Is ‘Blind Recruitment’ making it harder to hire diverse talent?

Recruiting diverse talent is a key priority for many organisations right now. In fact, according to the CIPD’s Resourcing and Talent Planning Survey 2020, two in five organisations have recruited a more diverse workforce over the last 12 months compared with the previous year and over half have a formal diversity strategy. Their findings also suggested that most could improve the inclusivity of their recruitment processes through a more comprehensive approach that includes measures to eliminate bias.

We also know that workforce diversity is a particular challenge in the voluntary sector, and a 2017 survey by Charity Jobfound that candidates perceive there to be “a rigidity that doesn’t allow for previous experience or transferable skills”, as well as evidence of age, race and gender discrimination in the sector.

For any organisation to continue to innovate and grow, there needs to be diverse voices around the table. An obvious first step is to look at recruitment practices and consider what we can do to make them more inclusive.

Bias in Recruitment

While we all like to believe that our values don’t allow it, our subconscious is constantly making thousands of small decisions based on the information we process. The shortlisting process is therefore prone to us making decisions – whether conscious or not – based on gender, age, race, socioeconomic background, where someone went to school and even the types of organisations a candidate has worked for.

One of the most common biases we have is affinity bias – being drawn to people that are like us. So, when we see information on a CV that suggests somebody is different, our choices are subconsciously influenced.

I have no doubt that if you are reading this, you’re already aware that these biases exist. In fact, you are probably already taking steps in your own organisation to try and reduce them. Perhaps you’ve even tried one of HR’s favourite ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions to this problem – blind recruitment.

What is it?

Blind recruitment is where any details that could influence bias are removed from an application or CV. These could include:

· Personal information like name, age and address;

· Colleges and universities attended and dates;

· Previous employers and dates.

The idea is that with this information removed, we are much more likely to focus on ‘what the candidate can do’ instead of ‘who they are’.

It’s become almost a stock response to increasing diversity in recruitment, but I’m not convinced it’s the answer…

The good bits

There are some clear and obvious benefits to blind recruitment that we can’t ignore, and it genuinely can be a great tool when used well in the right situations. Some pros include:

1. It can help to eliminate bias in the shortlisting process – it’s much harder to favour people that are ‘like us’ if we don’t know anything about them.

2. It can be considered as fairer, with all candidates being given a level ‘playing field’ as we focus on capability over access to opportunities and are less likely to have formed opinions before the interview stage.

3. Asking focused questions relating to the person specification can help us to assess future capability rather than relying solely on previous experience, which may be harder for candidates from marginalised backgrounds to demonstrate.

The not so good bits

1. It can get in the way of hiring diverse candidates. Many organisations are actively looking to increase diversity. If we don’t know who has applied, we can’t take a pro-active approach to providing more opportunities to candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

2. Approaching diverse networks and communities for recruitment is not only an effective way to promote your employer brand, but it can also help you reach and encourage applications from people from minority backgrounds. Blind recruitment can make this more difficult.

3. Many organisations don’t actually do it properly. Simply removing someone’s name and age from a CV or application form is unlikely to be effective and will still enable biased decisions to be made based on the experience and opportunities a candidate has had access to, whilst making it more difficult to take positive action.

Tackling the right problem

Whether or not blind recruitment is an effective tool largely depends on the challenge you’re trying to address.

Start by using data from previous recruitment processes to work out which parts of your process might be getting in the way of it being truly inclusive. Compare the percentage of diverse applicants against those in your shortlist and those that eventually become employees and monitor this over time. This data will often tell you a lot about where you can focus improvements.

Some common challenges that this data might present are:

Challenge 1 – Attracting lots of diverse candidates, while your shortlists lack diversity.

This could indicate some bias in your shortlisting process that blind recruitment might help to overcome. Rather than simply removing personal details from a CV/application form though, try asking 3-4 focused questions, linked to your person specification, that help you assess capability, values and attitude, rather than experience and background. For example:

“Tell us about your excellent people-management skills, including your ability to motivate others to perform at their best.”

This will tell you so much more than a CV, whilst really limiting opportunities for our biases towards certain backgrounds or types of experience to take over.

You might also find it beneficial to think about how you can enable candidates to have the best chance of meeting your shortlisting criteria. This includes ensuring you create clear job descriptions and person specifications, providing opportunities for informal discussions with hiring managers, making application processes straightforward and accessible and including clear instructions of what you’d like the application to include.

Challenge 2 – Attracting and shortlisting diverse candidates yet seeing a lack of diverse hires.

Consider the environment you’re creating during the interview process, and the systems that are in place to eliminate bias.

Are your interview panels diverse and balanced? Do they have an aligned view of ‘what good looks like’ and an objective scoring system? Are they welcoming and do they make people feel comfortable? Are processes in place to enable panel members to recognise and call out potential bias? Do the panel understand how imposter syndrome might be more likely to affect candidates from certain backgrounds? What additional support could you provide to candidates to help them thrive?

Challenge 3 - A lack of diverse candidates from the start.

Blind recruitment is unlikely to help here – in fact, knowing the demographics of your applicants may actually help you to prioritise those from underrepresented backgrounds that meet your essential criteria.

Consider what you could do to encourage more candidates from diverse backgrounds to apply. Are your promotion and marketing materials inclusive and do they demonstrate diversity in your organisation? Have you used inclusive and accessible language? Is your job description and person specification realistic? What does your employer brand say about your organisation, its culture and values? Does it present itself as a place to grow and develop? Are you clear on flexible working options and family policies? What are your employees saying about you on social media?

Is blind recruitment the way forward for your organisation?

The answer is - it depends.

There’s certainly no harm in experimenting with it and it is definitely a worthwhile discussion to be had. However, it shouldn’t be the only discussion. Inclusive recruitment is so much more than the shortlisting process and it’s important to take a step back and look at the full candidate journey - considering how you can ensure every single step is designed to challenge bias and enable every candidate to be at their best.

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