How to reduce bias when automating a high volume of applications

Woman reviewing job applications

6 mins, 14 secs read time

Using Auto-Reject criteria during application review can bring greater efficiency to the top of your candidate funnel, but it can also bring the risk of negatively impacting applicants from underrepresented groups. Automatically rejecting candidates based on yes or no criteria may encourage the use of arbitrary disqualifiers that have an unbalanced impact on people of color.

This is a real concern that must be addressed when using a powerful feature like Auto-Reject in application review, so we want to offer advice on how you can use this essential feature, while simultaneously mitigating any unintended negative consequences.

Why use Auto-Reject?

One of the main use cases for automatically rejecting candidates during application review involves the challenge of managing a high volume of inbound applicants exceeding your team’s bandwidth. If you recruit for a well-known brand that people are attracted to, efficiently managing applications might be an ongoing challenge. Additionally, if your team has reduced in size, or if there’s an unexpected spike in candidates on the market for employment, this may be a new or temporary challenge that your team is tackling.

In either case, using this beneficial tool can help your team to be more efficient. But in order to mitigate the unconscious bias in your process, consider the following best practices before accidentally automatically rejecting the best candidates in your applicant pool.

Let‘s explore some things to consider when using Auto-Reject in application review.

Use specific qualifiers in order to be effective

Many roles call for specific requirements or certifications, and using Auto-Reject is helpful for saving time in these cases. Examples might include the ability to work in a specific location or at a specific time, or accommodate extensive travel requirements. Auto-Reject questions based on this type of criteria might look something like this:

  • “Are you willing and able to work consistent overnight shifts from 5pm–2am ET?”
  • “Are you willing and able to travel internationally 25–50% of the time?”

Other great use cases for Auto-Reject involve certifications required to legally perform the duties of a role. For example, passing the Series 7 exam in order to be a Certified Financial Planner or passing the bar exam to be an Attorney.

However, it’s also incredibly important to not confuse these necessary requirements with arbitrary degrees.

Avoid arbitrary degree requirements

Achieving an MBA or a specialized degree is certainly an accomplishment, but it’s rarely if ever – a true requirement for a job. Instead, it’s the specific skills gained during an educational opportunity that may be helpful for success in a role. We recommend testing for those necessary skills rather than automatically rejecting candidates who do not have a specific degree. There are many ways to learn new skills other than traditional schooling, so be open-minded to those possibilities.

It’s an unfortunate fact that in the US and many other countries higher education is a privilege heavily skewed against people of color. According to the Graduate Management Administration Council, the company that administers one of the two qualifying tests to apply for an MBA program, only 18% of US citizens who sat for the GMAT exam identified as being part of an underrepresented population. Therefore, if you use an Auto-Reject disqualifier for those who do not have an MBA or a specialized degree, you can cause a disparate negative impact against people of color who would like to apply for roles at your organization.

Ask about specific technical skills

Being more specific in your qualifying application questions will help you advance candidates with the necessary skills for success in a role, while also reducing common biases that can be built into the application review process. Here are some examples of specific questions that will help reveal the right answers.

If you’re looking for a Senior Developer who knows how to code in a specific language:

  • Instead of asking: “Do you have a degree in computer science?”
  • Ask: “Which coding languages are you proficient in?” (multi-select drop down)

If you’re looking for a Business Operations Associate who can analyze data and translate their findings through strong presentations

  • Instead of asking: “Do you have an MBA?”
  • Ask: “Have you worked in a role that required data analysis and business presentations?”

Use caution with experience requirements

There are times when a minimum number of years in a specific field is relevant to the leveling of a role. However, this requirement is sometimes exaggerated and employers ask for far more years of experience than truly necessary, unintentionally eliminating many qualified candidates.

This type of requirement can also ignore previous relevant experience and disproportionately impact career-changers. Many would agree that the diversity of experiences that career-changing applicants possess is beneficial to the company and the role. For example, if you automatically reject all candidates with fewer than five years of direct recruiting experience, you would miss out on a candidate with two years of recruiting experience and six previous years in hospitality operations. In that example, the “years of experience” requirement would Auto-Reject the candidate, even though they have customer-centric qualities that would make them uniquely great.

Reconsider the impacts of Auto-Reject based on criminal history

We’ve heard of companies using Auto-Reject features to immediately reject candidates based on their criminal history. Similar to arbitrary degree requirements and years of experience requirements, we encourage you to reconsider whether a past criminal record is truly relevant with respect to the skills required to be successful in a role. Very often, you’ll find that this requirement is based on bias, not fact.

Organizations like the Ban The Box Campaign are working hard to reduce the stigmas associated with conviction histories. Instead, they encourage companies to hire based on skills and qualifications – a mission and practice that Greenhouse wholeheartedly supports.

Additionally, there are many studies of racial bias in the US criminal justice system. (While an opinion piece, this article compiles and summarizes over one hundred studies on the subject.) Unfortunately, this means that automatically rejecting based on criminal history can have an unfair impact on people of color – in some cases, it’s even illegal to do so because of this disparate impact. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated their Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In the update, the EEOC recognized that the use of criminal history in employment decisions could in fact violate the prohibition of discrimination based on one’s protected class. Given the legalities surrounding this particular use case, if you do choose to include any questions around criminal history, we encourage you to consult your legal team before doing so.

One more quick tip for implementing or updating your Auto-Reject process – consider a custom rejection note to candidates, explaining why they didn’t get the job, or detailing your selection process. A little transparency goes a long way.

In closing, use Auto-Reject features in application review if and when your process requires an added level of efficiency. But, as with all parts of your process, do so in a structured way that is aimed at reducing the biases that are all too common in hiring. These tips should help you save time, while still staying open-minded to various backgrounds and experiences in your application review process.

Are you ready to mitigate bias in your hiring process? Request a demo with Greenhouse today.

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