Is Blind Hiring Really Harmful?

Blind hiring is still to be tested thoroughly by technology companies. Why is it already getting a bad rap?

As has been made painfully clear by the recent increase in media stories, diversity in tech is severely lacking. A number of tools and services are popping up to help bring more women and minorities into tech, from tools that help companies make their job listings gender neutral to full-fledged diversity consultancies. In particular, the concept of “blind hiring” has been named as a way to circumvent bias in the candidate screening process and potentially increase the rate of diversity among new hires.

Blind hiring can be done in many ways:

  • Remove applicants’ biographical data from their application, including their name, school attended, and timeline information
  • Anonymously screen applicants by their performance on an assessment, test, or challenge, without seeing their resume
  • Move resume screening to later in hiring, or remove it altogether

You get the picture.

As GapJumpers pointed out in its e-newsletter recently, the original idea for blind hiring stems from an orchestra’s now famous test of blind auditions. When musicians were made to audition behind a curtain, more women were chosen to join. You’re probably already familiar with this backstory, but I want to emphasize that the orchestra implemented blind auditions of the musicians’ skills, not their CVs. There is a difference.

To my knowledge, many tech companies are now trying or considering using versions of blind hiring, but they haven’t yet published results of their trials. They are also trying a number of other strategies to improve diversity in hiring, so it is hard to tell, yet, what the “magic formula” for diversity might be. That said, setting diversity goals publicly and tying progress to financial outcomes such as bonuses seems to be the one way to ensure organizations follow through.

If we don’t yet know what the results of blind hiring in the tech space might be, why am I writing this article?

Making the rounds

A news article on a blind hiring experiment started making the rounds of newsletters and the like last week, but unfortunately without any context. For example, Hung Lee, founder of WorkShape.io, cited the study in his newsletter “On Hiring” by writing:

Blind recruitment trial to boost gender equality ..making things worse?
What the hell does this mean? Turns out having a male name reduces your chances of getting through the door whilst having a female one increased it. So gender blind led to less diversity according to this research. We need to have some hard conversations methinks.”

I think it’s really important that we have these “hard conversations” about diversity in hiring. That said, this study might not be the best one for us to talk about, and I’m worried about the effect haste words might have on people who make important decisions about how hiring happens within their companies. So let’s take a closer look at the study.

The study

In a nutshell, the study:

  • Reports on a small blind hiring experiment conducted with volunteers from the Australian government
  • Was designed to test whether women and minorities are discriminated against in the early stages of the recruitment process in a low-stakes, hypothetical environment
  • Volunteers were randomly assigned fictitious candidate materials in traditional or anonymous form
  • Volunteers were then asked to make shortlist of these candidates to fill a hypothetical senior role in their agency

Ultimately, the study found that participants given traditional candidate materials were more likely to shortlist female, minority, and indigenous candidates than participants who received blind candidate materials.

Why we shouldn’t generalize from this study

Generalizing from this study is problematic for three main reasons:

  1. Fictitious setting — the study dealt with candidates for hypothetical roles, without the time crunch and pressure from a hiring manager or even a CEO experienced in many real life recruiting settings
  2. Public sector — public sector workers can be more knowledgeable of diversity issues and, in some cases, are used to recruiting under quota systems. It makes sense that they would demonstrate positive bias toward women, minority, and indigenous candidates in the study
  3. Staffing for senior roles is a whole other ball game — the odds are stacked against women and minorities entering leadership roles, and name-blind hiring is likely not a way to fix it. Tweaking existing organizational practices, such as putting an end to recruitment through informal networks, is more likely to improve the rate of women and minority hires to management roles than blind hiring

The conditions of this study were special. Unless you are considering using blind hiring practices to staff senior roles within your public sector organization, you probably shouldn’t read too much into the study.

There is no magic formula for diversity. What works (or fails) for one organization will not necessarily have the same results within another organization. If you work in the private sector, in a technology firm, and are not recruiting for senior roles, your results from trying blind hiring might differ wildly.

When we read about another organization’s new HR policy or hiring method, we should ask ourselves why that policy worked for their organization the way it did: who are their employees? What are their employees trained in? What motivates their employees? What other policies does their organization have in place?

There is a hiring problem, and it goes beyond the candidate pool

Before I finish up, I want to reiterate that there is indeed a hiring problem. The technical workforce of Silicon Valley is just 2.2% Black and 4.7% Hispanic; compare that to New York where Blacks and Hispanics comprise 7.3% and 9.6% of the technical workforce, respectively, or even DC, where Blacks comprise 17.1% of the technical workforce and Hispanics 4.4%. Only 16% of startups claim at least one woman founder, globally, and the median gender wage gap within Berlin startups is nearly 25%.

There is bias in hiring, whether we want to admit it or not, from the way we interpret names, hobbies, brilliance, and even social media pictures. Men, women, and minorities are simply perceived differently in the workplace. The existence and impact of these biases will vary from organization or organization, as will the ways to mitigate them. If we truly care about making our organizations more diverse, we should consider blind hiring and other strategies seriously and implement and test them in ways that make sense for the workforces within our organizations.

Research to watch for

If you are interested in research on hiring in technology fields in particular, keep an eye out for the work of Sharon Jank who has partnered with GapJumpers to study the impact of blind performance auditions as a replacement for resume screening in Silicon Valley, and Koji Rafael Chavez, who is studying the role of judged cultural fit and social compatibility in the face-to-face interview stage in hiring of software engineers at a high technology firm in Silicon Valley.


I’ve spent the past year studying hiring within Berlin technology startups. If you’re interested in my learnings, follow me on LinkedIn and look out for my report this fall.