Four Ways to Design a Bias-Free Hiring Process

Every organization I’ve ever worked with has used the pipeline excuse to justify a male-dominated workforce. I heard too many times, “We would love to hire more women but we just can’t find them.” While pipeline issues are more real in some industries than others, in nearly all companies, hiring processes are full of implicit assumptions and personal biases that lead to suboptimal decision-making and lack of diversity.

Behavioral design offers an efficient approach to promoting gender equality in our organizations. Building on insights about how our minds work, behavioral design interventions change the environments and processes we operate in to allow our inherently biased minds to make better decisions and get it right. Plenty of research points us to specific and actionable improvements we can institute in our hiring processes to make them fairer and more effective at attracting the very best talent, regardless of gender.

Here are four straightforward ways to de-bias your hiring process, based on Harvard Professor Iris Bohnet’s book, What Works: Gender Equality By Design.

Beware of Gendered Language

Have you ever seen a job advertisement seeking a “warm, nurturing and collaborative teacher” or an “ambitious, decisive and self-confident engineer”? Research shows that masculine wording in job ads renders the advertised jobs less appealing to prospective female applicants, leading to a reduced talent pool before the hiring process has even officially started. Fortunately, the Internet abounds with tools to help you check your job ads for gendered language so that you can make intentional and inclusive choices about the talent you attract.

De-Identify Application Materials

Blind yourself to applicants’ demographic characteristics by removing names and addresses from résumés, cover letters and other written application materials. Gender and racial biases have been shown to creep into our evaluations of candidates’ credentials, with both female and male evaluators twice more likely to hire a man than a woman when only the candidates’ gender was known and their capabilities were equal. Blind evaluation ensures that such implicit biases aren’t unfairly influencing your assessments of candidates.

Ditch the Unstructured Interview

The typical job interview that starts with “tell me about yourself” and proceeds to meander through varying getting-to-know-you territory is among the least predictive tools for evaluating a candidate’s job performance. What the unstructured interview does well is provide a fertile breeding ground for numerous cognitive biases, which, among others, make us naturally attracted to people who are like us. If you must interview candidates, make sure you select the evaluation criteria and questions in advance, and conduct all interviews one-on-one. Then ask the same set of questions of all candidates in the same order to allow for direct comparisons.  

Deploy Work Sample Tests

For a real sense of how a candidate will perform in a job, opt for a work sample test instead of or in addition to an interview. In a work sample test, such as an orchestra audition or a sales call simulation, candidates perform tasks that are as similar as possible to those in the actual job. For an even more unbiased approach, many work sample tests – such as coding exercises or writing tasks – can be designed and completed online to allow for blind evaluation.

Design your hiring process for the workforce you want. While behavioral design interventions will not fundamentally de-bias our brains, they do enable us to make less biased hiring decisions, leading to a more diverse and higher-quality set of employees.

Read more about recruiting a diverse team at TechCo

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Written by:
Siri Uotila is a research scholar at the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is an expert in promoting gender equality within organizations and in translating academic research into practical interventions to advance women in society. Siri has worked with Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and local governments to improve gender equality through such projects as researching culture and leadership at senior levels; designing a paid parental leave policy; and spearheading legislative advocacy to increase women’s representation on corporate boards. She also has experience in management consulting. Siri has an MBA from Harvard Business School, a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a B.A. in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard College.
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