Hiring Without Empathy

What’s in a name? When it comes to your resume, quite a lot actually. But even nameless resumes won’t solve this deeper problem.

In 2003 a study into hiring discrimination was conclusive: CVs with white sounding names are 50% more likely to get a response than African-American sounding names.

This test was conducted with no recognisable CV difference and, because the names were randomised, no difference in resume characteristics by race.

But who cares, that was 2003, we’ve changed, right?

Not according to this study by the UK Department of Work and Pensions. Job applications from people with white sounding names were 74% more likely to receive a positive response than applications from people with an ethnic minority sounding name. Race discrimination claims are on the rise.

It’s an ugly truth that applicants with ethnic minority sounding names are less likely to get job interviews than those with white sounding names. It’s time we faced up to it.

What can companies do about it?

With an increased awareness of the benefits of diversity, companies started to recognise this as a problem. To encourage a more diverse applicant base to apply an initial solution was to put disclaimers in job postings such as “we are an equal opportunity employer”.

The problem is that hiring managers and recruiters don’t seem to listen. Paradoxically, when such a disclaimer was inserted discrimination reportedly increased, because whereas an applicant may usually whiten their name (with a white-sounding nickname) they are less likely to do so after reading the disclaimer, much to their detriment. In summary, disclaimer statements are a classic act of good intentions with bad consequences.

If you believe it shouldn’t matter if someone you’re interviewing is from a similar background to you, is good looking, has the same skin colour or is the same gender as you, then one thing we can try and do is try really hard not to be biased. We are horrible at that. We over correct, we under correct, we justify.

One commonly proposed answer to this is blind reviewing of course, but the problem doesn’t end at resume selection, in fact it’s the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem is embedded deep within our subconscious, reptilian brains. The problem is empathy.

Empathy is biased

Saying you’re against empathy is a bit like announcing that you hate puppies so let me clarify exactly what I mean. I’m referring to empathy here as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, to feel their pain.” Putting aside the obvious point that some degree of caring for others is morally right, empathy is horribly biased.

We empathise more with someone of our own skin colour than another skin colour. Towards someone we know versus a stranger. It’s difficult to be empathic at all to someone who you view as unattractive, disgusting or politically, philosophically or demographically opposed to you.

“If you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.” says Paul Bloom, the Yale University psychologist wrote in his recent book Against Empathy. Empathy is why referred candidates are 3–4 times more likely to be hired than non-referral candidates. Our moral intuitions misfire when guided by empathy.

Don’t believe me? Neuroscience supports this assumption too.

A neuro-imagery study of soccer fans in South America found that the same parts of brain that would light up if they themselves were being shocked also lit up when fellow fans of the same club were shocked. We empathise with our fellow fans. But when it’s a supporter of a different football club cognitive empathy in the brain shuts down and what replaces it is a blast of pleasure.

Now I’m not suggesting we take pleasure in rejecting candidates we don’t empathise with, although I would say this is probably true of some of the hiring managers I’ve met, but studies like this prove we are more likely to empathise with people we share interests or connections with.

In light of this, hiring decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside.

Compassion as a better hiring model

In reality, hiring decisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. What we need to do is replace empathy with Spock like reasoning. Who should I hire based on this assumption? Who is going to make my company or my team considerably better?

What we need is a catalyst to make this change. The catalyst should be compassion.

If we hired with compassion instead of empathy we’d approach the hiring decision as caring for someone, loving them, wanting them to thrive and be happy. It’s a general feeling of goodwill toward our fellow humans, not just toward our own tribe.

Empathy makes people selfish. Rational compassion makes us nicer, fairer and more objective and when we’re more objective we make better decisions. This distinction is so often missed but it is so critical.

One major problem with compassion is that it doesn’t come naturally. We’ve evolved to look after the people closest to us. The people in our tribe. Our family. Not only do I think I love my immediate family more than I love a stranger, I also think I’m right to do so.

Bias feels natural and being fair is not easy. The world would be better if we cared more for people outside of our group but there is a significant cognitive effort in trying to be reinspired to be fair and objective in every interaction. Technology can help us here. By removing names and pictures from CVs, and adding in unbiased data we effortlessly make more objective decisions.

Using data for better hiring decisions

In reality, decisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. So we develop systems such as blind reviewing or using objective team fit data, not to replace our intuitions, but to guide or challenge them. It may sound cold and bureaucratic to use technology when hiring but I think that’s much better than hot blooded and arbitrary.

Your job as an interviewer is to be a forensic investigator. It’s to gain hard evidence. It’s to remain impartial and review the evidence without bias. Empathy is the enemy to this.

At the heart, this was the basis from which we decided to build ThriveMap, a software tool that surfaces insights on how people like to work to enable better hiring decisions. These insights are independent of age, race, gender and most importantly empathy. Objectively measuring team fit in this way allows us to make hiring decisions that contradict our natural empathy.