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Ask Dr Paola: algorithms and biases in recruitment

Dr Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioural scientist and senior research fellow for Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses how law firms and legal service firms can navigate a dramatically changing legal environment by using data analytics and behavioural science to create incentives for their lawyers and others to change their behaviour.

In your last column, you described how important it was for professional service firms to identify and work to mitigate biases in their data that their algorithms might inadvertently replicate. One area you hear firms talk a lot about is recruitment — how can firms ensure a more level playing field that is free of biases for their candidates and prospects?

I think it’s important to realise first that psychologists and behavioural scientists have identified dozens of collective biases that could potentially be in play in your recruitment, hiring or promotion efforts. You can not single out just one. In fact, often many of them play together when you interact with someone, like in a hiring or promotion situation.

If we wanted to look at the example of the recruitment phase, we know from research (and, incidentally, from work I’ve been doing) that on average, a recruiter takes fewer than six seconds to decide whether to call back someone for an interview.

And it is within these six seconds that biases can be evident.

In a hiring situation, the recruiter may be looking at CVs; but the human brain cannot take in the whole CV and all its details to make a complete assessment of a candidate.

So, they short-cut it — and that means that oftentimes a recruiter will pick certain factors, like where the person went to school, or where they grew up, and then make a quick judgment based on that. And sometimes this is great, because we can save time with that; but most of the time, that action allows certain biases to kick in.

The question then becomes, what can a firm do to avoid this insertion of bias into their hiring and recruitment process?

A lot of firms are moving toward using blind recruitment practices, which ensures that all the CVs the firm receives will be blinded so that no name, race, gender, age or other distinguishing characteristics will be visible. It is a great first step — and it’s an important one too, because we also know (from other research) that depending on your name or depending on your school, some people are more likely to receive callbacks than others based on that alone. So, the blinding process can work, but it has to be tailored to the firm and carefully monitored.

It’s really up to an organisation — often depending on the algorithms that they design in-house — to choose how blind they want to go and which elements they want to omit. It’s important, however, to make sure that those elements (either included or omitted) are not favouring or disfavouring any category of people. Otherwise, you may undermine what you are actually trying to achieve which is leveling the playing field for all the candidates. So, the simple takeaway is blind is good, but be careful about what you are blinding in the process.

What can firms do to attract diverse candidates and avoid biases?

One way to reduce the likelihood of this problem is by identifying upfront the type of capabilities and skills that you are looking for in an ideal candidate. We know there is a tendency of certain groups, including minority groups, to apply for certain types of jobs or certain types of practices areas when all the criteria are clearly outlined, and they find they meet all the requirements.

So then, the language and even the length of the job offer becomes very important for a firm to consider if they are to attract diverse candidates. Primarily, the language needs to be even-handed and not tilting either toward masculine-dominant language or feminine-collaborative language in the job offer itself.

And finally, there is another method, which I think is key — something I discussed in more detail in a recent article. When the recruitment committee — the reviewers, the recruiter, and the lawyers involved in this process — begins to look at the slate of candidates that are coming in, often it is very useful at that time for firm management to send an email to the recruiter, as well as anyone else involved in the recruitment process, and tell them that the leadership values diversity, and they see diversity as a benefit to the firm overall.

Now, of course, this is not an exhaustive list of what firms can do to better combat the biases that may creep into their recruitment and hiring process — and I would add that all this could be aided greatly by involving professionals such as behavioural scientists, statisticians, and psychologists in this process especially if a firm has identified problems in recruiting, hiring and retaining diverse professionals.

Overall, a firm should remember that throughout this process, its general aim should be to have their people fish in a bigger pond, which means they should seek ways to include a larger pool of applicants rather than looking for ways to exclude them upfront and miss out on diverse talent.

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