So, what is Implicit Bias? As defined by dictionary.com, Implicit Bias is a “Bias that results from the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations and feelings, even when these are contrary to one’s conscious or declared beliefs.”
Most people don’t intentionally discriminate or treat others inequitably, they simply react to stimuli around them in unconscious ways based on their past exposure to media, cultural forces and other experiences. It’s part of being human, and the more we scrutinize it in ourselves, the more control we have over its influence on our thinking. In the image below, first look at the version on the left and consider if square A is lighter or darker than square B.
Okay, now look at the version on the right and you’ll see that both squares are in fact the same exact color. Even when we know they’re the same, it’s still incredibly difficult (for me at least) to look at the version on the left and truly see both boxes as the same color. This is a very blunt example of a much more nuanced process that consistently bedevils our minds, dictating how we perceive reality.
IMPLICIT BIAS IN HIRING
At Axon Park, we are focused on building an inclusive and empowering company culture in which all people feel truly seen, heard and respected. We recognize that implicit biases go hand-in-hand with being human, and that unless they are actively investigated and addressed, they can unconsciously cloud our perspective and lead to erroneous decisions. Based on the wide array of research on implicit bias, some of which is referenced herein, we have adopted a social VR driven process for hiring. We modeled our approach on the behavioral design principles outlined by Iris Bohnet, a Professor of Business and Government and Academic Dean at the Harvard Kennedy School, in her seminal book What Works. As we share this process with our team and peers, it has often been requested that we outline our approach and methodology publicly so others can learn from our experience and experiment with these techniques on their own.
Now, what is behavioral design? To illustrate, let’s consider the classic “blind audition” experiments conducted by symphony orchestras, in which all candidates performed behind a screen, rather than in direct view of the hiring committee. By simply having performers reviewed in this “blind” method, “the percent of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.” If you asked the hiring committee about this bias, it’s likely they would truly believe that they selected candidates purely based on their competency and skill, not gender, however the results tell a different story. Much like this example, we can use similar principals in our companies to reduce the chance of implicit biases sneaking in. As we move into the remote work and digital future, we can leverage new technologies like virtual and augmented reality to implement behavioral design techniques in new and creative ways. Of course these tools aren’t perfect, for example without using voice modulation, you can still trigger a range of biases about a candidate, however it’s a step in the right direction and people will likely find solutions to many of these challenges.
SOCIAL VR PLATFORMS AND TOOLS
All of the platforms suggested below are free to use and allow for avatar customization.
On one hand, you have cross-platform, native applications with open social worlds like VRChat, Rec Room and AltSpace. In this style of platform, you can teleport from your home area into a social space with a bunch of strangers. When using one of these platforms, we find it most safe and effective to meet with candidates via privately created instances of worlds, not in the open community spaces where you’re likely to get bombarded or harassed by random users. For more information on creating private instances and only allowing certain users, you can review the documentation for each platform.
On the other hand, you have private social platforms like Spatial or Mozilla Hubs in which users must have a specific invite link or connection to a user to have a social interaction. Spatial and Hubs both enable collaborative productivity features like viewing documents, images, and other media, which may be useful during the interviewing process. Spatial enables a custom avatar builder from an image, which may trigger some unintentional implicit biases (so be careful with this). In Hubs, you can use their default robot or other non-human characters, as well as custom avatars similar to Spatial by using platforms like Ready Player Me. If the goal is reduction of bias to the greatest extent possible, in which users have a pure consciousness-to-consciousness connection, non-human avatars may be preferred.
In general we suggest using 6DoF (6 degrees of freedom) VR devices wherever possible to create a stronger sense of body presence in the space. If users have limited physical mobility, Mozilla Hubs may provide the best solution given its cross-platform, web-based structure for accessibility.
VR HIRING PROCESS
Disclaimer: This is our process at Axon Park and it may not be right for all companies. You should do your own research on the best hiring process for your specific organization and needs.
The process of inclusive hiring starts far before the initial interview.
Writing the Job Description:
Studies have shown that specific words, when used in job descriptions, can have a huge impact on the way potential candidates perceive their fit for a role. For example, a study conducted by ZipRecuiter, one of the largest online hiring platforms, showed that job descriptions with gender neutral language received 42% more applications. There are some great free tools like the gender decoder to evaluate the language being used to ensure you’re not alienating anyone before they’ve even had a chance to submit an application.
As mentioned by Iris Bohnet in What Works, you can use Behavioral Design to hide information like the candidate’s photo, name, location (especially if you’re a remote first company), educational background, and other revealing data in an effort to eliminate any potential unconscious bias during the filtering process.
To illustrate this point, we can look at a study conducted by MIT and the University of Chicago, in which “researchers found resumes of actual job seekers, then used those to create models for several different realistic resumes with the appropriate education and experience needed for typical job openings advertised in newspapers. They fabricated these resumes for multiple phantom job seekers with common black and white names. The professors then sent out nearly 5,000 resumes for 1,300 job openings advertised in newspapers and on online job sites throughout Chicago and Boston. The study found that applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with typical black names.” Although people may not intend to be discriminatory, their implicit biases are leading them to overlook equally qualified and capable candidates. If you care, you can test your own unconscious biases using Project Implicit from Harvard.
1st Live Interview in VR:
If the applicant is coming through your established hiring pipeline, this could be your first live interaction with them. Depending on the social VR platform you’ve picked for the interview, make sure the candidate has support materials to ensure they can get up and running and through any common technical challenges that may arise. It’s often recommended by experts in the field of HR and inclusive hiring to use a predefined set of questions that are the same for all applicants of a specific role. Depending on the platform, you may not be able to see your questions in VR. To reiterate, Mozilla Hubs and Spatial make it easier than the other suggested platforms to upload documents for review while in VR. This, along with not being able to easily take notes in real-time, can be a challenge. You may choose to record the interview, with the explicit consent of the interviewee, for later review and analysis. Once you have completed the interview, you may choose to fill in a structured grading rubric to evaluate the candidate across a consistent set of criteria. The Society for Human Resource Management, better known as SHRM, provides some great starting templates for these types of processes, like this Candidate Evaluation Form.
2nd Live Interview in VR, With The Team:
Once the initial interview and screening process is complete, and the candidate is recommended for a second interview based on your predefined initial evaluation rubric, you may choose to invite multiple members from your team to join the virtual interview. During this team based interview, structured feedback and evaluation forms should also be used. Involving multiple members from your team has been shown to provide valuable diversity in perspective while helping to ensure people feel bought-in and enthusiastic about working with the candidate. Ideally, everyone should be enthusiastic about working with this person.
3rd – Nth Live Interview(s):
Depending on your process, you may choose to conduct additional interviews in VR or through Zoom / face-to-face meetings, during which time you can actively speak with references and collect more information about the candidate. It’s often recommended to provide some type of test project to see how a candidate performs on a task similar to what would be required on the job. Keep in mind this should be for testing purposes only, and not designed to do actual productive work for the company. Some people may argue that the final interview should be conducted face-to-face, however we believe there is a future in which this may not be necessary and many people may prefer to work this way. Of course this comes with its downsides like disconnecting people on a physical level, but according to some studies, the use of avatars in VR may actually lead to more open communication and collaboration. Time will tell on this one.
Final Hiring Decisions:
It’s worth mentioning the philosophy described in the book Work Rules, written by Laszlo Bock, the former SVP of People Operations at Google. He explains that the final hiring decision should always be made by a committee, not directly by the employee’s future boss. This approach has been shown to lead to more objective, unbiased hiring decisions, and it’s proven to be an effective strategy for Google and others.
Ongoing Meetings in VR to Build Culture:
Once the candidate has been hired, social VR can be a powerful tool to build relationships and culture in place of a physical office or in-person team activities. It’s still early, and it has yet to be seen if VR-based team building can be as, or more, effective for culture building as in-person gatherings, but it certainly has quite a bit of promise. Many of the same platforms mentioned above for hiring can be used for collaboration, productivity, and general team building activities.
CHALLENGES & GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS
There are certainly some challenges with this new approach and I’m sure the tools and process will change significantly over the coming decades. Some of the key hurdles to overcome at the movement, some of which are also mentioned above, include the interviewer being able to easily see a list of questions to ask the candidate (fairly simple to solve with Hubs or Spatial, although the other user may be able to see the questions if they move to the same side as the interviewer), being able to write down responses in real-time as the candidate is speaking (this is where we suggest recording the session), hearing the tone and accent of the user’s voice (you can explore using voice modulation tools like Voicemod), and the lack of eye contact, realistic face movement, and other subtle physical gestures (currently being solved by Oculus and other platforms with integrated eye, face and hand tracking).
As an overarching note on practicality, we realize it may not always be possible to use VR for interviews. Fairly often, you meet someone who is a viable candidate outside of the traditional application process, in which case you may already know how they look and have a general sense of who they are. In this case you can still leverage the power of VR during the team based interviews. Additionally, if a candidate does not have access to a VR headset, you may choose to use Mozilla Hubs or another web based application through which they can connect using a computer or mobile device. Another big debate and consideration is whether you should use avatars that physically resemble the user in real life. From one perspective, removing all physical qualities about a user will objectively create more equality, however it’s dehumanizing in a way and you could argue that hiding someone’s identity is just putting a bandaid on the true problem of bias. Of course we should always work to mitigate our biases, however we need to acknowledge that they exist. I believe that if this VR process is performed thoughtfully, it has the power to help more than hurt.
In conclusion, all of this is still new and experimental and I’m sure we’re making some mistakes in our process that can be improved over time. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on ways to ameliorate this process, we welcome your feedback and see this as something we should iterate as a community. We’d love to hear if you experiment with this process and how it works for you.
P.S. The feature image of this post is an optical illusion and changes depending on how you look at it. Goes to show there is often another way to perceive reality, even when it’s not immediately apparent.