Anonymous recruitment – we loved it!

Bytemark announced its drive to hire by anonymous interview a few weeks ago. We asked our applicants for very few details:

  • an anonymous alias,
  • a letter telling us why they were right for the position,
  • a list of their 5 best skills + 5 they wanted to develop, and
  • an optional disability declaration.

That’s all. No name, no CV. If you told us why you wanted to work for Bytemark, we wanted to interview you.

We then ran three rounds of interviews: a 20 minute chat, a 2-4 hour skills test (both online, both anonymous) and finally we would interview our short list in person, the traditional way.

Our approach got coverage in The Pool and some outright enthusiasm from Stylist Magazine resulting in more than 100 applications for our three positions:

Our first recruits from this process are starting this week, and we’re still interviewing right now.  It’s been an almost entirely positive experience, particularly compared to our previous rather casual recruitment methods.

There’s no easy results from this, but our experience has shown a lot of positive experiences to anonymous, remote recruitment:

Remote interviews are easier on our staff

Interviewers and interviewee can be spread over the country so we were able to spread more of the workload between staff. There’s no way we could have interviewed 100 people in person, nor got as much interest from our staff – we went from a recruitment panel of 2 to 8 with very little effort. Our interviews were able to be shared, in full, between members of the hiring panel. Senior staff who weren’t at the interview could review the exact same interview and help guide decisions.

Remote interviews are easier on the candidate

Candidates don’t need to dress up for a remote interview. They don’t need to do their hair, travel, book time off from their job. They can interview during a lunch hour, or afternoon break.

That’s why we saw as many applicants as we did – it’s just easier for them to start the application process and easier to interview without apprehension.

The conversation can only focus on work

When you send a CV to a company up front, you have to gloss your life story to a stranger whose name you don’t know. We thought that was intimidating and unnecessary. Without  a name and CV, we could only ask candidates about work, not their history. Candidates can steer the conversation to their strengths, and answer in their own time.

Here are some interview questions that we couldn’t even ask accidentally:

  • oh Bob was at King’s, which college were you at?
  • how’s the weather over in … ?
  • I heard about the layoffs at that firm, is that why you’re applying?

And so on, and so on. These might be natural (awkward) avenues of conversation that spring from a CV, but they don’t relate to the work, and they don’t help us evaluate one candidate against another. So our interview transcripts are shorter, more focussed and easier to compare.

And, the big surprise – a comfortable, free-flowing interview isn’t as important as covering aspects of the candidates work strengths and skill set. We ended up advancing candidates who seemed hesitant in online chat once we had a convincing picture of their work history and skill set  in front of us.

Application forms get more applicants

My interest in appealing to a more diverse set of job applicants started with this tweet (I know, I know, so late). This was the first reply that got me thinking about how to make a fairer process:

We were bowled over to so many applications compared to our previous process – maybe 3 times the usual number. But because we rejected the majority of applicants before we’d met them, I have no idea whether they were a more diverse set than before.

That’s quite a dilemma – I’d love to have monitored whether our applicant pool might have changed, but to keep the process honest, we didn’t collect any data which might tell us.

In the end I was happy to see more applicants – 10s of weird aliases and enthusiastic, anonymous approaches.

We’ll put our effort into driving more diverse people to our jobs, repeatedly fixing access & bias issues in the process as we find them. The true result is the long-term diversity of candidates we hire, not the people we rejected. And that will take some years to show.

Saying “no” was easier

Interview processes involve turning people down.

When we used to interview most applicants in person, turning people down was a big deal. I always email with some personal feedback about an interview, and try to give an honest but positive account of our meeting.

But my CV  filter sometimes failed me. I’d get a poor impression in the first 20 minutes and then felt like I was wasting their time. Where someone had travelled, I’d push on and see if they might fit another position in future (even where I thought  they weren’t likely to be picked for this one). The rejection for those candidates felt inevitable, and just an unavoidable part of an imperfect process.

But this time, we didn’t have a single “doomed” third-stage interview. We’d successfully whittled down our candidates to people we could work with, and had to pick the best of a great bunch. While I still had to say “no”, it was a substantial & regretful transaction, and I felt we’d made the best of our candidates’ time.

Absolute anonymity is a big challenge

We didn’t achieve absolute anonymity.

Some candidates didn’t want to be anonymous, spilling their personal details in the cover letter.

For the people we interviewed, where they had picked a gendered alias, the gender of the alias tended to match their gender.

Some candidates couldn’t text us back (thanks, Three!) and emailed  me from personal email addresses. That’s understandable, but I’d rather not have lost people to technical glitches.

We can’t force applicants into anonymity, but we could make these things clearer:

  • that we want candidates to try to be anonymous;
  • how to achieve it with our system; and
  • that the anonymity can be very thorough for the people who want to use it.

As long as those angles are covered off and improved, I was happy with the level of anonymity that we provided.

The next step

Several candidates gave us very useful steers on fixing bias and accessibility problems. We were able to implement some of those even before the process was finished, and we’ll continue to hunt them out and look for more criticism in the meantime.

For now I’m passing responsibility to the recruitment process to our development team, and I’m focussing on the experience that new staff have as they come into Bytemark. Recruitment is just the first step in building a smarter, more diverse team, but I hope we are making a good first impression.

Update: We carried out further research to improve our recruitment process. Read the full story here.