Keeping the recruitment process free from unconscious bias is almost impossible. One of the few practical solutions to limiting its impact is blind hiring — a variation on your typical recruitment process that scrubs certain personal information from CVs and application forms.

The idea behind blind recruitment is that candidates will be judged only on their merit rather than their background, gender or age.

Generally only large businesses undertake blind hiring, but it's also been gaining interest from SMEs.

In this article, we're going to be taking a look at how blind recruitment works in practice, as well as considering why you might want to try it at your small business.

The Problem

Recruitment processes are normally biased. Those biases are normally unconscious — we don't even realise we're not being fair.

Over and over, studies have shown that candidates with certain characteristics don't proceed as far in the hiring process as other candidates with similar skills and experience.

This has been the case for women auditioning for orchestras, women applying for lab roles at universities, and candidates with 'ethnic-sounding' names.

These biases compound diversity problems at businesses. If you're not convinced that there are direct benefits to having a diverse workplace, then think of it this way:

How can you be sure that you're hiring the best candidates if you hold unconscious biases?

The answer is simple: you can't.

We've written a complete guide to reducing unconscious bias during recruitment, but in this article we'll focus on one of the more practical solutions for small businesses: blind recruitment.

The Solution?

Blind recruitment aims to remove many of the factors that trigger our biases.

Most obviously, removing names from CVs and applications (aka anonymous or name-blind CVs), makes it significantly more difficult to work out the candidate's gender or ethnicity, or even their age.

This is the simplest form of blind recruitment, but there's a glaring problem: there are many others markers of age, gender and ethnicity on a candidate's application. These include:

  • Email address (joe.bloggs1986@gmail.com reveals gender and age, for example)
  • Education dates (most of us start and finish high school/college/university at certain ages)
  • Education/experience locations (can imply ethnicity, and gender in the case of single-sex schools)
  • Duration of experience (if an employee has 20 years of experience listed, they can't be younger than 35)
  • Language skills
  • Experience and interests with significant gender skews (we might assume that someone who lists baking as a hobby is female, or someone that worked in construction is male)
  • Phone numbers (may include country codes or area codes)

If you remove most of these markers from an application form, there won't be much left!

Ideally you'll be left with a clear picture of a candidate's experience and most of their skills, without being able to work out their personal characteristics.

How to Anonymise Applications

The easiest way to anonymise applications is to use recruitment software that does all the work for you. Many of the popular applicant tracking software packages have this feature. You can also ask a third party (such as someone at your company who isn't involved in the hiring process) to manually remove the information before you add it to your database.

If you want to hide email addresses and phone numbers, ensure you still have a way to contact candidates.

If you don't want a third party to handle these communications for you, taking a mobile number is usually the best approach. Try to contact candidates via SMS in the early stages of the screening process, so that you don't learn about their gender (or other factors) during a phone call.

Maintaining 'Blindness'

Blind CVs are the first step to reducing unconscious bias, but the longer you can maintain the candidates' anonymity, the more likely it is that your hiring process will be fair.

Trying to stay 'blind' usually means that traditional screening doesn't work. A phone interview will reveal gender; a video interview will reveal age.

Instead, look to other methods to narrow the field.

The two most popular anonymous assessment methods are:

Tests and challenges. Set candidates a task to complete that resembles the work they'll be doing in the new role. Have a third party email a link to the task instructions or the test, or send it via SMS — be sure to warn candidates if you're communicating through text.

Use the results of these assessments to decide which candidates should progress to the next stage.

Online chat interviews. Invite the user for an anonymous interview via some form of messaging or chat service. Ask the candidate to choose a username that doesn't give away their name, gender, or age, and use a temporary email address during signup, if necessary.

Ask questions that you'd normally ask during phone interviews, and give the candidate the chance to ask their own questions to the panel as you go along. Many candidates will be wary about chat interviews, and be concerned that they aren't legitimate. Put their mind at rest by providing evidence that you are who you say you are - link to a tweet with your chat handle and a date/timestamp when you first start the chat, for example.

The final stage

When you're down to the final few candidates, you're ready for in-person interviews. Although candiates will no longer remain anonymous, you can be certain that your shortlist consists of the best candidates who applied for the role.

Proceed with your in-person interviews as usual, and decide on a final candidate in the normal way.

When trialling blind recruitment processes, seek feedback from all involved: candidates and colleagues alike.

Where Blind Recruitment Falls Short

Blind recruitment isn't always the best solution.

There are ways in which blind recruitment doesn't work.

  • It doesn't give candidates the chance to explain CV gaps or add context to their career decisions
  • Failing to remove a single piece of identifying information undermines the entire process
  • You can't screen candidates on social media the later stages of the recruitment process
  • It does nothing to combat unconscious bias in other areas of the company, such as when offering pay rises or promotions
  • Blind screening processes may not test the most important skills for the job, such as telephone manner or management ability
  • It can be expensive and time-consuming if you don't have software to scrub CVs

Obstacles for Small Businesses

When you're running a busy small business, spending any extra time on fine-tuning recruitment isn't easy to justify. With so many tasks needing your attention, why bother with blind recruitment? In most cases, it's this lack of time that prevents smaller businesses from adopting blind hiring processes.

Given the extra work involved in anonymising recruitment, you could also be met with scepticism from other managers.

"What's the point?"
"Our hiring process is already fair."

...and so on.

These attitudes are difficult to dispel. Instead, we recommend trialling blind recruitment on a small scale, perhaps for a single job vacancy during a quieter time of year.

Start with blind-CVs alone, and map out how you might adjust the rest of your hiring process to extend candidate anonymity into its later stages.

Final Thoughts

Adopting blind hiring methods is tough — not least because it's an admission that recruitment at your business hasn't always been fair.

Blind recruitment isn't the answer to every recruitment problem, but it's a good start to tackling the unconscious bias that we all hold.

We highly recommend testing out blind recruitment at your business, and seeing how it affects both candidate quality and candidate diversity.

Want to do more to tackle unconscious bias? Read our guide to running a fairer hiring process.