Now the organisation has unbiased notes, or an unbiased score, from Person B to guide them in the next steps.

7. At this point, the organisation will probably need to look at the complete CV including the names, when they decide who they want to move into the next stage of the hiring process.

Is this approach perfect for removing all bias? No, it’s not. For example, we didn’t remove information about age. We didn’t remove the dates that the person worked in each role and the years that they attended university or school, so it was likely that Person B would unconsciously pick up the candidate’s age. We also didn’t remove the name of their university or school, which arguably gives an indication of the nationality.

Finteum is a Fintech company. Unfortunately, the wording in CVs in finance and technology is often also different — men use words like “portfolio” and “software” and women use words like “volunteer” and “assistant”. However, it was not possible for us as a small organisation to dedicate the time to re-write candidates’ CVs before reviewing.

Why Not Do Something Similar?

“But”, I hear you say, “I’m a startup co-founder. We have to focus on building something that customers love, and we have to grow very fast. We don’t have time for anonymising CVs.” Really? For 50 candidates it took about an hour. Are you saying that you can’t spare an hour of your time for each of your first few early hires? After that, founders can delegate it to someone else. Also, ask yourself, if you did anonymise CVs wouldn’t you feel happier about the company that you are creating, and its values?

“But”, I hear you say, “I work in a large organisation and my organisation doesn’t provide me with the resources and technology I would need to anonymise CVs.” Really? Would it not be possible to take the pragmatic approach above using everyday technology, or adapt it slightly, and implement it in your small team within the organisation? What is stopping you?

Clearly, the process above is not completely free. We chose to pay £40 for LinkedIn ads and we had the opportunity cost of an hour of our time. AngelList is free, so we could have avoided the £40. Was it worth the hour we spent? Absolutely.

Let me also state the obvious. Unfortunately, up to this point Finteum has been an all-male organisation. Five men in the team, seven male advisors. Believe me, we are trying to change that. We are not in a position to preach about gender inclusion, but we are working to improve things in pragmatic ways across our small company, including in hiring. As an early-stage company, founded less than two years ago, change happens organically and it’s not always within our control. For example, when we were looking for a technical co-founder, we had no suitable female applicants. I tried to convince a talented female CTO to apply, but it was too much risk for her because we were very early stage. Thankfully we found Zbi Czapran because he is a genius engineer and we work incredibly well together. Also, thankfully Andrii Nesteruk joined us and did all of the time-consuming Person B work above! That is just good luck, and that is the way things have worked out.

Call to Action

If you are a fan of reducing unconscious bias in practical ways, please share this article.

If you work in a school, university, company builder, incubator, or startup accelerator, please teach people the importance of unconscious bias and make it mandatory to take the Harvard test.

If you are interested to work with us, or if you can suggest improvements to the process for Finteum’s future hiring, please contact us at info@finteum.com.

If you are in a small organisation, or a team in a large organisation, and you like the approach above and plan to adopt it from now on, in recognition of International Women’s Day, please like or comment below.

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