Articles and Blog


In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Author Gyan Nagpal, author of Talent Economics, writes on the benefits of early screening.

Interviews are ubiquitous. We all use them to hire talent. Yet, they are often not the ideal tool for screening of candidates. Probably the biggest factor in the ineffectiveness of interviews as a filter for top skills, is the massive role predispositions and biases play in candidate selection. Many interviewers confess to making up their mind if the first few minutes, often on vague and fluffy criteria like appearance and personal likeability, which have scant correlations to competence or future performance. Taken together, these predispositions, biases and the nebulous notion of culture fit – which 43 per cent of managers cite as the single most important factor in the hiring decision – are the main reason many deserving candidates don’t get hired. It is also one of the main reasons for the endemic problem of workforce diversity in some industries. We can’t break a self-perpetuating cycle, it seems. Or can we?

The Blind Audition

Through most of the early 1900s, the pinnacle of any classical musician’s ambitions, was a regular spot in a well reputed symphony orchestra. And yet while many women played exceptionally well in the junior ranks, almost the world’s top orchestras, most musicians were male. In fact, before the 1970’s, the top five orchestras in the US were cumulatively 95 per cent male! The sexism in music ran so deep, that two of the most respected conductors of the last century were rumoured to deeply believe that men played better than women at the highest level.
But everything changed when the New York Philharmonic was sued for racial bias by 2 black musicians in 1969. At the time, the philharmonic had 1 black musician out of 106 in the orchestra.
As a direct consequence, in the 1970s and 1980s, many top orchestras started experimenting with blind auditions to avoid similar legal challenges. First tested at the Boston Philharmonic years before, in 1952, blind auditions required musicians to play from behind a curtain or screen, so that music directors and other member of the jury couldn't see them. Curiously, initial tests proved to be a failure because jury members could discern the distinct sound of shoes worn by a man or woman on the wooden stage. The ratios didn’t improve at all.
But once this was addressed by laying down a carpet and asking candidates to remove their shoes when they came on stage to play, the blind audition changed classical music forever.
As Curt Rice, a professor at the University of Tromsø, explains “Even when the screen is only used for the preliminary round, it has a powerful impact; researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50 per cent more likely that a woman will advance to the finals. And the screen has also been demonstrated to be the source of a surge in the number of women being offered positions.”
It isn’t surprising hence, that since the early 1980’s, around half the musicians hired at the New York Philharmonic and one in three at Boston, have been women.

Technology provides the ideal curtain

It is important to note that it might be neigh impossible to make perfect selection a goal. That is because in the end, all decisions are still made by human beings. And their gut. We certainly don’t want Machines and Artificial Intelligence making those decisions for us. At least not yet! But, often our first-round screening of candidates is so poor, a job lottery might just do better.
If you look at current selection processes, the majority of selection errors (rejecting the right or selecting the wrong) occur during the first rounds: when time available per candidate is the least. This early screening, hence is rarely about finding the right candidate, but rather, rejecting outliers. This is also where the battle is often lost, because in the absence of any deep understanding of a candidate’s true capability, our preference and prejudice rule the roost. Research has shown that inconsequential criteria like a person’s name, or their leisure activities have significantly skewed call-back decisions.
One of the best ways to avoid recruiter bias and other forms of passive discrimination is to embrace technology enabled blind auditions.
A great example is GapJumpers, who have successfully taken the concept of blind auditions from symphony stages and reality music shows like “The Voice”, and used it to build a powerful early selection tool for hiring managers.
Their job search engine, like most, allows a hiring manager to advertise jobs along with the key skills they need. But there is more. Each job post also includes an online skills or scenario based test, called the “performance audition challenge”. The challenges are designed to test current skills as opposed to past experiences. For example, at the time of writing this, the Guardian newspaper in the UK was looking for an account manager for media solutions. The associated challenge asks candidates to research current issues to design a media plan focused on UK small businesses. Another post for an Art Director in Beirut, asks candidates for illustrations which could be used to sell Volvo cars in the U.A.E. This second challenge, had already received 17 submissions.
Once a challenge is closed, hiring managers just see candidate responses and scores, without any biographical data. Not even a name. Only after the best have been selected, Gapjumpers, bolts on the complete resume.
Gapjumpers, started by two young co-founders, Kedar Iyer and Petar Vujosevic, began because great coders in silicon valley were being overlooked, mainly because they lacked a pedigree college on their resume. With thousands of auditions under their belt, the site now finds that like the music stage, blind auditions can help solve the gender issue in technology firms. Anyone bemoaning the lack of female tech talent, would be shocked to note that 60 per cent of top performers in blind-auditions are women!

Technology can fix diversity hiring

Gapjumpers isn’t the only tool which helps us make better hiring decisions. There are several powerful innovations being built into existing candidate management software, job boards and search engines, which can help improve the entire selection process, from job design, all the way to the offer. For example, Apps like Textio use machine learning to audit job posts and recommend an ideal hiring fit. Or Entello, which uses algorithms, as opposed to a recruiter’s predispositions to rate and rank the best candidates against the specific skills needed in a job.
The tools are mushrooming all around us. What we now need is the genuine desire for true diversity. Come to think of it, being blind is liberating.

This article first appeared in The Global Recruiter magazine.