Career tips

How one tech company fights hiring bias with anonymous recruitment

Anonymous application forms, interviews, and skills assessments are helping a U.K.-based company to generate a larger, more qualified, and hopefully more diverse pool of applicants from which to choose

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Credit: zmfg! CC BY 2.0

Are you a tech company looking to hire a more diverse crop of workers? Are your traditional recruitment methods failing to generate enough interest from women and minority candidates (or any candidates)? Then you may want to follow the lead of one tech company in the U.K. by implementing an anonymous recruitment and hiring process.

A (mostly) anonymous hiring process

In 2013, Bytemark Hosting was looking to hire new system administrators, but was getting little interest from women. Matthew Bloch, Bytemark’s Managing Director, told me via email that around then he “realised Bytemark's hiring was both inefficient and unfair.” In an effort to correct that, Bloch led the charge for a less biased, more inviting recruitment and hiring methodology. The result was a new four-step hiring process, the first three of which are meant to keep candidates totally anonymous.

  1. An online application form, in which no name or resume is given. Instead applicants pick an anonymous handle and provide a list of their best skills and why they think they’d be good for the job.

  2. An initial interview, done anonymously via online chat with no talk of job history or personal specifics.

  3. A skills evaluation, again done online and anonymously.

  4. An in-person interview, which is (obviously) not anonymous.

Empirical support for anonymous applications

There’s hard evidence to support the notion that Bytemark’s approach can help generate a more diverse applicant pool. In a review of empirical studies on the effect of anonymous hiring processes in a number of European countries in 2010, Ulf Rinne of IZA World of Labor wrote that “discrimination appears to be strongest at the time when employers decide whom to interview.” Rinne found that the use of anonymous application forms are particularly effective at encouraging a more diverse set of applicants, and that anonymous hiring generally led to more minorities and women getting called in for interviews. The overall effect on who gets hired is still in question, since discrimination can still occur at the in-person interview stage.

Anonymous recruiting has many benefits

Bytemark first implemented its new method this spring to hire a handful of positions, including more system administrators. Overall, around 100 people went through this new process, including several blind applicants; three candidates were ultimately hired. Did Bytemark find that the process led to a more diverse group of applicants (or hires)? “We definitely had more _people_ applying,” Bloch wrote to me, “but I'm not sure we have a large enough sample (or any stats) to prove that it was a more diverse group. My instinct is that we'll need to do more - specifically better outreach and (the hardest part for a small firm) being ready to train people up from scratch.”

Overall all, though, Bloch and the company were very pleased with the results on a number of levels. “One of the unmeasurable goals to the process is to ensure that fewer people drop out before they even apply,” Bloch told me. The anonymous online application form did its job, generating around three-times as many applicants as they would usually get. “We were fully aware that we didn't turn people off through our language. There were probably still mistakes we missed in that area, and only constant review is going to catch them.

Bloch also noted that the online chat-based interviews made it easier on the interviewers (they could split the interview load up and share the chat transcripts with others on the hiring panel) and the candidates (no dressing up, no travel, less pressure). Also, by not discussing resumes (in fact, by actively avoiding it to keep things anonymous), the interview could really focus on work strengths and skills. Finally, Bloch said they also ended up with a stronger pool of candidates who made it to the final round, with no real disappointments at that stage, by focusing earlier on skills and strengths, rather than just a resume.

More work to be done to improve diversity

Bytemark plans to continue using, and tweaking, this new anonymous hiring process. But, as Bloch pointed out, though, that’s just the first step in creating and sustaining a more diverse workplace. “Companies need to build fair policies for internal promotion, review and retention. Bytemark is a small company with no dedicated HR function yet, so anonymous recruitment was just the first step in this bigger picture,” he wrote to me. “But if I can build processes that are similarly successful over the next 1-2 years, I'm confident we'll see results in both employee happiness and a more representative minority make-up.”

Finally, to those companies considering implementing an anonymous hiring process, Bloch says  “Do it! It's definitely a much more pleasant experience for everyone concerned, and you'll definitely attract more people.”

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