There Are Right and Wrong Ways to Use ‘Blind Recruiting’

Blind recruiting can remove bias. But how should we use it?
Tammy Xu
January 7, 2021
Updated: January 8, 2021
Tammy Xu
January 7, 2021
Updated: January 8, 2021

Codility, whose software allows employers to vet remote job applicants’ programming skills, has seen a dramatic uptick in demand for its services this year.

“Pretty much everybody had to move their processes online and remote,” said Natalia Panowicz, CEO of Codility. “If you can do your job remotely, of course, you can also hire remotely.”

Heightened focus on diversity and inclusion issues in tech, driven in large part by protests this summer over the killing of George Floyd, also increased interest in Codility’s services. The recruiting process for tech positions is thought to be a contributing factor to tech’s lack of diversity, and blind recruiting — the masking of ethnic, gender and other identity attributes during recruiting — has been suggested as a way to counteract bias.

That’s where Codility fits in. Coding interviews — a common part of the hiring process for software development positions where candidates solve coding problems — are traditionally done in person. But by moving them online, Codility allows companies to assess developers’ programming skills without knowing who the applicants are.

“It’s really becoming top of mind right now, for so many companies, to hire in an equitable, unbiased way,” Panowicz said. “Software engineering is actually great for that, because with code it’s very easy to have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers in terms of how this code works. It’s actually a great profession for automating parts of this recruitment process — and if you automate it well, it’s very possible to do it completely blind.”

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Blind Recruiting Needs a Diverse Pipeline

Codility offers two types of services: a platform that automates assessments of applicants’ programming skills, and one that facilitates pair programming between the applicant and an engineer who already works with the employer. The first platform, called “code check,” functions like a coding interview.

“It requires the candidate to code the solution in any technology that the customer would like,” Panowicz said. “The candidate would solve it whenever they like, and it is automatically graded by a machine.”

But she cautioned that a more blind recruiting process doesn’t necessarily mean a better one.

“Sourcing a diverse pipeline is also important,” Panowicz said. “If you don’t do anything specific for the sourcing element, you might actually get a pretty standard representation of demographics into your pipeline.”

In addition to actively recruiting diverse job candidates and removing bias from the recruiting and interviewing process, Panowicz said it is important not to forget about building a company culture that is inclusive for new and existing employees.

“It always should actually start with building a culture that creates an environment where underrepresented groups feel they can belong,” she said. “Before we even go into sourcing talent, into evaluating talent ... take a look at your culture, at the people that work for you, and try to figure out what else can you do to build a more inclusive culture.”

 

Names Aren’t the Only Thing You Can Mask

Mimi Fox Melton, acting CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit that works to achieve parity for Black and Latinx workers in tech, strongly agreed.

“Blind recruiting is one option that has proven to be quite successful,” Melton said. “[But] any one technique or approach is not going to address systemic barriers to hiring, retention and advancement alone — there needs to be a concerted effort.”

Code2040 runs an annual fellows program for computer science students at the college and graduate school level, whom the organization pairs with tech companies for nine-week summer internships. Although all candidates were Black or Latinx, there were still biases in the way companies picked interns.

“We saw over the years that companies strongly favored students who had gone to a certain list of schools, and who had the highest GPA,” Melton said. “And sometimes we would get feedback that they were dissatisfied with the number of finalists from those sorts of schools.”

With permission, the nonprofit would pull up the list of candidates that the company had passed over and show them the talent they were missing out on, whom their competitors had hired.

“We knew from our years working with companies and our years working with students that GPA and school pedigree are not reliable indicators of intelligence and work ethic,” Melton said.

“Any one technique or approach is not going to address systemic barriers to hiring, retention and advancement alone — there needs to be a concerted effort.”

So, three years ago, Code2040 decided to test a system where companies would screen resumes without looking at data on school or GPA. Soon after, the nonprofit made it a permanent part of the fellows internship process. All resumes are formatted into the same style, and names, schools and GPA are removed before passing the resumes to companies.

“What we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to grow gender parity from a low of about 25, 30 percent to nearly 50 percent,” Melton said. “The variety of schools that companies will hire fellows from has grown also.”

The companies have continued to report good experiences with the program, she said.

“On average, year over year, 90 to 95 percent of fellows receive return offers from the companies that they’ve interned with,” Melton said. “That metric, I think, speaks for itself.”

Past the resume screening process, it’s up to the companies how they wish to interview candidates. Melton said it’s definitely possible for bias to be reintroduced at that point, but it hasn’t been a big problem.

“We have not seen companies interview a wide range of folks but then only hire the people who had perfect GPAs,” she said.

 

The Downsides of Blind Recruiting

For companies that manage their own recruiting processes, Melton listed attributes such as name, school and location as useful things to mask before screening resumes.

“The biases are often race, name, gender, school and GPA,” she said. “Address is another potential one. Folks may have an association with certain cities as being more desirable or less desirable, or say, ‘This is a Black city,’ and then assuming that the person is Black.”

Although these methods of masking data can be effective, Melton expressed reservations about the idea that blind recruiting can “solve” tech’s diversity problem.

“One of the downsides of blind recruiting — and cultures where blind recruiting is the only tool that’s available — is that it’s a thin line between blind recruiting and the ‘colorblind’ school of looking at race,” she said. “Blind recruiting assumes that being Black or Latinx is a liability in the hiring process. And so we need to mask that information so we’re not intentionally excluding folks from Black or Latinx backgrounds.”

“It’s a thin line between blind recruiting and the ‘colorblind’ school of looking at race.”

Melton argued that, instead of aiming to mask this information, companies need to realize the inherent merit of diversity, and act on that realization by changing their hiring processes to reflect it.

“The nuance that is missed is that being Black or Latinx is actually an asset,” Melton said. “The data shows that teams and companies that have diversity within their employee bases do better.”

Panowicz, CEO of Codility, said it is important to assess job candidates holistically.

“It’s really about making sure that at the crucial decision points about the skills of the candidate, we’re able to make those decisions ... without considering information that would introduce bias to us,” she said. “When we hire engineers, they are whole beings. It takes a lot of different skills — technical skills, communication skills, people skills, work ethic, for a great engineer.”

 

Companies Should Be More Internally Explicit

Companies avoid looking at certain attributes during blind recruiting, but what, exactly, should they be looking for?

Melton said companies should work toward being more “internally explicit” with their own recruiters and hiring managers about what qualities they are looking for in candidates.

“Sometimes that’s a specific coding language, sometimes that’s experience with particular products, sometimes it’s good communication,” she said. “But, even within factors like communication skills, we really encourage companies to get specific about what that means. Do you want someone who is charming and speaks compellingly in front of a group, or are you looking for someone who documents their code really well? Because those are two different kinds of communication styles.”

Companies should be more specific about what qualities they are looking for, because conflating different types of skills can cause them to pass over candidates that would have been a good fit.

Recruiters may decide, “This person was awkward and they didn’t make good eye contact, so their communication is bad,” Melton said. “But that’s not necessarily true — they may just be shy.”

“Companies need to decide what is going to make someone successful in this role, and then remove information that doesn’t help them assess those metrics.”

For attributes such as GPA and where candidates went to school, Melton suggests companies try “backwards engineering” the qualities they are looking for by considering what a high GPA indicates to them.

“If we believe that someone having a high GPA means they’re a hard worker, that they have grit, they have determination, they have perseverance, that they’re smart,” she said. “Then could someone with a lower GPA, who worked full time while they were in college, or who was a single parent, or who cared for elder relatives, or who got two degrees and so their GPA suffered — aren’t all of those indicators of grit and hard work and determination and perseverance as well?”

Companies may be reluctant to remove attributes such as GPA or school from their assessment process, but Melton said companies are relying on those attributes to tell them something else about candidates that could be measured better in other ways.

“School and GPA are proxies for either work ethic, or intelligence, or resilience,” she said. “Companies need to decide what is going to make someone successful in this role, and then remove information that doesn’t help them assess those metrics.”

 

Blind Recruiting Is Not a Panacea

For companies that decide to pursue blind recruiting, it’s important to clearly communicate the reasons behind the new processes with recruiters and hiring managers, Melton said.

“If folks don’t understand the reason, and the importance, and why it’s going to benefit everyone at the organization, they may just see it as another hoop to jump through in order to meet their quotas,” she said. “Because frankly, it’s really easy for someone to track someone down on LinkedIn.”

Those conversations are important, because understanding the benefits and the importance of diversity is what will lead to actual change and hopefully make qualities like race and gender things we won’t need to hide.

“Blind recruiting kind of takes out the opportunity for systemic racism, but it also keeps us from talking about the ways that Black and Latinx people help make companies more competitive,” Melton said. “That’s not something that’s going to be addressed with a simple masking tool and an applicant tracking system.”

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