Diversity & Inclusion, Recruiting

Combating Unconscious Bias Through Blind Recruiting

As companies continue to recognize the value of diversity and inclusion (D&I), they’re also coming to understand the extent to which systemic biases exist in their hiring and HR infrastructures. Recruitment structures and the individuals within them, despite their best efforts, often favor some groups over others.

unconscious bias

Something as simple as an applicant’s name or ZIP code can tip off recruitment staff to the person’s likely racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background or gender. Before an applicant ever comes face-to-face with a recruiter as part of the application process, the recruiter may have already formed an impression of the applicant based on these, and other, factors.

The Potential of Blind Hiring

Biased recruiting, whether conscious or unconscious, can have significant negative impacts on an organization. In an increasingly diverse and multicultural national and global economy, companies that fail to achieve their desired level of D&I may find they can’t compete effectively with companies that succeed in this area.

One strategy companies have explored to address the challenges of bias in the hiring process is known as “blind hiring.” Blind hiring “involves stripping away identifiable characteristics from a resume that are not related to the job, or experiences needed for success,” according to Glassdoor.

Such a simple strategy can’t be expected to be a silver bullet for diverse hiring goals, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a potentially useful recruitment tool. We reached out to industry experts and recruitment professionals to get their opinion on whether blind hiring helps diversity by reducing bias or actually hinders it by not allowing as much deliberate focus on diversity early in the hiring process.

Blind Hiring’s Narrow Application

Blind hiring focuses on stripping identifying and potentially biasing information from résumés and applications. However, it’s likely that an applicant’s demographic background will eventually become apparent. This means that while blind hiring might help mitigate implicit bias early in the recruitment process, it won’t realistically address it throughout the full recruitment life cycle.

“Resume screening is just one part of the talent acquisition lifecycle,” says Renu Sachdeva, a certified leadership and inclusion coach, facilitator, and consultant with Talking Talent. “In order to truly have a positive impact in terms of DEI, companies must also work on mitigating biases in other parts of the life cycle. Best practices that companies can incorporate in addition to blind hiring can include creating job descriptions that are inclusive to attract a diverse slate of candidates, ensuring diversity amongst interviewers, and having a process for final candidate selection that addresses and challenges potential biases.”

Blind Hiring’s Limited Efficacy

As Sachdeva points out, blind hiring also has a limited ability to truly remove identifying features from applicants at any stage of the process. Even when names, addresses, and ZIP codes are stripped away, human minds are perceptive enough to determine a great deal from seemingly minor details.

“Take the often-cited example of the Boston Symphony that increased its gender diversity in the 1950s by holding blind auditions,” Sachdeva says. “This process was not actually successful on the first try. Despite having the curtain closed on the stage, the sound of women’s heels on the stage floor clued the judges in to the gender of the musician and unconsciously influenced their selection decisions. It was only when they asked the musicians to remove their shoes that the number of women actually increased in the symphony. Similarly, despite scrubbing key identifying characteristics from resumes, it is still possible that there will be subtle clues that will remain that can unconsciously influence resume screeners’ decisions when selecting candidates.”

Blind Hiring as a Complement to and Component of a Broader D&I Strategy

Although you may be tempted to discount the value of blind hiring altogether due to its limitations, it’s important to appreciate its utility in the broader context of a robust and holistic hiring process.

“If you’re only doing blind resume reviews, it’s not going to help DEI efforts. It has to be in conjunction with other training and practices that help de-bias the interview process,” says Jes Osrow, cofounder and COO of The Rise Journey. “It has to be part of looking at the interview process and making sure it’s inclusive. Be sure you are asking people if they need accommodations in a proactive versus reactive manner. Be sure you have support for hiring managers. There are so many pieces of the process that can potentially influence bias.” 

Sharra Owens-Schwartz, inclusion, diversity, and equity senior director at Rocket Software, agrees. “On the surface blind hiring seems like a good practice—and it can be,” she says. “What some companies are missing is that blind hiring or hiding the personal information is not enough. Companies need to invest internally to ensure that they have created an environment where everyone can thrive. What do your processes and policies look like, and are they equitable or fair? Do you foster an environment of inclusion and belonging and what does that look like? Can your employees show up as their authentic selves? Can Black women show up with their natural hairstyles and be considered ‘professional?’ It is it okay for a gay man to talk about his husband? Can a person with an unseen disability be open about it and feel safe?”

Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords in the corporate world in recent years. Beyond the public relations boon that may or may not come from touting an organization’s success with hiring diverse talent, diverse organizations tend to outperform those that are less diverse, demonstrating D&I’s legitimate business advantages. As companies accept the value of D&I, they’ve begun to consider the tactical approaches to achieving those strategic goals. Though blind hiring is a mixed bag and far from a silver bullet, it can be one such approach.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.