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Could blind hiring hold the key to better diversity?

With law firms in general beset with a reputation for being mainly white, led by men and elitist, the question must be asked: how can these firms improve diversity?

Could the answer lie in so-called ‘blind hiring’, describing an approach which aims to overcome unconscious bias and select talent based on skills and abilities by eliminating any influence that may come from other factors, for example, names, gender or university or school they attended.

Law firms have traditionally lacked diversity, and it is true that there are some determined efforts in New Zealand to change that. Firms are recognising the advantages that diversity delivers culturally and economically. It is also an acknowledgement that our biggest city, Auckland, falls into the category of being ‘superdiverse’, making it one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse places on Earth.

Blind hiring anonymises (blinds) candidate specific information from the recruiter or hiring manager that can lead to conscious or unconscious bias, typically name, gender or age.

Before we get to the process of blind hiring, simply put workforce diversity as ‘a no-brainer’. Plenty of research shows it is not only culturally but also financially beneficial. For the most part, it also better reflects the markets you serve and encourages diversity of ideas.

Consulting company McKinsey, for example, has shown for each 10 percent improvement in diversity, a 2-4 percent increase in profits is possible. The most gender diverse public companies outperform the median by 15 percent, and the most ethnically diverse public companies outperform the median by 35 percent. Unsurprisingly this has led to an obvious drive towards diversity in multiple industries.

The first major barrier to meaningful diversity is encountered at the hiring stage. Unconscious bias is a key reason. A landmark study showed that people with ‘ethnic’ sounding names must send out 50 percent more CVs before they get called for interview.

Blind hiring seeks to directly addresses this and there is direct evidence that it works. Look at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra example. Back in the 1970s this was one of the first recorded instances of blind recruitment. The Orchestra had musicians audition behind a screen so the music was all that mattered, and by 1980 saw an almost 50/50 gender mix and far improved ethnic diversity.

That was an early example of success – that model for auditions has now become standard for the world’s leading orchestras – and the improvements aren’t limited to the musical world. When law firm Clifford Chance introduced blind recruiting in its United Kingdom graduate programme in 2013, the results were stark. It is a firm that had a reputation for exclusively recruiting from Oxbridge and the Russell Group of universities. When it took out candidate names and university attended, Clifford Chance took 100 recruits from 41 different institutions.

This represented a 30 percent increase on the number of institutions from the previous intake. An insider at the time observed “[When] looking for gems they are not all in the jewellery shop.”

By eliminating identifying and eliminating criteria that shouldn’t influence candidate selection, this law firm widened its talent pool. The knock-on effect has been that a more diverse range of people have been encouraged to apply, rather than assuming that their background or University might exclude them. It should be noted that some other City firms have followed suit, while others have expressly said it isn’t something they are considering.

If the biggest law firm in the world sees benefits then perhaps it is worth considering here. There is an ever-tightening squeeze on top talent and so widening the pool seems like a good idea, and bringing that diversity of ideas. It is also something clients are asking for with a number of recent tenders requesting information on a firm’s Equal Opportunities and Diversity policies as part of the process.

If you are considering blind hiring then tailor the process for your needs; depending on the role you are hiring, it may be best to be totally blind, or limited to areas where there is an obvious bias. Education and qualifications are important for lawyers, but you could just show grades rather than the institution attended. And exclude things that have no bearing on ability to do the job, such as name, gender, age, sexual orientation, address, or marital status.

Crucially the process must be consistent and robust, and you could test ‘blinded’ factors through an additional written test, problem question or psychometric test. The first step is acknowledging the presence of unconscious bias, which can be uncomfortable to admit it, but we all have this human ‘blind spot’. As life gets faster and busier we are likely relying on those unconscious instincts more than ever to process the information that comes our way every day. Identifying yours means it is no longer a weakness, and it can become a strength.

Finally, if the concept of blind hiring seems too extreme, there are other ways to guard against bias through standardised processes, a wider range of people included in the assessments and interviews, and by allowing enough time to make decisions based on reasoning rather than relying on our non-specific feelings about ‘fit’ and ‘team culture’. Those feelings too often give more prominence to unconscious biases.