Beating Bias: How Technology Is Changing the Recruiting Game

women at computer
By Aimee Hansen
The hardest part of diversity can be the “how.” How do you stay awake to your own unconscious bias? Can you?

With no evidence that it’s possible to eliminate unconscious bias, a rising trend on the crossroads of diversity and tech is to mitigate bias with the help of technology tools.

New apps are helping to eliminate and filter the blindspots in the communications and decision-making that go into recruitment, hiring and promotion.

If You Can’t Stop it, Mitigate It

Diversity training helps individuals to become aware of their own bias, but unconscious bias, by definition, often evades our awareness to blindly drive our decisions. It can’t necessarily be trained away.

As Tony Greenwald, a University of Washington psychology professor who conducted seminal research on unconscious bias said, “Understanding implicit bias does not actually provide you the tools to do something about it.”

While increasing awareness of unconscious bias can enable individuals to be a bit more conscious of their own thought patterns and actions, it can also make bias socially normalized, which can backfire by condoning stereotyping.

We’re all doing it, right? If everybody is guilty, then is anyone?

One place where bias famously runs riot is in Silicon Valley. As Vivian Giang in Fast Company writes, “the percentage of underrepresented minorities is so low, (Silicon Valley) employers shouldn’t trust their own judgment anymore.”

But the dearth of diversity in tech town has recently catalyzed a booming counter-effect in app development.

As Ellen Huet writes in Forbes, unconscious bias has become the newest target in Silicon Valley and “demand for bias-busting solutions, in the form of consulting firms and anti-bias hiring software, has shot through the roof.”

Want Diversity? Watch Your Language

Something as seemingly innocuous as a job listing can bring bias into the hiring process through turning some candidates on and others away.

For example, research has shown that women are more drawn to/less threatened by companies that emphasize growth and development rather than boasting they hire the most awesome talent.

Two examples of companies who get the power and influence of words in the hiring process are Textio and Unitive, both of which have created software that tackle workplace bias in hiring and recruiting in “real time”.

Co-founder and CEO of Textio, Kieran Snyder, is a PhD in linguistics, who also researches gender bias in office dynamics. According to Textio, “the future of writing is knowing how well your words will work before anyone else reads them.”

Textio Talent, which has been used by companies like Twitter, Microsoft, Starbucks and Square, is “like a very smart word processor” that helps to predict how your documents, such as job listings and candidate e-mails, will perform.

As you write, the software highlights phrases, calls out their potential impact, and suggests alternative choices to appeal to a wider range of job seekers.

Textio has found that “proven track record” means more men will apply, “passion for learning” will attract more women, “mentoring” is generally more attractive than “coaching”, and “high performer” is more widely appealing than “rock star.”

There’s even an attraction difference between “manage a team” (more male) versus “develop a team” (more female). The tool also highlights when you’re just talking corporate jargon such as “synergy,” which makes listings less popular.

Snyder told Fast Company, “Everybody hates that language, but underrepresented people hate it more, probably because it’s a cultural signifier of some kind. It sort of communicates, this is an old-boy’s network kind of company.”

Take The Bias Out of Resumes & Interviews

Research that has shown that applicants with names that sound African-American have a 14% lower call-back rate. When it comes to tackling bias in hiring, developers are also focusing in on the resume and interview process.

Unitive has created an app that helps with creating word-optimized job postings, as well as resume reviewing and interview structuring, helping hiring managers monitor their decision-making and mitigate the effect of bias throughout.

The technology requires hiring managers to first “pre-commit” to what they most wish to see from an applicant, and presents resumes stripped of bias-triggering details like name and gender. Through the resume and interview process, the app reminds the manager of the key pre-committed criteria they choose.

In Fortune, Unitive Founder and CEO Laura Mather explains, ”We found a way to operationalize psychological findings so that hiring managers avoid bias as much as possible,” explains Mather.

It’s as much as about efficient hiring, and efficient hiring lends itself to more diversity. According to NPR, when cybersecurity firm RedSeal wanted to expand its employee base to increase women and minority representation, the CEO brought in Unitive to help filter out bias.

As a result, the firm received 30% more job applications, and the percentage of female engineers doubled. The candidate pool both increased and diversified. The technology helped to move away from “culture-fit”, breaking the mold on who fits into the company.

Unitive Founder and CEO Laura Mather told NPR that research shows “getting in different perspectives into your company makes your company more innovative, more profitable, more productive.” Mather said, ”All kinds of really great things happen when you stop making decisions based on how much you like the person’s personality.”

The Blind Audition

Another firm, GapJumpers helps remove bias from the hiring process for tech talent through blind auditions, just as blind auditions cracked the orchestra world open for female musicians. Candidates are given a challenge related to the job, rather than submitting a resume, which gives clues to gender and race. Not only is the process less biased, it allows those hiring to see how a candidate delivers.

Blendoor is just one other example of a new app which connects candidates and recruiters with faceless and nameless profiles, with a Tinder-like interface.

Nicki Gilmour, Founder of theglasshammer and organizational psychologist emphasizes that new technology is a valuable part of the equation in addressing unconscious bias. ”Like any behavioral change project, but especially anything to do with habits, assumptions and stereotypes, many parts of the system need to support the change structurally, to make individual change easier.”

”I also feel executive coaching is important as assumptions can be part of the cultural wallpaper and engrained,” Gilmour commented. “When they are interwoven with individual value sets that might be traditional to start with, making the unconscious conscious is only the beginning of this work.”

If You Talk the Talk, Try the Technology

More and more start-ups are entering the space of developing the technology that filters bias out of hiring efficiency and diversity, and current players have plans to expand beyond hiring to addressing promotions and reviews.

As the “how”’ of diversity becomes increasingly demystified and tangible, companies have a chance to do with unconscious bias what they would do with any inhibiting factor to their business: bring in the tools to address it.