October 29, 2019

Better hiring by design

A guest post by Lois Margaret Nora, MD, JD, MBA

Since completing a fellowship with the Kellogg National Leadership Program, I have been a student of leadership.  I learn in a variety of ways, including usually having one or more books and articles on the subject on my active-reading list.  Good leadership is too important to leave to chance, and all of us who are blessed to hold leadership positions at any level should strive to always be improving our skills. 

On occasion, my learning affirms that I’ve done leadership “right” (or at least what a particular leadership expert considers right).  Then, there are the other times – when my studies convince me that what I have done, however well intentioned, has missed the mark. Sometimes dramatically so. 

I had the latter experience when I read Iris Bohnet’s excellent, highly readable book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, an evidence-based examination of unconscious bias in the workplace and how behavioral design solutions can help mitigate it.  The techniques Bohnet outlines serve not only to improve our workplaces by increasing diversity, but they also can help improve the overall quality of the processes we have in place to hire, evaluate, retain and grow the people who make up our organizations.

Bohnet’s book examines many aspects of workplace life, but I am going to focus on just one: the hiring process.  In my fields of medicine and higher education, faculty and senior administrative hires do not happen that often, and the hiring process is lengthy and costly. Faculty members and senior administrators have an important influence on institutional culture and tone, and their presence may be felt for decades.  All the more reason to ensure searches are thorough, rigorous and fair to all applicants – and designed in such a way that they end with the right candidate in the job. 

I’ll give you the punchline now: some of what we do – some of what I have done – to identify the “best” among job candidates is misguided and actually contrary to what we are trying to achieve.  Fortunately, there are ways we can design our hiring processes to mitigate bias and maximize the likelihood that we will zero in on the best choice.

Building a better system

We all want to make hires that are successful for the institution and the individual hired.   As Sharon Hull has written, the most effective leaders build systems to bring goals to fruition, and building a better hiring system is a perfect example.  Here are some design ideas to help improve hiring systems in ways that can not only increase the diversity of our institutions but also increase the likelihood that we are hiring the right person.

Be explicit about the potential for bias

Throughout my career, I have participated in, chaired and charged searches that have used processes that I would describe as thorough, rigorous and fair.  Bohnet’s book opened my eyes to ways my “best” practices likely fed into unconscious bias.  However much we may wish it to be different, all of us have unconscious biases that influence how we see the world. 

So, a first step is to be explicit about the potential for unconscious bias as searches begin.  Educating people in a non-judgmental manner about the reality of unconscious bias — why it occurs and how it can get in the way of selecting the best candidate — is an important step. 

Give people permission to talk about the issue and tools to examine and begin to understand their own perceptions.  And then help them recognize that no matter how aware of our biases we are — because as the book suggests, awareness is not enough — they can still influence our perceptions and behaviors when hiring. Unless we build a system that enables us to hire differently.  

Remove identifying information from hiring materials

Bohnet notes that the number of women musicians admitted into orchestras increased dramatically when blind auditions — which take place behind a screen — became the norm.  And while many of us might want to see photos of job applicants, research demonstrates that photos trigger unconscious bias and lead people to focus on the image and the relationship they expect to form with a candidate, rather than whether an individual has the right characteristics and experience for the position.  

Similarly, people involved with hiring are likely to gravitate toward names that feel more like their own or that conform to their expectations.  Consider a simulation cited by Bohnet involving identical resumes for two people, one named Howard and one named Heidi.  In the simulation, business students were more likely to rate Howard as likable and someone they wanted to work with. 

Removing photos and names from the candidates’ materials keeps the focus on their qualifications and enables comparative evaluation of candidates against job criteria, rather than internalized expectations.

Interviews should be structured, consistent and conducted 1:1

Many of us have felt that “instant connection” with a candidate and enjoyed a wide-ranging open interview experience covering topics of mutual interest that go well beyond the job.  However, Bohnet points out that the more we rely on intuition and connection to guide interviews and our assessment of candidates, the more room we leave for bias and error to creep in.  She argues for a highly structured approach. Predetermined questions should be asked in the same order each time, with no variation. And candidates should be scored in a blinded, systematic fashion as soon as possible after the interviews, with scoring focused on one question at a time across all candidates. 

Interviews should also be conducted 1:1. From my perspective, this was the most surprising of Bohnet’s recommendations.  I have long used group interviews as a means to expose a candidate to a wider group of people within the organization during the interview process and also to engage more colleagues in the hiring process.  While these are not bad goals, group interviews can have a darker side.  One or a few individuals may dominate the questioning or unduly influence the evaluation process. 

Group hiring rather than sequential hiring

Evidence shows that hiring multiple candidates at one time is more likely to result in overall diversity than hiring candidates one at a time, over time.  Hiring for multiple positions at the same time also facilitates comparative evaluations of candidates against job criteria, which Bohnet notes is important for ensuring our hires are driven by candidate qualifications, and not the ways in which they conform to our expectations.

In academia and in medicine, strategic plans often envision multiple hires over an extended period of years.  If I want to try to group these hires, I might consider whether the time period can be shortened.  Or could we hire groups of people with staggered start dates?  For example, if I expect to hire six faculty members over the next three years, is it possible to hire four to six of them at one time with staggered start dates?  For clinical faculty, I could hire two physicians to start immediately,  two physicians in fellowship to start in 18 months, and two senior residents who will be ready after fellowship.  For nonclinical positions, hiring new PhDs about to begin their post-docs along with several who are ready to start immediately might be another way of hiring in a group.

Rely on data, not intuition, to validate your system

Systems building is not done when the new framework is in place.  It takes time and effort to remake our hiring systems, and no doubt some of the interventions will need optimization.  And so, institutions must measure the effects of changes in their hiring processes and continue to adjust them to ensure the goals are being met.

Leadership is all about our own continuous improvement

One of the more interesting messages of Bohnet’s book is the notion that even when we think we are doing everything right, we sometimes aren’t.  This can be hard to hear and sobering to recognize.  Throughout my career, I have paid tremendous attention to who was hired into my organizations, and I believe a great deal of my success has come from the hires I made.  And yet, what I see now is that in some ways I did it wrong, probably missing opportunities to learn, grow and further improve my organizations as a result.

Fortunately, growth and change are always possible, as long as we are open to learning.  If we are to mitigate unconscious bias and hire the right person for the job, we must question what we do, look at the data and be unafraid to shake up our systems and build new ones.  Bohnet offers us an evidence-based framework for doing just that.

How have you addressed hiring in your organization?

Please share your experience in the comments, as well as any thoughts on this book if you know of it.

Last updated October 29, 2019

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