6 methods for reducing bias in candidate sourcing and screening

Over the last several years, an increasing number of companies have pledged to hire a more diverse workforce and begun releasing their diversity numbers annually. The results have been a mixed bag at best.

With so many organizations saying that diversity hiring is among their top goals and making good-faith efforts to revamp their recruiting practices accordingly, our team wanted to better understand why the results have fallen short. What we found surprised us: Subconscious bias tends to have the strongest impact on historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the early stages of the interview process.

For example, the data revealed that while white candidates see higher passthrough rates at the very top of the funnel, Black and Hispanic/Latinx talent see higher passthrough rates across the remaining funnel stages: 62% of Black talent and 57% of Hispanic/Latinx talent are extended offers after on-sites, compared to just 54% of white talent.

This suggests that diversity is most often an issue in earlier stages of the interview process, driven at least in part by subconscious bias. Candidates from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups have to work harder to prove themselves than their white counterparts, despite seeing higher offer rates at later stages of the interview process.

Whenever you open a new role, start by asking the question: How do we ensure that our selection is based solely on criteria that’s relevant to the role?

To help address this issue, I’m sharing six strategies that recruiting teams can use to reduce bias in the early phases of the recruiting process, when candidates are both entering and progressing through interviews.

Rethink the criteria for your open roles

Research has found that many things people list on their LinkedIn profile or résumé have very little, if any, correlation with their future work performance.

For example, requiring or being predisposed to four-year degrees from certain institutions biases you toward privilege. Screening for leadership experience can also be racially biased, due to lower representation of non-white people at the executive level.

To avoid this, whenever you open a new role, start by asking the question: How do we ensure that our selection is based solely on criteria that’s relevant to the role?

From there, clarify which competencies and qualifications are absolutely necessary to success in the role, and rather than focusing on the candidate’s experience, education, or — if they’re early in their careers — GPAs, ask yourself what about their history suggests problem-solving skills, cognitive ability and a growth mindset.

Limit access to information that could cause bias

One of the best ways to reduce bias is to strip out details from the sourcing process that could invite it in the first place so that sourcers are solely focused on a candidate’s skills and previous work experience. Some details that can lead to bias include the candidates’ name, age, address, photo, and previous titles and companies.

There are a number of tools that help facilitate this kind of “blind hiring” by anonymizing applications and removing demographic information. LinkedIn offers a “Hide Candidate Names and Photos” feature so that sourcers can evaluate candidates based only on their skill sets, rather than on their appearance. Similarly, Unbias.io is a Chrome extension that removes names and photos, while Pinpoint and Blendoor strip all demographic information from CVs.

Fortunately, even if you don’t have the budget for new software, there are workarounds. You can export candidate information into an Excel sheet and hide columns that contain names and other data that can incur bias. Or you can simply ask candidates to strip out personal information from their résumé or assign a team member to anonymize them.

Make subconscious bias training a mandatory part of sourcer onboarding

An increasing number of companies are deploying subconscious bias training for their entire organizations, but it’s especially critical for anyone in an outbound recruiting function whose job is to help fill the top of your hiring funnel.

Proactive sourcing is the most important tool at your disposal to influence the diversity of talent you bring into your process, so the chances are high that a sourcing team that’s unaware of its own biases will result in a homogenous funnel.

Organizations like Paradigm and Catalyst are well-known for their company-wide subconscious bias training, but there are also plenty of free or low-cost resources out there — LinkedIn has a few, and so do others.

Ensure there’s diversity in your own team

Including diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives throughout your hiring process is essential to limiting bias. This is especially true for the sourcing team, and, if applicable, the team reviewing résumés and conducting phone screens.

It’s possible to do this with smaller teams by rotating people out weekly or monthly from across your organization, so that one person’s bias isn’t inhibiting the diversity in your pool.

Consider eliminating résumés altogether

If all of that advice has you questioning the point of résumés entirely, you’re not alone.

More and more organizations are experimenting with doing away with résumés completely and replacing them with skills testing, which can help ensure that more members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups pass the hardest obstacle — making it into your hiring funnel in the first place.

Skills testing might include giving candidates a problem or a challenge to solve, or asking them to describe a project they recently completed. These kinds of questions could be built into a pre-screen — candidates send in their answers to the challenge or a sample of their work rather than a resume — or a phone screen.

Ensure your screening questions and scorecards are standardized

Standardized questions and scorecards are one of the best ways to mitigate bias in the screening process, whether that’s for phone screens or to evaluate the skills assessments described above.

Your team should understand what “unsuccessful,” “acceptable,” and “excellent” pre-screen assignments look like. Every candidate should be asked the same set of questions during the initial phone call so that a candidate’s ability to connect with a sourcer, and even his or her voice or tone, doesn’t influence the outcome.

You should also regularly examine the reasons your team disqualifies candidates at the pre-screen or phone screen stage, and eliminate the use of vague rationale like “not a good fit.” There are solutions that will let you track where members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are dropping out of the hiring process or being disproportionately rejected.

If, for example, you see more top-of-funnel drop-off from Black candidates than white ones, it’s an indication that you might be dealing with some bias in your sourcing process.

When it comes to diversity hiring, the more data you have access to, the better. If indeed your primary challenge is subconscious bias at the initial screen and pre-screening stages, the tactics listed above can quickly and relatively easily help you to get to the root of the problem, and ensure that the top of your funnel is more equitable.