Tech startup battles hiring biases with ‘blind applications’

HRx scrubs job applications information that tips off employers to race, gender or religion

Vancouver tech entrepreneur Wyle Baoween | Chung Chow

When Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) released its workforce demographics to the public for the first time in 2014, the results revealed the tech giant was in fact more of pint-sized player when it came to diversity.

Google revealed its 40,000-person workforce in the U.S. was 61% white and 30% Asian, while just 2% were black and 3% Hispanic. Women, meanwhile, made up only 30% of the company.

“They were like, ‘Wow, we’re not doing so well,’” said Jen Schaeffers, CEO of the Minerva Foundation for BC Women, whose Vancouver-based non-profit promotes workplace leadership by women.

Since then, Google has embarked on sending all 60,000 of its global employees through training in a bid to identify unconscious bias – thinking based on stereotypes – and boost diversity.

In Vancouver, tech entrepreneur Wyle Baoween wants to use technology to cut out unconscious bias before anyone even steps into a job interview.

His startup, HRx, scrubs all personal information from job applications. Family names, as well as names of schools and past companies, can tip a recruiter to an applicant’s gender, race or religion, according to Baoween.

This, he said, creates an unconscious bias among recruiters who may favour applicants they assume would make for a better cultural fit.

“Many of us struggle with what ‘cultural fit’ means,” Baoween said. “We give some characteristics. We say you came from a 500-employee energy company and you worked there for seven years in a marketing position in this role. We don’t show the name, of course. We think, as a recruiter if you are just going through hundreds of resumes that is just what you need to know.”

An engineer by trade, Yemen-born Baoween faced difficulty finding work in Canada when he moved here five years ago – largely because his resume featured names that were unfamiliar to potential employers.

So when he and his wife discussed what to name their first daughter last year, they were determined not to give her a name that could make life difficult.

“She’s a woman, she has Middle Eastern roots, and then a name could make it even harder for her,” Baoween said, adding he and his wife eventually settled on the name Aden to represent his mother’s hometown in Yemen while tipping his hat to his wife’s Scottish heritage.

“That’s one of the reasons why I really started thinking we should change that.”

But workplace change can be stubbornly slow.

Two years after Google began its diversity campaign, June data from the company reveals diversity in its U.S. workforce has changed very little. Now 59% of workers are white, compared with 60% in 2014. Black and Hispanic numbers haven’t changed, while women have increased their ranks by only one percentage point.

“To be honest with you, there’s not really any quick fix,” Schaeffers said. “A lot of us aren’t aware … that we have this unconscious bias because it’s our unconscious – it’s on autopilot all the time, filling in the gaps and creating shortcuts.”

In 2015, the Minerva Foundation asked CEOs of B.C.’s 50 largest companies to sign a pledge to raise the number of women in leadership roles.

Seventeen have so far signed the pledge. Baoween said HRx is pursuing those companies as clients looking at ways to create more diversity.

He acknowledged that while HRx is able to scrub information that could hint at gender, race or religion, his service may not be the right fit for a company looking for those specific characteristics when trying to expand diversity in the workforce.

“If you scrub out all the data and say, ‘Well, I don’t know where they worked or what country they worked in,’ that could pose more of a problem for me,” said Cissy Pau, principal at Clear HR Consulting Inc.

Pau’s consulting firm recently screened resumes for a client, only to discover most applicants weren’t legally allowed to work in Canada.

“If 60 or 70% of the resumes are not from people who can work here and that information gets scrubbed out, how does that help me as an employer?”