A Research-driven Recruitment Story

[It] was initially frustrating to not be able to tell you things about who I am and what I’ve done. But it’s great that it’s a level playing field. By the final interview I was liking the process so much that I was reluctant to share my CV and de-anonymize myself.

– Successful Careers applicant at Bytemark

As many of you already know, the way we recruit at Bytemark is different. This is owing to our meticulously-designed, anonymous, decentralised recruitment process. But it wasn’t always this way. This is our story of what anonymous recruiting means to us, why we bother and how we are leading the way to a fairer, people-focused local tech community. We hope it can inspire others to think about the way they hire and make and share their improvements too.

Our problem with traditional recruiting

For the first decade or so of Bytemark’s history, Managing Director Matthew Bloch took on the role of recruiting staff. He’d put a few adverts out, collect some CVs, schedule interviews, everyone would dress up, and then he’d make a decision about who he felt would be best for the role.

Over time, this method became increasingly problematic. The entire recruitment workload was in the hands of one person. In Matthew’s own words:

I became increasingly aware of how inappropriate biases had influenced our previous process, and how slow we were to spot them. For instance until a few years ago, we used to grill prospective system administrators on the particulars of their home computer network – how many did they have, how complex was the routing and so on. We figured that because we had staff who already built overly complex home networks, this was a good signifier for the kind of sysadmin we wanted. Instead of course, we were testing for all kinds of privilege, a certain size of house, a set of interests we’d shared in college, everything but the work we wanted them to do.

— Matthew Bloch, Managing Director

In sum, we knew that we were missing many great candidates because of our “network-based” process. We treated existing candidates inconsistently, and gave them a poor (and inaccurate) impression of our company.

These local concerns about bias were reinforced by bigger, more global problems in the tech community. Stories of harrassment were gaining publicity, highlighting how toxic the environment had become in some circles. At the same time, new awarenesses surfaced about problems with diversity in tech, the challenges for minority groups to stay in the industry, and the issues surrounding environments where there was minimal to no processes for hiring, e.g. Heddleston’s null process.

These problems necessitated a rethinking of how we do things at Bytemark. We needed to build a better team through better hiring policies.

A new Recruitment Process

Doing some research into the subject, Matthew stumbled upon an innovative solution from an entirely different field. A paper by Goldin & Rouse (2000), Orchestrating Impartiality, had highlighted the positive effect of an anonymous audition process (e.g. where the candidates play their piece behind a screen) on gender diversity in US orchestras during the 70s and 80s. The authors showed that women who auditioned through this method were 50% more likely to advance to the second stage of the audition process compared to when they were visible to the panel.

Taking the idea of an anonymous audition as his cue, Matthew pieced together a technological version of the stage ‘screen’, and in early 2015, careers.bytemark.co.uk was born.

picture of careers.bytemark.co.ukThrough anonymity, the Careers app aims to be fair and inclusive. It provides a focus on skills first and foremost. With help of the entire team, Careers also aims to be efficient and collaborative. The work of recruitment is shared; each job opening has an assigned interview ‘panel’ of 3–5 current employees. With this method, staff gather input from each other, and learn to lead in the process.

Bytemark Careers Today

As of today, we’ve received over 200 applications, hired eight staff through this process, and we’ve retained seven. The roles we’ve recruited for have ranged from Office Manager to System Admins to Developers.

When deprived of information, people fill in the gaps

With new process come new issues. We found that while reducing biases in some areas, we introduced new ones in others. Because candidates had no frame of reference for our process, they started to make (often incorrect) inferences about what we were up to, and how they were being evaluated. A common source of anxiety was about staying anonymous:

I’m always thinking about whether or not I’m accidentally giving myself away.
Answering reveals too much about my background, but didn’t want to be vague either. These questions didn’t let me shine or share relevant things about myself.

– Successful Careers applicants at Bytemark

We also encountered many obstacles which were situational or involved miscommunication of some form. For example, when our (new and not-yet-added-to-our-website) HR Manager, Pam Hinds, responded to candidates by text messages including her name, several of these candidates started to wonder who the mystery ‘Pam’ was — an anonymous person? an acronym (perhaps ‘Personal Application Manager’)? a nickname (a ‘P’ for Patrick or Pete?), or possibly even a friendly chatbot. These are the sorts of findings you can never anticipate, but you must discover and address!

We were filling in the gaps, too. Without research, it’s difficult to know if we’re attracting more diverse candidates. We also recognised that the process doesn’t work well for some roles and needs adapting, but how should we do that? And most importantly, our guesses about the psychological barriers our candidates faced were just that, guesses. We needed to find out what these realities were, how they were affecting people, and then take action to address the unmet needs.

A Research-Driven Recruitment Update

By slowing down and vetting product & design decisions more carefully, you can uncover gaps and weaknesses that would breach your core users’ trust, and avoid costly problems down the line.

— Eric Meyer, Design for Real Life

It can sometimes be challenging to know where to start with a project that may potentially have several important issues that need addressing. However, with a carefully-reasoned approach, some practical empathy, and a supportive team, it becomes clearer not only to see what’s most pressing but how to implement an effective solution for each aspect of the problem.

With this in mind, our Research Manager, Kim Witten, recently led a 6-week development cycle. The research included:

  • 12+ hours of interviews
    • six with anonymously-hired candidates
    • four stakeholder interviews
  • 3-hour data workshop
  • More than half the company was involved in the process in one way or another

What we’ve accomplished

MethodKit activity during research interviewOur research team uncovered many psychological barriers that we’d unintentionally introduced through anonymous recruiting. However, our biggest challenge by far was setting expectations and communicating well with candidates.

This led to us revisiting the entire process and resulted in an extensive re-write of our current recruitment guidance for both candidates and staff. Additionally, the research alerted us to several bugs, feature requests and other issues needing to be addressed. In our 3-hour workshop, we prioritised and sorted these findings. This resulted in over 80 separate issues, all of which we tracked, assigned and completed during the final two weeks of the development cycle.

We also learned of many encouraging insights about our process, and our successful candidates too! Our anonymously-hired staff were unanimously positive about the anonymous hiring concept, they appreciated the focus on skills first, and they were enthusiastic about research that would improve the process based on their feedback.

What we’ve learned

Design and development are so much easier when you understand people’s needs. Decisions make themselves, instead of an endless back and forth of second guessing. What would have been features distill themselves into tiny text changes. You are not implementing notifications, you are making sure people don’t get ignored.

– Steve Urmston, Product Manager

Bytemark is changing in a lot of ways. We’re maturing as a company, we’re becoming more collaborative, and we’re taking a more research-driven approach across many projects. We’ve found that going from silos to teams is challenging but rewarding. Development is faster with clearly-defined, research-driven features that are born out of specific needs. People accomplish more when work is shared, and they feel better about what they’ve achieved. We’re eager to take on more of this, and to keep making discoveries about how we can do better.

Where we’re going

This is just the start. We are always striving to get better at what we do. There will be new features, bugs, and opportunities to improve the way we communicate. Recruitment is only the beginning.

In the next five years, we hope to grow to a 100-person company. That means that we will not only use and improve our Careers process, but we will focus on advancing the careers of all of those who’ve joined us on this journey. If you want to be a part of this too, we’re hiring now at careers.bytemark.co.uk.

[I] read about Bytemark, about the fresh air cooling and other things — 
a company can say they’re environmentally friendly but is that just words? However, the recruitment process can’t be bullshit, because you experience it, going through the process. This lined up with the 
things I care about.

– Successful Careers applicant at Bytemark

Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. 2000. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.” American Economic Review, 90(4): 715-741.