Summary

This speech was delivered by David Hollander, of JacksonStone & Partners, at the IHC New Zealand Workability International Make it Work Conference, on 26 September 2016, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Anonymous or blind-recruitment is a method for trying to improve diversity in the workplace by minimizing opportunities for racial, gender or other biases to be introduced. We explore an outline of the practice, some of its benefits and some of its potential pitfalls, and try to position this approach within a broader inclusive thinking context.

Introduction

Hello everyone, I trust that your conference is going well and that I can add to your thinking in the area of recruitment. My name is David Hollander; I am a Director of JacksonStone & Partners, an executive search and recruitment firm, based in Wellington. I have worked in the recruitment sector for over 20 years and I have also held roles with the New Zealand Police, and was the National Employment Manager for the agency formerly known as Refugee Services Aotearoa. In this role I was responsible for a pilot program for the employment of refugees which was eventually accepted as a national program and funded by the Ministry of Social Development.

I am going to talk to you today about a concept currently being discussed globally, and trialed in some jurisdictions, in varying formats. This concept is known as Anonymous Recruiting, or sometimes, Blind Recruiting.

Background

What is anonymous recruiting?

It is, at one level, the removal of all the cues and signals from a CV and cover letter that might identify a candidate’s gender, race, disability, religion, age, and so on.

In New Zealand our State Services Commission is on record recently saying that it is looking at introducing a version of anonymous recruiting, known as name-blind recruitment. This in an effort to close the gender pay gap. It involves the removal of the candidate’s name and in some cases, other gender identifying information, from their application. This follows a move last year by some large organizations in the United Kingdom to introduce the practice of name-blind recruiting. These organizations include the BBC, Deloitte and the National Health Service.

I am going to talk with you about how anonymous recruiting might impact on a person’s
ability to market themselves to an employer and impact on their career progression and
options; the lengths to which the use of the anonymous recruiting concept could be taken;
some potential pitfalls and what, if any, place it should have in fair, open and effective
recruitment processes.

I do not profess to have the answers to this as of yet, but it does raise some questions and it may create more problems than it solves.

I will start with explaining why the concept of anonymous recruiting has emerged. It has been in response to the problem of bias, and the fact that bias often creeps subtly and insidiously into recruitment processes. Let me define bias, in doing this we will take a step back and look at how we make sense of the world.

People use shortcuts in their minds to make sense of the world, which will not be a surprise to any of us! These shortcuts are known as schema, and we know the most common one by another name – stereotype.

Formally, schemas are organized patterns of thought which help us manage categories of information and the relationships between them. Think of them like scripts which run through our mind in certain scenarios when presented with information. They inform our behavior and our reaction to information.

We have these scripts because it is really, really taxing on our brains to approach day-to-day life as a series of unique events – even though that is the reality of day-to-day life. Mental shortcuts let us focus our attention on what our brain considers novel or different.

These shortcuts are essential to us being able to function. A mental shortcut is why you are all quietly sitting here, listening to a man that many of you have never met and treating what he says as being credible – at least I hope you are! If I was to deliver this same speech on the bus in the morning, or on a street-corner your estimation of my credibility might be different. We all, through our education and upbringing have an idea of what a speech is, what sort of venue speeches occur in, and given that these two boxes have been ticked you have initiated your ‘sit quietly and listen’ shortcut, or perhaps for some of you, the ‘check my phone because I am bored’ script.

So we have shortcuts. They are absolutely essential, and the bulk of them have little impact on other people. But there are some which can lead us astray and have repercussions on others around us, and that is a bad thing.

In general, all of us, are very bad at updating our schema with new information. We tend to set and forget. The way in which we were raised, the media we consume, how we are educated and the company we keep all lead to a set of really robust, stable scripts. That’s useful in a fire or other emergency situation, or when we meet someone for the first time in a work context, because it means we have a set behavior which will help us. But it is also why some, people, grandparents can sometimes be intolerant, racist or homophobic, and why that sometimes means you have been stuck with long, awkward conversations with them around the dinner table at Christmas time!

Remember the set and forget nature of schema that I just mentioned? Well, the grandparents are simply displaying their own script that has been set and not updated for a long, long time.

Context

As you will be aware, stereotypes and unconscious bias are very dangerous in a recruitment context. What makes them dangerous is they are often extremely subtle and do not usually manifest themselves as explicit or obvious reaction or behaviors towards candidates.

For people with disabilities, the barriers to the labor market are many and varied, and bias; stereotyping and inattentive thinking can be very limiting influences. Work is a major component of our social lives, our personal identity, our sense of making a contribution and meeting our kinship and collegiality needs. New Zealand’s Draft National Disability Strategy notes that employment is a key anchor for the future of disability issues and how we think about them.

I am sure we all agree that recruitment processes should involve as little bias as possible. And that is why the concept of anonymous recruiting has been spawned—as a mechanism that attempts to remove bias and therefore, in theory, makes recruitment processes fair and not subject to any form of discrimination, whether that is on the basis of age, gender, disability, race, religion, place of residence, political beliefs, and so on.

So that we are all on the same page, when I talk about a recruitment process in broad terms, it means:

1. Some method of attracting people
2. Having people apply for a job
3. Reviewing that group of applicants
4. Selecting a suitable group of applicants for interview
5. Assisting in appointing the appropriate applicant to the job.

Any number of weird and wonderful things can occur, many people are involved, but those five things are the distilled version. Obviously, Jackson, Stone & Partners does those things better than anyone else and my business card is available to anyone who would like to talk further!

In Practice

I have touched on our mental shortcuts and how often they can prejudice our decision making, because we are not good at integrating new information into our shortcuts.

One potential solution to limiting how much those shortcuts affect a recruitment process is by making applicants anonymous. I will cover this a little bit more in depth, but in short, it means removing all the cues and signals, we will make decisions with less bias as our mental shortcuts have not been triggered.

I am probably preaching to the converted, and many of you will have a good grasp of what I am talking about, but it is worth noting this is all underpinned by credible research.

Imagine this scenario. John and Saini have both applied for a role as an accountant with a major corporate organization. They are the same age and have had similar career paths, both attended Auckland University and graduated with the same degree and both play rugby. They are, for all intents and purposes, identical, except that Saini’s name might suggest that he is of Pacific Island descent.

Logistically, both John and Saini should make it as far as one another in the recruitment process—but evidence tells is that John is more likely to be appointed. What has happened is that the hiring manager has used the name John as a cue for a mental shortcut, leading to him or her crediting John above Saini. It is not explicit – the hiring manager didn’t say ‘no to anyone called Saini,’ it is just that John better fits the mental shortcut and that makes the hiring manager’s life easier. It is subtle, structural and pervasive racism and the social psychology is littered with examples of where we use shortcut thinking to the detriment of an individual or a group of people.

The anonymous recruitment approach, which would remove the candidates’ names, along with many other details, would have given Saini a fair chance at the role; on based on his demonstrable skills and competencies and not any bias about his ethnicity.

This may sound as through I am an advocate for anonymous recruiting. At a high level, anonymizing data makes sense. It is a simple concept and a straightforward, albeit time consuming, to implement and it has reportedly delivered some successful results.

Issues

However, it could have unintended consequences.
Let us run through some examples of how a CV may be anonymized:
• Year of graduation (so you cannot discern age)
• Schools you attended (so you cannot discern gender or ethnicity)
• Hobbies (may imply gender, age, or ethnicity)
• Your address (may imply your socio-demographic status)
• Board appointments
• Remove the dates of tenure from your work history (so you cannot discern age)
• Any special requirements for things such as work station set-up or accessible facilities.

The other big components to this is the administrative cost. Having recently run a blind recruitment process ourselves we can attest to the highly laborious task of anonymizing applications. Now, for us to do this, the time investment is partly what you pay for when you engage us—but for smaller entities, and already understaffed HR teams, this could be a major nuisance. There are technological solutions to some of these challenges but they’re often expensive and might miss some of the more granular stuff.

You may be starting to see why anonymity might not be the silver bullet. If you happen to be appointed as a board member for a defining holding company, you would rightly be proud of that, and it would support the caliber of your business acumen—but, in an anonymous recruitment process, that information could be suppressed.

Let us go one step further and consider what happens when you get to the interview stage. To truly anonymize the process, you would need to conduct the interview in such a way as to limit what you could discern of the candidate’s visual appearance and voice. You would have to hire an actor to answer for them, to hide their voice and appearance.

Once we get through all of the above, you make an offer and only then do you learn about the personal side of the person appointed. It is their first day and they walk into the office—Is your work-space ready? Does your day-today work environment support the new staff member; who could be a person with a disability.

I have played this up to an extreme, but the point stands: inclusive thinking must be at the core of all organizations.

Those of you who work with people with disabilities will know the importance of the concept of job accommodation. That is, the creation of a work environment, or a hiring process, that assists people with disabilities to secure employment. Job accommodation is based on the concept that fitting the job to the person is just as fitting the person to the job. It can include things such as ensuring access to a building, providing assistance with reading or writing, or modifying the way the job is done, for example, allocating aspects of the job to another employee.

The New Zealand Human Rights Act creates a clear obligation for employers to meet the needs of an employee with disabilities by accommodating that person ,providing it does not reasonably disrupt the employer’s activities. I will not go into the detail of how ‘reasonably disrupt’ is defined under the Act, because I think by now you’ll be getting the point that I am leading to.

The concept of anonymity in recruitment appears to me to be at odds with the best interests of job seekers who have some type of disability or perceived difference from what the employer may consider to be the right person. In their case, positive discrimination may in fact be a far more effective approach to enhance their employment prospects.

And to positively discriminate, the employer needs to know early on in the recruitment process that the applicant has a disability. With an anonymous recruitment process this information will not be known.

Another salient point is that methods such as anonymous recruiting are doomed unless there is a level of investment and forward thinking once someone has been appointed.

Appointing someone who does not ‘fit the mold’ or who has a disability and needs some form of accommodation and then not supporting them does the new employee a huge disservice. We are then making that person a standard bearer, we are forcing them to prove themselves and what they represent in the workplace—it’s implying that it is not enough for them to just be good at their job.

Positives

Now some positives. Anything that promotes some critical thinking is good, and methods and tools such as anonymous recruitment could be very useful in limiting the impact of biases. It might help us clear out some of the most egregious instances of unfound bias.

Anonymizing certain aspects of a candidate’s background is a pragmatic solution. As I noted, it is probably rare (we hope) to see explicit bias, so to assist managers, human resources staff and business owners eliminate the more insidious biases is definitely worth exploring.

My biggest concern s that we cut too far into individuality, that we compromise the integrity of the person. I am concerned that by anonymizing certain things we imply these things should be hidden: that there is shame or some sort of downside, for example, in having a disability or being part of a particular ethnic group.

Core to the IHC is that people have a right to live, learn and work in the community. I would add that they should be able to present themselves with confidence and with pride in who they are and where they want to go in life, learning and work.

Looking Forward

So, what else might we do? If anonymous recruiting is one tool, but one that is imperfect, what else is there?

Overall I believe we need to keep refining how we approach recruitment, and working to find the balance between the self-expression of a candidate whilst ensuring any bias on the part of the decision-makers has as little impact as possible. We must be willing to keep trying, gathering data and challenging incumbent thinking. To that end, it is the work of IHC and its partners in facilitating discussion and action that will continue to help make a difference.

I think it is also important that we consider the whole of the process; how does your method of attracting candidates work? If you only advertise in the paper, let say, what socio-demographic groups are you denying the chance to know about the role? Who doesn’t even get the opportunity to apply?

Thinking laterally, we might bring components of interview protocol from other cultures into the mainstream. An example of this is that often for Maori-focused roles and recruitment processes it is expected that candidates will be able to bring support people along to an interview—and the practice of doing so is much more openly accepted. We find that sometimes panels that are not from a Maori organization are less understanding of this requests—western-thinking focuses on the individual, and so business can see the need for a support person as odd, whilst many Maori value having a support person as a means to overcome anxiety towards promoting yourself. The kumara does not sing of its own sweetness.

So taking that thinking forward, if we can encourage a more flexible attitude on the part of employers the gains could include new tools to support the employment opportunities of people with disabilities. Using digital technology would be one of the more obvious tools, and even now there are solutions which could be repurposed to help facilitate more equitable recruitment processes.

An example of how technology might help at interview is through the use of video interviews: a growing trend is for candidates to record brief video responses to questions submitted by the employer. Such approaches were developed initially as an efficiency effort, but could be repurposed to assist people who might find direct social interactions challenging—perhaps people with Asperger’s or Tourette’s Syndrome. The opportunity to submit answers in a lower pressure environment, where you can ‘do another take,’ for example, might allow people to shine and for potential employers to see past what they may initially think is an impediment to someone’s ability to communicate effectively.

Technology could offer any number of tools to increasing the fairness of recruitment, and if such programs or solutions followed good universal design rules they could be of benefit to all jobseekers. The big thing will be investment, and that is where direction and advocacy from entities like IHC will be essential.

What is more, and as has been noted in the recent National Disability Strategy, we need to make sure that employers have support. It is common in our profession to see businesses struggle to take a first step because of perceived risks—operational, reputational and commercial. For example, it is common when we first meet a client and take a brief to assist them with a recruitment process for them to say they are open to thinking laterally and appointing an atypical candidate, but when push comes to shove they fall back on hiring people that fit their usual mold. To that end we need to empower businesses, and the work of agencies such as IHC and providers like Workbridge are a critical part of that.

In sum, on a practical level, we need to build a toolbox which empowers businesses to be smarter, and which empowers people with disabilities to have the same opportunities as everyone else. Some of these tools will be specialized, reflecting the diversity of ability in society, but many could end up being the best practice for everyone.

At the core of this issue, we believe, is the need for more exploration of, and critical thinking about, the concept of anonymous recruitment and whether it has a place, and if so, in what circumstances it should be used. Eventually, change will come from future generations who are more inclusive as their mental shortcuts feature more up-to-date thinking. Up until that point, employers need to be rigorous in thinking about processes, and vigilant in examining the institutional and subtle biases that can impact on recruitment. It needs to be from the Board table down and part and parcel of good leadership in the 21st century.

Recruitment consultants in particular should be, and hopefully are, conscious about the critical importance of maintaining an open mind and making sure they challenge their clients and their own thinking when they see any evidence of bias.

Our overarching view is that from a business perspective, change must be driven from the top down and consider appointments in full; from scoping the role through recruitment, placement, on-boarding, and ongoing development. Just like we’re currently shifting the discussion on work place health, safety, and wellbeing, we want the employment of people with disabilities to get to the place where it is a given.

We could change people’s CV’s in all sorts of ways because the hiring manager doesn’t like what they see, but shouldn’t we really be concentrating on the skills and requirements for the role rather than what the candidate appears to be like on the basis of their CV or how it might be written?

Like predicting the weather, or the outcome of the American presidential elections, recruitment is complicated. There is much to be tested, much to be questioned, learned, and refined.