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How to remove hiring bias through gamification

Recruitment games can help tackle unconscious bias

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What if I told you you’d get your next job by surviving on a deserted island? Or by thwarting a Dothraki invasion?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a casting call for Game of Thrones. Gamification is getting ready to save us from that awkward pause after a recruiter sits back and says, “So tell me about yourself.”

Not only will it make the hiring process more bearable, but a number of new startups also claim their recruitment games can help companies finally tackle unconscious bias.

Why blind resume screening doesn’t work

Humans are naturally biased. From a neurological perspective, every day we filter in tons of information. In order to prevent overload, our brains are hardwired to automatically categorize it making it easier to process. At the same time, this process can predispose us to draw conclusions based on unconscious stereotypes.

To reduce the impact of bias, in the 1950s the Boston Symphony Orchestra introduced blind auditions with musicians performing for judges behind screens. This ensured the selection process was based on skill, not gender. A study found this practice increased the likelihood for female musicians to be hired from 25 percent to 46 percent.

Trying to replicate this success, a number of big-name companies including Deloitte, HSBC and the BBC are now using blind hiring processes that anonymize resumes. Recently, Amazon created AI-based technology that could completely take humans out of the resume screening process. But are Siri and Alexa really better recruiters than us?

The problem is, AI and machine learning work much the same way our brains do. They operate by processing and learning from historical data. What Amazon found was that its new recruitment tool was actually discriminating against female applicants because it had learned to assign fewer points to an applicant who attended an all-female University or who had hobbies like “Women’s chess club”.

While many see this as a problem with filtering out historical bias from our data, the truth is, the problem doesn’t just lay within our own bias, it also lies within the process itself.

While we’re anonymizing applications, we’re still judging applicants based on criteria that favor a specific type of background. If companies continue looking for hires who graduated from an Ivy League school and worked in some of the top companies, we’re only going to be inheriting and perpetuating the bias found in other recruitment processes.

Blind recruiting meets gamification

Vivek Ravisankar, CEO of Hacker Rank, saw this difference all too well while working in the tech sector. He knew extremely talented developers who were constantly being passed up for jobs because they hadn’t attended university or hadn’t worked at big-name companies like Amazon or Microsoft.

The traditional characteristics companies are looking for, like university and work experience, simply aren’t relevant to finding the best tech talent. Nearly half of developers don’t have a computer science degree. In fact, some of the top figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are all college dropouts.

“If you think about it, it’s pretty ironic because you’re trying to hire advanced tech talent with archaic recruitment methods,” Ravisankar explained.

Instead, gamification presents a completely new approach to recruitment.

With Hacker Rank, Ravisankar and his team built a platform that allows developers to showcase their skills. Companies can create a coding assessment, challenge or hackathon for candidates to participate in. Similar to the blind auditioning process in symphonies, the names of candidates can be anonymized so all recruiters are seeing are the scores and the code they used to complete the challenge.

This allows companies to open up their positions to a wider talent pool and sets the bar higher by focusing on skills. There’s a developer completing an assessment on the platform every eight seconds.

This is a great solution for hiring developers, but how can we use gamification to hire for positions which don’t have a hard skill component like sales, marketing or customer success?

Measuring soft skills through gamification

A number of startups like Knack, Scoutible, and Pymetrics are using neuroscience backed games to test the aptitude of a candidate for a role. The interesting thing is that, instead of testing for hard skills, these companies, pinpoint candidates who have the cognitive and emotional abilities needed to be successful.

Knack, one of the first such platforms on the market, allows candidates to discover their cognitive and emotional abilities, such as dedication, spatial reasoning, and social intelligence, by playing neuroscience backed games. Companies can then create campaigns or search directly for candidates by selecting the traits needed for that role.

Scoutible and Pymetrics take this a step further by using neuroscience games and AI to collect behavioral data from top performers in your company. They can then create custom algorithms designed to find candidates with similar profiles. To avoid the potential for bias, both pretest their algorithms. Pymetrics does this using Audit AI, a method they’ve open sourced on GitHub.

As Angela Antony, CEO of Scoutible explained:

“Soft skills like aptitude are the most predictive indicators of future success on any job, yet they are not actually measured in most hiring processes today. Employers, therefore, try to determine aptitude based on things listed on a resume, such as educational pedigree, which excludes the majority whose resumes do not showcase their underlying abilities. The result is that people are sorted like commodities on the job market, primarily based on education and socioeconomic background. However, people are not a commodity.

People have natural strengths that make us happier and more productive in roles that fit our talents – regardless of formal education or prior work experience. Measuring aptitude democratizes the hiring process and enables everyone to stand out based solely on their ability to excel at the job.

Hiring based on past experience implies that human capabilities are limited to what they have done in the past, which is a fallacy. Measuring aptitude enables employers to hire all people for what they can do.”

While neuroscience-based games may help you find people with the highest potential to be successful within a role, if the candidate doesn’t have the skills they need yet, you will need to spend time on training. Companies looking to fill a role quickly may need to consider this.

Should recruitment be completely left to tech?

With these tools, we can now create an unbiased screening process that finds the candidates with the best skills or aptitude for the job. But does this mean that the person with the highest score is the right person for your team?

As Ravisankar explained, “I’m somewhat skeptical about the ability for AI to measure culture fit. I still feel this requires human to human interaction so people can see how they work together.”

However, critics argue that the intangible nature of criteria like culture fit can simply lead to further bias. Studies show that we tend to ask easier questions to candidates we see as similar to ourselves while grilling those we perceive as different with more difficult questions. Unstructured interviews and even just the off the cuff chat about a candidate’s hobbies can lead to an unfair advantage.

Recently, a team of Swedish recruiters launched the first robotic recruiter aimed at keeping interviews structured and focused on assessing a candidate’s responses to interview based questions alone. As it’s still in the testing phase we’re not likely to be chatting with recruitment Wall-E anytime soon. So is there a way to eliminate bias from the interview process, while still giving us the insights we need to find the right team fit?

Again, gamification may have some interesting answers. Studies (here and here) have shown that playing collaborative video games with people from different groups can greatly decrease bias. Just playing for 12 minutes alone can result in large reductions in outgroup prejudice.

Hacker Rank’s own version of interviews, ‘code pairing’, is a unique example of how this can work in practice. Instead of a traditional interview, the process allows candidates and hiring managers to code together in a collaborative gaming challenge. This enables both sides to see how well they work together.

What’s more, it creates a structured review process during which all candidates, across positions and locations, face the same coding challenge. The focus of the discussion revolves around the challenge at hand and the tactics the candidate is using to solve the problem.

Another interesting startup making gains in this field is Debias VR. Instead of focusing directly on recruitment, its aim is to improve diversity training in general with virtual reality games. The company has developed a game in which players are assigned a different race and have to interact with peers of different races, ethnicities, and genders to find clues and win the game. Through embodiment and positive association, players develop empathy towards their assigned race. Founder Clorama Dorvilias explained:

“Our brains are powerful and can derive patterns off the billions of sensory inputs that are sponged from the environments, human interactions, personal experiences, and exposure to media and cultures that all go into shaping our attitudes at a conscious and unconscious cognitive level. Games, most especially via an immersive experience, allow us to control these inputs as our brain enjoys the rewards that come with identifying selected patterns of play/decision-making and skill. There are studies that show that our brain will perceive immersive experiences as an input comparable to reality.

The potential for how we reinforce learning positive behaviors and traits, practicing cognitive behavior, and retraining associations at an unconscious level is what makes this method exciting in the advancement of this technology today. “

Studies by Stanford and the University of Barcelona have shown the results to be positive. Technology like this could be used to help, not only recruiters and hiring managers, but companies as a whole address unconscious bias through gamification.

While gamification based recruitment is still in its early stages, perhaps the most important part of this new trend is that it’s challenging a decades-old process in need of change. It’s time to start thinking outside the box about how we can truly find the best candidate for the job.

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Published May 20, 2019 — 14:23 UTC