Blind recruitment: How the ABS broke its unconscious bias

To hire or not? Name, gender and other identifying details could influence employers with unconscious bias. Source: Getty Images

Research shows that unconscious bias is common when it comes to hiring practices. So the Australian Bureau of Statistics decided to overhaul its recruitment process, concealing some of the applicants' details from the selection panel. The results were revealing.

Samantha Palmer from the Australian Bureau of Statistics says the organisation was dissatisfied with the number of women in senior roles.

"Our level of gender equality in our agency was well behind where it should be. In our senior executive service we only had 21 per cent of our most senior officers who were female," said Ms Palmer.

So they decided to change the recruitment process.

The Bureau advertised 19 senior roles.

It then concealed from recruiters the names, genders and other identifying details of the hundreds of applicants.

The organisation also emphasised family-friendly aspects of the jobs, offering flexible hours and options to work from home.

In the end, 15 of the successful applicants were women.

Samantha Palmer says this was a doubling of the number of female bosses in just a few months.

"We did some training right across our panels and our management on unconscious bias, to make sure that as we went into the recruitment process that we weren't bringing in those barriers and bias that were perhaps stopping women from getting into those more senior positions and also our management positions in the organisation." said Palmer.

Verity Longley was employed as part of what the ABS called its "blind recruitment round".

She had no idea her personal details were being concealed from the selection panel.

"The whole entire process was exactly the same for me as any other process that I've ever applied for. I didn't find out that that's how they actually went through the recruitment [process] until I actually joined the ABS, so when I found out that I my application was truly on merit -- that they didn't look at gender, my age, etc -  it was really empowering," said Ms Longley.

According to an Australian National University study published in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics in 2012, employers can be biased toward names too.

As part of that study, more than 4,000 fictional applications for entry level jobs in Australia were submitted.

Common names associated with five different ethnic groups were tested against anglo-celtic names.

It found that people with names linked to particular ethnicities needed to apply for more roles before getting an interview.

An Indigenous Australian person had to submit 35 per cent more applications.

A person with a Chinese name had to submit 68 per cent more, an applicant with an Italian name 12 per cent more and a person with a Middle Eastern name - 64 per cent more.

CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia, Lisa Annese says the ABS's move proves that unconscious bias can be damaging to both job-seekers and business.

"Not getting through the first barrier can be devastating for an individual because if you're highly qualified what else can you do, really? I mean, some people actually anglicise their name, so that's a problem because it means that individuals are not actually making it through, but for business they're missing out on an awful lot of talent and potentially they're missing out the best person for the job."

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