Australia tried 3 fixes to take bias out of hiring — here’s what worked

Victoria tested anonymising CVs, targeted advertising and unconscious bias training

On a busy morning in October 2015, Australian policy adviser Daniel Feher got to talking with his Uber driver, Mohamed. A Pakistani immigrant, Mohamed told Feher that he was struggling to find work as an accountant. This, he believed, was down to institutional racism: when Mohamed started submitting CVs with a more conventional, Anglo-Saxon-sounding name attached, he got call-backs for interviews.

“That was the pin-drop moment,” said Feher, principal policy advisor on public sector reform and performance in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC). Feher came up with Recruit Smarter, a program aimed at tackling bias in hiring which makes use of three key components, including anonymising CVs. The project has now been trialled across the state. Here’s what worked, and what didn’t.

How Recruit Smarter was born

After the Uber ride, Feher began researching workplace discrimination and putting together a pitch for upper management at DPC.

“One of the issues at the time was that there were a lot of high-level aspirations in this area, which often don’t translate into concrete outcomes. The idea was to do something that addresses this issue practically,” said Feher, who has worked in the civil service since he was 21 years old.

Just 4.7% of Australia’s 2,490 senior leadership roles are held by people with a non-Anglo-Saxon or -European background, according to 2018 research by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The three prongs of Feher’s Recruit Smarter plan were that participating workplaces strip CVs of identifying characteristics, remove gendered language from job descriptions and institute unconscious bias training for employees.

“There were a lot of high-level aspirations in this area, which often don’t translate into concrete outcomes”

Robin Scott, Victoria’s minister of multicultural affairs, was immediately supportive of the idea — because his wife had faced racism in the workplace firsthand.

“She had also anglicised her name when going for job applications — so the idea of this pitch resonated with him, and helped speed it along,” said Feher.

With high-level endorsement, the project took off. The first priority was ensuring it had a cross-sector approach, so the DPC, in partnership with the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Ethical Leadership, began looking into which companies and organisations were already working to diversify hiring and approached them.

They ended up with 46 partners, from government agencies like Department of Treasury and Finance and the Victorian Police to consultancies, law firms and recruitment agencies.

Selling the program to partners involved underscoring the financial benefits of diversity: one study found that greater executive and board diversity produced 14% higher gross earnings — and 53% higher returns on equity — than those with low levels of diversity.

Trial results

Some organisations tested one approach, while others integrated all three into hiring practices. Initially, the focus was on cultural diversity, said Feher. “But once we started to get partners on board, we recognised that we also needed to focus on women, veterans, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities.”

Those that focused on CV deidentification stripped resumes of identifying characteristics, like name, age, gender and location, before they reached hiring managers.

Prior to deidentifying CVs, the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance was 33% more likely to hire men than women. After removing these identifiers, women were 8% more likely to be hired than men.

VicRoads, the state’s traffic authority, found that removing an applicant’s country of birth led to applicants born overseas having an 8% higher chance of being shortlisted for jobs. The DPC found that those from poorer areas had their chances of being offered a job increase by 9.4%.

Some workplaces revamped how they advertised positions. They focused on removing gendered language — words like “assertive”, “committed”, “self-starter” or “go-getter”, which are traditionally associated with men — and replaced them with words like words like “collaborative”, “compassionate”, “empathetic” and “team-oriented”, which women are more likely to identify with.

“We got a lot of positive feedback from the community: candidates said they were getting interviews and making it further through the process”

They also removed images that primarily featured men, which can deter women from applying.

Employers also targeted advertising to specific groups, like people with disabilities, which overall more than doubled the number of applicants who were willing to state their need for workplace adjustments.

But the DPC found that what works in one sector doesn’t necessarily in another: a law firm did not see significant hiring changes after CV deidentification the way government agencies did, said Feher.

This was found to be true where underrepresented groups make up a small proportion of applicants — in these cases, the strategy should be implemented alongside other interventions, like targeted advertising, the DPC found.

Many of the private sector organisations focused primarily on unconscious bias training — a tactic to tackle discrimination that is widespread across all sectors, but whose effectiveness is disputed.

Feher said that while the training is “not a silver bullet”, “building new knowledge and awareness can have a positive effect”. Recruit Smarter’s findings report an increase in “intentions regarding diversity”, but there’s no telling how this will affect staff behaviour.

Lessons from the trials

The next step is for the Victorian government to look at Recruit Smarter’s findings, and decide which interventions should be put into practice and where. A number of Commonwealth and state departments have already expressed interest in replicating the model.

“We got a lot of positive feedback from the community: candidates said they were managing to get interviews and make it further through the process,” said Feher. “They recognised that government was trying to do something for people from diverse backgrounds.”

The trials revealed several issues that need ironing out prior to implementation, however.

Feher said that stakeholder management was the biggest challenge: keeping track of 46 partner organisations, their progress and the results of their trials was difficult to manage.

“You can’t make ideas like this work without a supportive, collaborative environment”

There were also user experience issues. For example, applicants had a hard time using the CV deidentification website, which asked them to take the time to fill out more answers than traditional application forms.

“They didn’t behave the way we expected them to. They would write in the field boxes ‘See resume’ because they didn’t want to have to repeat the process,” said Feher. “The reality is that people are busy, and you have to cater to that.”

In addition to its encouraging findings, what’s remarkable about Recruit Smarter is that it’s an experimental initiative that was introduced by a young, relatively junior public servant — and embraced by dozens of organisations both within and outside the civil service.

Feher, who won the DPC Secretary’s award for excellence for Recruit Smarter, chalks it up to managers who were open and willing to take risks in the name of innovation.

“Fortunately, there was a work culture of recognising that innovation in policy needs creative thinking,” said Feher. “You can’t make ideas like this work without a supportive, collaborative environment.” —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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