Unconscious Bias in Hiring? There’s a Connector for That


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This guest post was provided by one of our customers, Baltimore Corps, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization seeking to connect talented individuals with local organizations to ultimately work toward effecting positive social change in Baltimore.

Billy Daly, Guest Contributor

In December, Baltimore Corps had the privilege of being featured in one of FormAssembly’s case studies, discussing a number of ways in which we use FormAssembly’s core features to scale our impact as an organization. Part of the case study focused on our use of FormAssembly to improve the efficiency and equity of our application and review process. While that piece was able to highlight many of the benefits afforded by FormAssembly’s amazing features, we wanted to use this guest post to dive a little bit deeper into the history and motivation behind the redesign of our application, and the integral role that FormAssembly has played in that process. As an organization committed to disrupting institutional racism within Baltimore, in order to truly execute on our mission, we wanted to make sure that the entire pipeline, from the initial of information to the placement of Fellows, reflected our values.
In the past three years we have seen the volume of applications increase dramatically, from roughly 100 in our first application cycle to 600 in our third. While this growth has been incredible, it has placed some additional burden on our staff to ensure the integrity of the application process. There are lots of ways that we could have chosen to manage that flow of applications efficiently, from filtering out resumes, to decreasing the number of reviews per application, but we were also committed to raising the bar on what it means to conduct a fair and broadly accessible application process. In order to manage to both of these goals, we had to ask three main questions:

  1. What are the traditional pitfalls that hiring managers encounter when reviewing job applications?
  2. What do researchers recommend changing about the process to address those biases?
  3. How can we implement these changes without placing an undue burden on our team or our partner institutions?

The 6-Second Skim

It doesn’t take much research to identify some potential challenges with the traditional application process. One study showed that the average amount of time spent looking at an applicant’s resume was just 6 seconds, with the majority of a reviewer’s attention paid to an applicant’s name, job title, and education. In addition to the difficulty of developing a full picture of any candidate in just 6 seconds, there are some proven challenges with focusing on things like an applicant’s name, title, and education within that time frame.
For example, a seminal study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that resumes labeled with names that were more common among white individuals (according to the US Census Bureau) received approximately 50 percent more callbacks than identical resumes labeled with names that were more common among black individuals. A similar study found that a group of psychologists asked to review a set of identical resumes were not only more likely to recommend candidates with a name typically gendered as male for tenure, but also rated those candidates higher on a number of performance criteria than they did “female” candidates with the same resume. These biases, while largely unintentional, cement the historic disadvantages faced by applicants of color and women during the hiring process making it incredibly difficult to disrupt the systems that perpetuate them.

Addressing Bias

Many of these challenges stem from a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as attribution substitution, in which individuals faced with a difficult question subconsciously replace that question with an easier one. “Is this person qualified for the job?” is a much harder question to answer than “Does their previous job title sound like the position I am hiring for?” and as a result hiring managers often use their response to the second question as a way of answering the former. While sometimes these substitutions can be quite helpful or even necessary, they often (as in the cases mentioned above) have unintended and harmful consequences.
Many of the recommended techniques we encountered for addressing bias in the application and hiring process followed three basic approaches:

  1. Wherever possible, simplify the questions that reviewers have to answer
  2. When the questions can’t be simplified any further, remove any extraneous information that can be used as a substitution for these harder questions
  3. Analyzing the resulting answers for trends to identify where and how bias persists in the process

For example, a famous study of orchestras in the 1970s and 1980s found those with a blind audition process were 50 percent more likely to advance women to the final round and witnessed an overall increase in the number of female musicians auditioning. In addition to removing identifying information from the review process, Iris Bohnet and researchers at ERE Media also recommend introducing more structure and clarity in order to further limit the opportunities for substitution or bias. Some specific techniques they suggest include breaking down an applicant’s overall qualification into a set of simpler and more specific criteria, then evaluating all of the applicants against each criterium before selecting the final pool, rather than making a decision on a candidate in a single review.

Efficiency and Equity

Despite its numerous challenges, taking just 6 seconds to review someone’s job title and education before coming to a final decision about them enjoys one distinct advantage over the intentional solutions proposed above: speed. Implementing the recommendations above, simply put, takes more time; and with less than 20 full-time staff and an application pool that has grown 500 percent since our first cohort, we had to save every second possible. In order to do so without sacrificing the integrity or fairness of our reviews, we needed a miracle, or at least a tool, to help us balance efficiency with equity in pursuit of a rigorous application process. We got both in the form of FormAssembly.
Our decision to leverage FormAssembly’s platform stemmed from a few central goals we identified in revising our application process based on the research above:

  • Each section of the application should receive at least two independent reviews
  • Each review should only include information relevant to the particular section of the application under evaluation
  • Evaluations should be guided by a specific set of criteria and the results should be checked for unintended trends or bias
  • The final decision on an application should be made only after combining the evaluations from all of its individual sections

What You See Is (Not) What You Get

While many digital applications are only a slight variation on their paper counterparts, the goals we outlined made it very clear we needed a different solution altogether. If we were going to have reviewers focus on evaluating one section of application at a time and do so without the distraction of irrelevant information, we couldn’t simply ask candidates to upload their cover letters and resumes and have our staff hunt through Salesforce to download and review them. This is where the simplicity and flexibility of the Form Builder combined with the power of FormAssembly’s Salesforce connectors really came in handy.
Through a simple drag-and-drop interface, we have been able to curate a unique user experience for our applicants and our reviewers, while simultaneously storing their responses in our Salesforce database in a way that made the most sense for reporting and analysis. By using the Salesforce Connector to push data to Salesforce each time a form is submitted and the Prefill Connector to retrieve the data each time a new form is loaded, we are able simulate a simplified Model-View-Controller (MVC) system with nothing more than a few forms and some clever use of the redirect logic on each form’s notifications page. The result, while no Facebook or Instagram, is something akin to an application portal that anyone with a robust knowledge of FormAssembly’s standard features can edit, maintain, and duplicate.
More importantly, however, this allows us to collect all of the information we needed from applicants up front, then selectively choose which content is available to reviewers at each stage in their evaluation. While this change in format does slow down the application process a bit for those applying (Let’s face it, it’s about as easy to simply upload a resume as it is to skim through one.) our new portal-like interface affords its own set of benefits. At the expense of a little more time, our application process allowed applicants to connect their skills and accomplishments listed elsewhere on a resume directly to the experiences in which they were developed and achieved. Moreover, while a resume is a static format that doesn’t adapt to the ultimate positions our candidates are asking to be considered, storing these experiences and skills individually within our system enables our recruiters to instantly construct a “resume” tailored to each job description. Paired with highlights from our review process, this not only provides a much more comprehensive picture of each applicant to a potential employer, but also enables us to make a much stronger case for who might traditionally be overlooked for a position based on an initial screening of resumes and cover letters.

Re-Usability Without Sacrificing Usability

While these changes afforded numerous gains in time and flexibility for end users, at first they seemed simply to shift the time costs associated with the process from its engagement to its design. When every new section or stage required a distinct set of forms with its own conditional redirect logic, the amount of time required to develop and support those forms grew exponentially. That’s where the ability to add custom code and calculated fields to our forms really came in handy. Because many of our processes consisted of displaying a list of options (a list of experiences, a queue of reviews, a summary of profile sections) that conditionally redirect to the details for each item in that list, we realized that the same pair of template forms could be repurposed for most of these use cases. By simply converting the list form into a “landing page” and introducing some field calculations and JavaScript that hyperlink users to a conditionally prefilled version of the details page, were able to reuse the same basic form for several unique functions throughout the process.
In addition to shaving off critical time from the design, construction, and maintenance of our application and review forms, the template approach has introduced new possibilities further downstream in the process, including a cleaner and more standardized way of displaying candidate profiles to our potential employers. While switching to FormAssembly began as a tactical decision to save us some headaches as we migrated away from resumes, it has provided a huge strategic advantage as well allowing us to expand the integrity and fairness of our process throughout the application cycle.
To see our unique approach to the application process and use of FormAssembly first-hand, consider applying for a Baltimore Corps Fellowship here.
Learn more about how FormAssembly helps nonprofit organizations here.
Author Bio
Billy Daly is the Systems Design Manager for Baltimore Corps, a young nonprofit connecting talent to opportunity in the city’s social impact sector. Baltimore Corps’ mission is to disrupt institutional racism in the city by building pipelines of talent and resources to promote its most promising social innovations. One of these pipelines is the Baltimore Corps Fellowship, a rigorous year-long program through which Fellows receive full-time paid employment and professional development around equity and effectiveness in their role.

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