The Complete Guide To Blind Assessments – Hiding Bias Factors That Hurt Diversity

Boldly obscure names, age indicators, voices, etc. – to limit most conscious and unconscious screening biases. 

Diversity hiring fails to meet its goals regularly. Less than 2% of surveyed companies recently reported that they were “confident that they were achieving their DEI goals.”

One of the primary reasons why diversity hiring universally fails is because HR leaders put too much faith in the effectiveness of unconscious bias training. And if I can be blunt. My research has revealed that this unconscious bias training fails because unconscious biases are embedded in your brain. Being embedded and unconscious means that it takes much more than a few hours of forced and unwelcomed training to overcome that entrenchment.

However, I have found another much more effective and relatively easy-to-apply approach to minimize conscious and unconscious biases. It involves “blind assessments,” which purposely “strips away” (a.k.a. it hides, blinds, masks, or redacts) the individual factors that trigger biases in resume screeners and interviewers. This “blind assessment” approach isn’t a perfect solution, and it does take some effort. Still, the approach allows you to hide, redact, or “blind” almost every pre-identified non-job-related factor that triggers unconscious biases in those that assess candidates. 

An example of blinding we have learned, in most countries, to prohibit the inclusion of a candidate’s picture on their resume/CV because of the many discriminatory biases that a single picture can trigger early in the hiring process.

So, in line with today’s increased emphasis on diversity hiring. We need to raise the simple blinding concept to the next level. So that blinding is used to hide almost all non-job-related bias raising factors, ranging from pictures to demographic information and covering voice and language usage. 

We Should Borrow From The More Scientific Approach Used By Others

Take the time to research blinding or masking beyond HR. You will find that numerous effective approaches have been successfully used by the FBI, the military, psychologists, and intelligence agencies. Rather than starting from scratch. In my view, it’s time to learn from the best blinding approaches practiced by these true experts in the field. Luckily, almost all of these developed outside HR blinding techniques are transferable to our hiring process. Unfortunately, one of the reasons that so many diversity hiring efforts come up short is that dozens of bias-creating factors are spread out across every step of the hiring funnel. Those multiple bias factors can be separated into four different categories. Biases triggered by 1) visuals, 2) demographic information, 3) the language that the candidate uses, and 4) their voice. 

Below you will find these four bias triggering categories defined in more detail. Along with some proven blinding, masking, or redaction actions, you might choose to try.

CATEGORY I – VISUALS THAT CAN TRIGGER BIASES 

This category focuses on visuals, including pictures, videos, and in-person interviews with the candidate. The biases brought out by these visuals can react to the candidate’s physical appearance. Many bias areas can be judged based on a picture. Those biases often cover gender, skin color, age, race, national origin, ethnic hairstyles, and body language. Some of the proven ways to limit visual-related biases are listed below.

Visual blinding actions

Hiding video or pictures from the assessors can limit the biases triggered by even a glance at the candidate. Here are some blinding actions that you should consider.

  • Telephone interviews limit visuals – there are no visuals here because only the candidate’s voice can be heard (which can still be revealing). Without visuals, it’s impossible to judge the candidate’s appearance and body language/posture.
  • Remote video interviews with the candidate’s picture obscured – just like on the TV show “The Voice.” This approach minimizes biases and some first impressions when the candidate is physically obscured in the video view. Or the person’s picture is replaced by an avatar. Without an actual picture, their facial expression, body language, or if the candidate has a visible physical disability can’t be seen. Keeping a recording of the interview allows others that couldn’t attend the original interview to get their chance at assessing this candidate.
  • Interview from behind a screen – “behind a curtain” interviews have been successfully used by orchestras since the 1970s. But they can also be used during standard in-person interviews. You have to explain why the screen is being used for the candidate. Often the screen is used only during the beginning rounds of interviews.
  • Text interviews – there is no visual picture of the candidate. Unfortunately, the text interviewing process can be problematic. Some low-income candidates will have limited access to smartphones.
  • Give them a real problem – avoid many physical and visual distractions during standard interviews by taking up a good deal of interview time having the candidate solve a real problem they will face on the job. You can do that with a verbal problem-solving question during the interview. Or, with an in-person or remote interview, you can also give them an interactive whiteboard problem-solving exercise.
  • Give them a skills test – another way to avoid the physical and visual distractions during interviews. It is by supplementing them with online skill tests. Most of the current vendor-supplied skill tests have been validated over many years.
  • Use a questionnaire interview as an alternative – rather than standard interviews where the candidate can be seen. Consider questionnaire interviews, where the candidate responds to the same interview questions. But this time, their answers are in writing (as part of a standalone electronic interview questionnaire).
  • Be careful when using portfolios – in some creative fields, it is common for a candidate to provide a portfolio of their work. Seeing “their actual work” is a good thing, provided that you warn the candidate not to include any pictures of themselves in their portfolio.
  • During in-person interviews, minimize these two bias triggering factors – in the situations when you’re holding face-to-face interviews. It makes sense to minimize the two biases that only occur when you physically meet a candidate for an interview. The first is the handshake with its many biases. You can minimize those biases by laying out the interview room so that the candidate doesn’t expect a handshake when they enter. The second bias occurs when an interviewer assesses the candidate’s body language, even though it doesn’t predict job performance. You can body language assessment by obscuring it by having the candidate sit behind a desk or table.
  • Limit the evaluators’ internet searches –  at the beginning of the screening process, you should proactively restrict your screeners’ or interviewers’ access to LinkedIn. Because its profiles often include a picture of the candidate (or encourage your candidates to remove it). Assessors should also be told not to follow any live links in the resume. They might lead to pictures or a video. Finally, assessors should be told not to visit the candidate’s social media landing pages or conduct Internet searches. Either one might yield pictures or videos of the candidate.

CATEGORY II – DEMOGRAPHIC INFORMATION CAN TRIGGER BIASES 

A great deal of research concludes that seeing demographic information about the candidate can stimulate multiple non-job-related biases. Unfortunately, many non-job-related demographic factors need to be withheld or blinded, including marital status, home address, non-job-related credentials, family information, pronouns, grades, and hobbies. Information like a candidate’s full name at the top of their resume by itself can lead to an assessor’s guessing about their gender, national origin, and ethnicity.

Demographic information blinding actions 

Realize that most of the bias-increasing demographic information is provided by the candidate in their resume and during interviews. Consider these masking or blinding actions for blocking any inappropriate demographic information.

  • Warn the candidates not to provide inappropriate demographic information – at the beginning of the application process, make it crystal clear that you only expect the candidate to provide requested job-related information. And don’t be subtle. Tell the candidate not to include any information that might reveal gender, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, national origin, race, religion, etc. It may be necessary to warn them not to provide “their pronouns” in many cases openly. Some pronouns may trigger unconscious biases in the evaluators. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to return their application with a note telling them it can’t be accepted until the inappropriate information is removed. 
  • Consider blinding the candidate’s name on their resume – obscure or remove their name from the reviewer’s copy of their resume. Either physically do it yourself or use one of the available software packages (like Blendoor) that automatically redact their name (and picture) from their resume. Alternatively, replace the name with the applicant’s three initials or substitute an identification number that you give them.
  • Redact any remaining demographic information – also redact demographic information in their resume that might reveal a candidate’s age. Normally that would include birthdates and high school and college graduation dates. Also, when appropriate, redact other non-job required information, including unneeded credentials, community college attendance, hobbies, addresses/ZIP Codes, grades, and languages spoken.
  • Require an application form – custom-developed application forms are superior because they limit the candidate’s opportunity to provide inappropriate information. Unfortunately, requiring a complete application (and accepting only a resume) will discourage many employed applicants that are often quite busy.
  • Limit the evaluator’s internet access – resume screeners and interviewers should be told not to visit the candidate’s social media sites. Or, conduct Internet searches on the candidate that might reveal inappropriate demographic information like their marital status, sexual orientation, hobbies, languages, or family. Social media reference checks that are conducted informally by hiring managers need to be avoided or placed at the end of the hiring process.

CATEGORY III – THE CANDIDATE’S LANGUAGE CAN TRIGGER BIASES 

Whenever a candidate is writing and speaking, their language can trigger biases among individual evaluators. When it comes to the language in resumes, the primary bias stimulating language factors often include their language level, grammar, spelling, and writing style. During interviews, additional negative language factors might include pronunciation, making concise points, answering questions directly, and understanding and the use of industry jargon.  

Language blinding actions for resumes and interviews

Included in the following list are several language issue reduction actions to consider.

  • Realize that language assessment is inconsistent and may hurt diversity – whether writing or speaking. Candidates can trigger evaluator biases simply with the language that they use. So begin by realizing that individuals from different cultures, education, and income levels will likely use language differently. Diverse individuals will have diverse ways of using language. However, “being different” in their use of language should not automatically be counted against them. Next, it’s also important to realize that language assessment during résumés and interviews is almost always wildly inconsistent. So everyone must agree in advance on what language issues are job-related for each job family.
  • For résumés, utilize an unbiased ATS screening process – if you want to make the content of the resume the only screening focus. Minimize an evaluator’s freedom to count off for what they consider to be language missteps (it turns out that many of these language issues are not job-related). On the surface, an automated electronic screen sounds like the best approach. But most ATS resume screening processes produce flawed results simply because the inputted screening criteria covering are biased (they often include spelling and grammar errors). However, you can minimize this bias. If you first conduct internal research to identify and then fix the language-related resume screening criteria that have historically proven to reduce the chances of diverse candidates. And during which step of “the hiring funnel” do these “opportunity limiters” occur. 
  • For resumes, an evaluation checklist can limit inappropriate language assessments –  if you’re going to rely on humans to do your resume screening. First, realize that there is seldom any degree of consistency in the language errors that are spotted. Define in advance what language errors are unacceptable. Next, develop and make resume screeners use a written evaluation checklist for resumes in each job family. A resume evaluation checklist adds value because it makes it harder for a screener to take off points for non-job-related language issues. Also, note that using a “permanent hiring committee” can also improve diversity hiring. Those on the committee hire so frequently. Its members will have learned early on how to identify and avoid biases that reduce the number of diverse candidates before the interviews even begin.
  • For resumes, encourage candidates to use language improvement software – the first time language biases normally occur is when screeners review resumes and cover letters. Prevent language issues before they occur. Proactively warn your candidates that spelling, language, and writing style will likely be part of their resume assessment. So it’s in their best interest to utilize one or more language-improving programs (like Grammarly) on their resume and cover letter. Unless the job specifically requires it, rejecting resumes simply because of spelling errors is a major and costly diversity killer.
  • Restrict social media access to non-job-related writings and talks – unless a job specifically requires strong written or verbal communications skills. Proactively remind resume screeners and interviewers to avoid researching their candidates on social media. They may come across a candidate’s non-job-related talks, presentations and writings. Especially avoid the candidate’s personal website and their writings in blogs and articles.
  • For interviews, tell candidates if language assessment will be part of their evaluation – shifting over to language usage during interviews. You should also proactively make candidates aware that your organization champions diversity in jobs that require a great deal of verbal communication. A candidate’s formal language will be assessed. Those assessments might cover a candidate’s language level, grammar, pronunciation, word usage, and the completeness of their answers. Once again, using an interview evaluation checklist will help minimize the loss of points due to non-job-related language issues

CATEGORY IV – VOICE CHARACTERISTICS THAT TRIGGER BIASES

In addition to the actual language that the candidate uses during their interviews. Many biases are triggered because of what some consider to be negative voice characteristics. Those voice characteristics might include their accent, pronunciation, voice volume, voice inflection, or their voice tone’s aggressiveness.

Voice blinding actions

Biases are often triggered when the voice used by the candidate doesn’t match the voice expectations of the interviewer. Below you will find several voice-blinding actions that you should consider.

  • Telephone interviews can be problematic – in some cases, voice-only telephone interviews can inappropriately force the interviewer to focus on the candidate’s voice characteristics. 
  • Text interviews – without any voices, you eliminate all voice characteristic issues when you utilize text interviews. 
  • Utilize voice neutralizing software – while assessing a candidate’s voice during an interview. So there may be instances where the candidate’s voice should be neutralized or “made vanilla” to remove all voice indicators of gender, national origin, race, age, etc. Fortunately, several voice-changing or voice-morphing software options (Voxal Voice Changer) can alter a candidate’s voice in real-time. You need to explain why this voice-altering approach is being used (to avoid gender, national origin, age, or race-related voice biases).
  • Questionnaire interviews are nonverbal – all standard interviews are verbal. However, there is a way to avoid having the candidate verbally answer questions through a “questionnaire interview.” The candidate is provided with written interview questions online. Instead of verbally answering them, the candidate writes their answers on an electronic questionnaire package. 
  • Make candidates aware that voice assessment may be part of their interviews – proactively make candidates aware in advance, even though we champion diversity in speech. In jobs requiring a great deal of verbal communication with partners and customers, voice-related characteristics, including accent, pronunciation, voice volume, voice inflection, and overall voice aggressiveness, may be assessed during their interview.
  • Limit external social media access – formally discourage each interviewer from visiting the candidate’s social media sites. Podcasts and internet videos may include the candidate’s voice characteristics outside of a business setting.

If you can only do one thing – pick an open job where diversity has been an issue. And where you have at least 20 qualified resumes that have been assessed and ranked by the assigned recruiter. Next, make copies of each of these 20 resumes, and on each, replace the name with only the candidate’s three initials. Next, without explanation, ask the same recruiter to rank these 20 “initials only resumes.” Then check to see if there were a higher percentage of women among the top 10 of the “initials only” resumes compared to the percentage of women in the top 10 when the complete name was included. Don’t be surprised when you find a 15% or higher improvement in female representation.

Additional Assessment Tips For Reducing Biases 

Finally, a few miscellaneous actions can further help you minimize diversity biases. Those action steps include: 

  • Move the most biased assessments toward the end of the assessment process – once a diversity candidate is screened out early in the hiring process. It’s important to realize that they are forever lost. A superior approach is, when possible, purposely scheduling assessments that have proven to reduce diversity later in the hiring process. If you hold that assessment until the very end, you will likely have more additional information on the candidate. They will likely think twice before you prematurely eliminate a top, diverse candidate with only a single flaw. 
  • Be wary of bias-inducing information provided by references – even though reference checking is often done late in the hiring process. You must be careful about the illegal/irrelevant information that you might receive from the candidate’s job references. So when you contact the references, make it immediately clear that you only want job-related information from them. 
  • Improve your job postings – you can ensure that you will attract more diverse applicants by eliminating biased words and phrases in your job postings (consider using Textio). 
  • Understand what’s wrong with most diversity hiring processes – you can learn more about what’s wrong with most overall diversity hiring processes and the top 10 actions for improving overall diversity hiring by clicking here.

Final Thoughts

I have found that in practice, the biggest problem with instituting a blinding effort is that hiring managers and recruiters are so resistant to any change. They won’t even listen to some proven blinding and masking approaches. Also, be prepared for a few downsides. For example, when you eliminate many soft visual and verbal clues, you reduce bias. Still, at the same time, you are also likely making it much more difficult to assess soft factors like a candidate’s attitude, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit. Where fit is the single assessment element that is most likely to reduce diversity (while not accurately assessing fit), another downside is that after you neutralize or remove all of these diversity bias triggering factors. It paradoxically will be much harder to determine who among your candidate slate are diverse candidates accurately.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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