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10 Things We’ve Learned About Unbiased Hiring Practices at AAM

Category: Alliance Blog
Image of a woman with short black hair in a purple shirt.
Katherine McNamee, director, Human Resources, AAM

Last fall, I was a guest presenter in an AAM Webinar on unbiased hiring where I shared some blind screening techniques that we have begun incorporating into our hiring practices at AAM. With several recruitment efforts now concluded, my colleagues and I continue to reflect on the successes, challenges, and lessons learned as we experiment with ways to broaden the diversity of our applicant pools.

The make-up of the AAM staff is currently, and has traditionally been, largely female and white. Some have suggested that our staff is simply a reflection of the museum field at large, but as my colleagues and I learn more about the impact of unintentional bias, we wondered how this may be influencing our recruiting efforts. This question led us to re-visit our recruitment process and to the creation of a goal to adapt recruitment practices that 1) encourage under-represented candidates to apply and 2) ensure that we are consistently evaluating each candidate on the appropriate criteria (relevant skills needed for the job.)

Confession #1

I’ll admit that the idea of overhauling our recruitment process through this new lens of mitigating bias seemed daunting at first. After all, I had carefully crafted a recruitment system designed to deliver a fair and consistent experience for candidates. With detailed templates, suggested best practices and guidelines to outline the process, it also provided efficiency in managing multiple searches simultaneously. This process had served us well (or so I thought) for many years. Initially, I found myself overwhelmed simply deciding where to begin.

Confession #2

If you asked our hiring managers at AAM about our hiring practices, most would tell you they were working well for us. They would probably point to our talented, dedicated and productive staff as proof. In fact, over the years, managers have expressed appreciation for AAM’s established and systematic approach to hiring and the representation of staff from a variety of sectors (non-profit, museum, and private sector) that our system has produced. Given their general satisfaction, I wondered how we would make the case for changing our process? As any manager who has been short-staffed knows, the pressure to fill a vacancy urgently is strong and I feared it would be all too easy to slip into our “default” operating mode rather than making the effort to incorporate new practices.

Confession #3

I’m an HR department of one and AAM has a very “manual” recruitment process. We don’t use applicant tracking software. Resumes are collected, sorted and reviewed by myself and small hiring teams. Given this lack of automation, I wondered how I could implement these changes while supporting a staff of 45 employees in all aspects of employment – benefits administration, payroll, compensation, employee relations, performance management, along with recruitment.

To address these challenges (feeling overwhelmed; not knowing where to start; getting buy-in; limited resources), we realized we needed to think big and then think small. In other words, we needed to clearly articulate our recruitment philosophy and goals while simultaneously identifying small changes we could make with our current resources.

Here is what we have learned:

1. Connect recruitment goals to organizational objectives and then communicate those goals clearly and often.

Make sure everyone on staff understands your goal and re-iterate and refer to it often. For us, to support AAM’s Strategic Plan focus area of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, our recruitment goal is to attract the most qualified candidates and  broaden the diversity of our applicant pools. We review this goal with hiring teams at the beginning of each search. As people began to understand the objective, we encountered less resistance to trying new methods. In fact, as word started to spread about our new goal and the changes we were making to our recruitment practices, team members were soon making their own suggestions for how we could tweak our methods to achieve our goal.

2. Job descriptions should focus on skills.

We started to look at job descriptions for each vacancy as if the position were brand new. Taking a fresh look made us realize that our job requirements relied heavily on credentials and experience as opposed to demonstrated skills. For example, we often relied on the requirements of a graduate degree or previous museum employment as a method for screening candidates. In so doing, we may have discouraged applicants with relevant transferable skills from applying.

Recognizing that candidates may have valuable skills from other industries has prompted us to evaluate our job descriptions and postings for potential gender-coded language and eliminate the use of industry jargon and acronyms. In our last fellowship search, we utilized free software (Textio) on a trial basis to spot words that may be considered feminine or masculine. For example, we learned that “collaborates” may be more attractive to women than “drives results,” which may draw in more male candidates.  With this new awareness, I now ask hiring managers to help me evaluate our job descriptions for potential bias.

3. Be transparent in job postings.

Adding salary ranges, closing dates and providing a list of items to include in cover letters has helped us manage candidate’s expectations and improved the quality of applications we have received. Candidates have commented that our instructions make it clear what skills are being evaluated.

4. Incorporate blind screening practices to mitigate unintentional bias.

We added an element of identity-blind screening in our application process by asking candidates to omit names, addresses, names of schools and graduation dates when submitting cover letters and resumes. Even though approximately a third of the candidates have fully complied with this request thus far, we’ve found that it helps our reviewers remain more neutral in their evaluations and as an unexpected plus, has generated interest and positive feedback from candidates and museum colleagues.

5. Consider how candidates are sourced.

I’ve counted on employee networks as a reliable source for finding strong candidates even though this practice may be perpetuating our homogenous applicant pool. Although we have expanded our recruitment advertising to include diversity-specific job boards and have begun asking any potential staffing firms with whom we work about their practices to engage diverse applicant pools, we recognize that more engagement with diverse communities is needed to tap into these talent pools.

6. Recognize that resume bias comes in all forms.

Like many HR professionals faced with large numbers of applicants, I’m usually looking for ways to screen people out rather than in. I was trained to seek out the gaps in employment history, typos and questionable grammar usage on resumes and treat them as red flags even though these criteria alone are rarely the most relevant to the job.

Working with dozens of hiring managers over my HR career, I have always found it fascinating to learn about individual preferences when reviewing resumes. “Too many words” was the criteria that put a resume in the “no” stack for one hiring manager.

With each new search, members of hiring teams are asked to share their own “pet peeves” about reviewing resumes. It can be cathartic to openly discuss our own biases and how they influence our perceptions of candidates. What characteristics cause you to eliminate a candidate at the resume review stage? What resume characteristics influence your impression of a candidate?

7. Engage your hiring team in creating resume review protocols.

We all have biases. Hiring processes will inevitably involve preferences. Owning up to our own biases helps us minimize them and makes us more intentional about what skills we are seeking in a candidate. Through candid discussions of our personal preferences and relevant job skills, our hiring teams come to an agreement on which biases (evaluation factors) we will use to evaluate candidates.

Along with the agreed upon evaluation factors, we create a list of protocols to help us manage our individual biases. We identify factors that may influence our perceptions of the candidate but are not relevant to the job and agree not to use any single factor as the primary reason for eliminating a candidate at this stage (use of grammar, writing style, personal interests or affiliations.) Additionally, some hiring teams have agreed not to seek out any additional information about the candidate at the resume review stage (no internet or membership data searches.)

8. Allow hiring team members to share input equally.

Having two hiring team members independently review all resumes has helped us keep our biases in check. I ask each to independently identify their top candidates and then we meet as a group to create a list of our top 5 candidates.

Hiring team members have reported that they have a stronger “voice” in the process. The independent resume review minimizes the “group think” that sometimes occurs when resumes are reviewed in a group setting.

9. Create opportunities for candidates to demonstrate skills.

We often have pre-conceived ideas on what a successful candidate’s career path might look like, what experience they should have, where they may have worked. As noted earlier, in past searches, I probably over-emphasized the value of credentials (a title, a degree or certification, etc.) versus a demonstration of the actual skill needed, such as a work sample.

Instead of relying on credentials and experience listed on resumes, we are finding that creating opportunities for candidates to demonstrate their skills gives hiring managers a better sense of a candidate’s ability to perform the job duties. We are now asking candidates to respond to specific questions in cover letters and have incorporated challenge-like activities such as role-playing and short presentations in interviews.

Hiring teams are now able to witness first-hand how a finance candidate explains the components of a financial statement or how a development candidate communicates the value of museums as part of a proposal.

10. A collaborative approach has multiple benefits.

Taking a collaborative approach has helped people understand the goal and contribute to it. Inviting hiring team members to share their own recruitment experiences opens up the conversation about biases. Having teams come to an agreement on which skills to evaluate provides clarity on the team’s purpose. Brainstorming on techniques for mitigating biases allows team members the opportunity to support one another in achieving a common goal.

Of course, a collaborative approach and any change takes time. With each new vacancy, we try to determine what constitutes a reasonable timeline. It may be different for each situation.

By facilitating these discussions and collaborating with hiring managers on determining appropriate changes to our recruiting methods, we created an environment of learning and experimentation. Trading the HR subject matter expert role for that of a facilitator was insightful for me. As a subject matter expert, I was expected to prescribe or recommend a solution. It feels refreshing to play the part of facilitator in which my objective is to engage my colleagues on our goal, facilitate the process non-judgmentally and document group decisions, successes and challenges.

Sharing the experience (both successes and failures) with others has generated observations and ideas which are helping us see our current practices through this new lens.

Although these are relatively small changes, they have contributed greatly to changing our mindset in how we view our purpose and goals in attracting candidates. This experience has helped us question our assumptions; challenged our ways of thinking; encouraged us to examine our own biases; solicited candid discussions between colleagues; improved objectivity in our assessments; and is opening us up to new possibilities and new ways of working. All qualities that will serve us well in other aspects of our business operations.

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  1. This is the most articulate, practical, and understandable article I’ve ever read on this topic. You have laid out things we can do in any workspace to address hiring bias. Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments, Kevin. It is definitely a work in progress and we are learning new things with each search!

  3. This is a truly useful article, and I’ve saved it in my hiring folder! A question: do you pay people when you ask them to perform tasks as part of the hiring process? If so, how do you determine an appropriate amount? Thank you!

    1. Hi Katie, thanks for sharing your feedback! Generally, asking an applicant to perform a skills test to evaluate their ability to perform the job, is not considered compensable time. However, if a working interview is required in which the applicant performs work that provides a benefit to the employer, then generally the applicant must be paid. I recommend consulting an employment attorney who can offer you legal guidance on the specifics of your situation.

  4. This was a fascinating article! As someone who is currently conducting a museum job search and how came to museum work through a decidedly nontraditional path, I would love to see these practices become common at my local museums. I feel like whenever I apply for a position I’m immediately at a huge disadvantage because I’m seeking an entry-level position and it’s easily discernible from my resume that I’m in my 40s.

  5. I am wondering how the masculine/feminine verbiage is handled in job descriptions. Specifically, if we definitely need someone who is collaborative – and there’s no other way to articulate that – do you find it useful to balance out masculine and feminine descriptors? Or is the goal to neutralize gendered language in every iteration?

    1. Thanks, Amy for your question. I agree, sometimes it’s best to go with the descriptor that offers the most clarity, even if it is not considered “neutral.” Using Textio helped us become aware of masculine and feminine descriptors we were using and helped us prioritize clarity over gender-coded language, industry jargon and acronyms.

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