10 steps toward less-biased hiring

Andala Cafe in Central Square is basically our office-away-from-office. Especially when we’re meeting up with someone after hours, it’s rare to find us anywhere other than the back of Andala with a pot of Sami’s Special on the table. So it wasn’t too unusual to end up there the other afternoon talking to a friend about methods to reduce bias in her company’s hiring process.

She works for a technology startup with offices in Boston and in Eastern Europe, but her situation is a common one across sectors and metro areas. Founder and friends launch organization, succeed and grow, and realize only after reaching a certain scale that their workforce is uncomfortably homogenous. They want to hire and retain the best people, to build diverse teams that can drive the best results, and to do so in a fair and reasonable manner.

Bias can be a tricky topic to discuss. No one likes to admit that they have it, and while it’s easy to decry on a societal level, we tend to get very uncomfortable when thinking about specific situations.

I like to think about bias reduction as hacking my brain. Every decision I make is some combination of rational thought and subconscious heuristics, built over my decades of life in a strange and unfair world and patterned by millennia of evolutionary pressure that favored quick responses and pattern recognition. It’s a powerful combination, but one that can easily lead me astray. I try to take a test from Project Implicit every so often to calibrate my own understanding of my un-though biases. And I try to use research-backed methods to remove these biases from my decision making wherever possible, so that I can properly reason my way a decent conclusion. (How often I succeed is, perhaps, another matter…)

In our friend’s case, we started talking about how to apply these methods to the hiring process to remove bias, make good decisions, and built the diverse and strong team that can take her organization to even greater heights.

After the tea was finished and we had gone our separate ways, I tried to distill our thoughts into these ten steps toward less-biased hiring. If this is something you think about, talk about, or care about, we’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below!

Ten Steps Toward Less-Biased Hiring

  1. Evaluate your needs. The less specific your needs are, the more likely you will default to bias-prone weak proxies for excellence.
  2. Place a monetary value on those needs. Be aware that different groups tend to negotiate for salary differently, and tend to be rewarded differently for negotiating. The more clear you are on the amount you are comfortable paying, the less likely bias will get in the way of equitable starting salaries. If you don’t know how much the role should cost, you probably haven’t finished Step 1 yet.
  3. If you are using a system like TwelveJobs, fill out your position profile. If you are using a more standard job posting system, write a position description that is both honest about your expectations and requirements (do you actually need a masters’ degree to do this job, or is it just important to have subject matter expertise in the area?) and neutral in descriptive language. Language is always coded and can push away some of the candidates you most want to apply.
  4. Evaluate any existing biases or imbalances in your employee population you would like to correct and direct your sourcing appropriately. Founder effect can often lead to homogenous employee populations, which over time can create an unwelcoming workplace to excellent job candidates who don’t look like the rest of your organization. Except where necessary (like if you’re hiring an actor to play a particular part, or by court order to correct longstanding illegal discrimination), it is not appropriate to consider race, gender, ethnicity, color, age, or disability when evaluating a prospective employee. It is, however, appropriate to consider those factors when deciding where to advertise your open position. Some job boards, for example, skew largely white and female, while others tend to attract men, or black professionals, etc. You can’t advertise everywhere, so be considerate of what your needs are. If you are concerned that your company is missing out on potentially great black candidates, you could post on job boards run by The League or Delta Sigma Theta. If you worry that your company is not reaching female software developers, post on Girls Who Code or Society of Women Engineers. Don’t forget that employee referrals can be your friend here. Employee referrals will tend to perpetuate your existing demographic on their own, but are very amenable to your suggestions. Don’t have enough people over 40 on staff? Just tell your employees to recommend any they think will fit, especially if they are older. A note on this topic. Some people will worry that they are being discriminated against if you choose to post on a page that skews toward a particular demographic. Every option for sourcing candidates favors some group of people. If you don’t pay attention to who, you will just be perpetuating an existing system that may not be fair and may not be getting you the best candidates. Being thoughtful about where you post simply recognizes this reality and forces you to confront it in order to build the best organization you can. Be prepared for the occasional tough conversation and be transparent and honest about your goals and how you are going about achieving them.
  5. Screen matches or resumes blindly. Names, profile pictures, addresses, and graduation dates are prime movers for bias. Use a service like TwelveJobs to remove this information from consideration, or have a colleague anonymize the resumes before you review them.
  6. Determine the best proxies for on the job performance. Candidate A ran track and so did you? Who cares, unless the job is a track coach. Design appropriate performance tasks for your interview process and do your best to ensure that these tasks are as unbiased as possible. In some cases, these tasks can be done completely anonymously — coding problems, analysis exercises, and writing samples don’t need names or birthdates attached — and included in the overall candidate evaluation.
  7. When you reach the actual interview stage, interview in teams and follow a structured interview script. Many organizations ignore this step, but structured interviews give each job seeker an equal chance to respond to the same questions. A structured interview also forces you to evaluate prospective employees against one another, as opposed to considering each separately in light of their unique interview questions, which tends to activate the brain’s capacity for reasoning and diminish reliance on biased heuristics.
  8. At every stage (I know, I should have mentioned this earlier…) collect information about which candidates are getting through and which are being filtered out. Someone who is not doing the evaluation and interviewing should have access to this information and should periodically review it to understand where bias might be entering into your system. For example, let’s say you have 30% of candidates who make it past the resume screen be female, but 90% of candidates who progress past the first interview round be female. It could be chance, but numbers like that should set off alarm bells in your HR department to investigate your procedures.
  9. When you actually make an offer, don’t try to lowball the candidate on salary. It is not unreasonable to leave some room for the candidate to negotiate upward, but your first offer should be a fair evaluation of what you think the job should pay. Set a limit on how far you are willing to negotiate upward and keep track of which candidates actually receive higher negotiated rates. Be wary of disparate effects. Your employees will be much happier if the compensation process is transparent and applied equitably.
  10. Once you have the new employee, continue to treat them well and give them the tools they need to do the best job they can for you! (And, of course, follow best practices for job evaluation and promotion, including joint evaluation, to reduce bias in your career ladder.)

One final note. This isn’t really a step, but be very aware of how you consider protected classes in your interview process. Protected classes refer to the groups protected from employment discrimination by law, including: men and women on the basis of sex; any group which shares a common race, religion, color, or national origin; people over 40; and people with physical or mental handicaps. To quote the National Archives:

Every U.S. citizen is a member of some protected class, and is entitled to the benefits of Equal Employment Opportunity law. However, the EEO laws were passed to correct a history of unfavorable treatment of women and minority group members.

Generally speaking (unless your organization is under court order for persistent illegal employment discrimination), you cannot have a hiring quota based on a protected class. So don’t do that.