Can we avoid bias in hiring practices?


Good analysis of some of the weaknesses in the Treasury Board and selected departments piloting of masking applicant names to remove hiring bias.

That being said, federal government representation of visible minorities, at 15.9 percent (2016 Census public administration less Canadian Forces, a number slightly higher than the most recent federal employment equity data), is relatively close to the percentage who are also Canadian citizens (17.2 percent, 2016 Census):

Ottawa’s Name-Blind Recruitment Pilot Project was launched in April 2017 to explore whether masking applicants’ names would remove bias in the hiring process for the federal public service. There was a lot to praise in this initiative of the Public Service Commission (PSC). Previous research, including some of our own, has shown that recruiters often react to the name on a resumé, independently of other factors such as education and experience. Our most recent publication (in the March issue of Canadian Public Policy) suggests that much of this discrimination is unconscious and unintentional, so employers actually could benefit from better hires by taking relatively straightforward steps to remove names during the initial stages of the selection process.

One similar and important example is the case of musicians auditioning for positions in popular orchestras in the United States. Traditionally orchestras have been male dominated, and criticized for discriminating against women. Researchers showed convincingly that orchestras that held auditions with the applicants performing behind a screen began to hire more women. Given that auditions are an effective means to observe productivity (music quality), the fact that more women were hired under this method suggests that orchestras previously were missing out on better musicians when gender was known. Most orchestras now audition using screens, showing a desire to avoid discrimination and make better hires. It’s a classic case of win-win-win: a win for women musicians getting more equal opportunity, a win for orchestras tapping a larger talent pool and a win for audiences enjoying better music.

However, the PSC’s hiring bias experiment has yet to yield such positive results. When the project report was released in January 2018, it appeared to show there was in fact “no bias” in federal public service hiring in the first place. This led Treasury Board President Scott Brison to write, “The project did not uncover bias.” National media disseminated this story. The CBC, for example, ran with the headline “No Sign of Bias against Government Job-Seekers with Ethnic-Sounding Names, Pilot Project Finds.” The article states that hiding ethnic-sounding names on resumés was found to have “no real bearing on who’s picked from the pile of applications.”

Unfortunately, this version of the results significantly misrepresents the actual findings of the pilot project. A careful reading of the report indicates that the pilot project was not really designed as a test of discrimination, and the report clearly acknowledged this fact.

The design of the pilot project included two features that would undermine its relevance in assessing the broader use of name-blind hiring. First, the project relied on departments within PSC that volunteered to take part, and within those, job openings were considered for inclusion as they arose; both features introduce a non-random element that undermines the value of the results. Second, and more important, all hiring managers in the project made their decisions knowing that they would be subject to review. For the managers using the traditional method, the awareness that their decisions would be scrutinized and compared with results from name-blind hiring made them more likely to be conscious of bias, and therefore more likely to alter their hiring decisions accordingly.

The procedure in the PSC pilot removed more than the applicant’s name; it also took out all other potentially identifying information — information that might have been useful in assessing the resumé. This was likely why anonymized applications in the pilot were less likely to lead to call-backs.

The report points out that a different study approach used to measure bias, called audit methodology, would have lessened the effect of managers’ awareness of being in a comparative study. Our own study used the audit methodology, in which employers are selected at random and are sent computer-generated resumés for assessment without advance notification. Such a procedure has been employed many times, in a number of countries.

Of course, it’s possible that discrimination against applicants with ethnic-sounding names doesn’t exist in the federal public service. For name-blinding to influence hiring decisions, there must be a problem to begin with. As the report mentions, the PSC is already taking steps to help ensure that the federal government is practising unbiased hiring, and it outlines several important initiatives.

Our research found that bias varies considerably among organizations. We’ve shown in data from Toronto and Montreal that large organizations with over 500 employees practise discrimination against applicants with Asian names about half as often as smaller organizations. This difference may well arise from a tendency for large organizations to have more policies in place to help avoid discriminatory behaviour. The potential benefits from name-blinding may be minimal for the federal government if it is already doing a good job minimizing bias.

However, to conclude that there is no bias in hiring within the federal public service on the basis of the January report — which clearly indicates that the pilot project was not designed to test bias effectively — may move efforts to promote fairness backward rather than forward. There is still a need to follow through on the good intentions that seemed to motivate the name-blind hiring pilot when it was first announced. Ideally, a study on the impact of name-blinding would first identify an organization where clear discrimination occurs, as shown through an audit, and then explore how name-blinding affects the chances of applicants getting an interview, and ultimately getting hired. Tellingly, the report suggested an audit study as a good next step “to improve the understanding of any potential bias during selection of candidates.” In fact, any organization, including the federal public service, that wishes to consider name-blind recruitment as a way to broaden its talent pool would be well-advised to consider an audit as a first step to test for bias.

It can be quite challenging to design an effective name-blind hiring procedure. The procedure in the PSC pilot removed more than just the applicant’s name; it also took out all other potentially identifying information — information that might have been useful in assessing the resumé. This was most likely the reason that anonymized applications in the pilot were less likely to lead to call-backs than traditional applications. One option would be to remove only the name, or only a very limited amount of other information in the resumés that might give away the visible minority status of the applicant. An automated tool for reviewing submitted resumés might be developed to facilitate this approach.

It’s critical that the desire of an organization to burnish its public image not stand in the way of ensuring a fair and equitable process of finding the best candidates for available jobs. It may feel great to say, “We didn’t uncover any bias.” But if bias does exist, it’s better to be able to say, “We found bias and we’ve taken meaningful steps to eliminate it.”

Source: Can we avoid bias in hiring practices?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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