Anonymity Goes from Bullying to Hiring?

Anonymity Goes from Bullying to Hiring? Why It Can Work for Passive Tech Talent and Startups Hiring

Anonymity is big business in the Internet. Or so it seemed. The PEW Research Center found in 2013 that 25% of all adult Internet users have posted a comment anonymously on the Web before. However, the same year the backlash against anonymity began. The Huffington Post got rid of anonymous profiles to “promote civil discourse, citing the maturing of the Web. Other Websites such as ESPN, Popular Science and USA Today followed by either banning anonymous posts or eliminating their comments sections altogether. The belief being that anonymity only creates trolling, bullying and negativity.

Just ask David Byttow, who received $35 million in funding to grow Secret, the anonymous message board app. He quickly found out - in 16 months quick to be exact - that in the wrong setting, where anonymous users have all the power, anonymity can be risky business. Sure there were monetization issues with the business when it abruptly shut down last month, but at a core level Secret had an issue with how it was using anonymity. It has been proven over-and-over that anonymous message boards are havens for cyberbullies. As it quickly scaled, with minimum community oversight, Secret was fostering cyberbullies to the point where it was prompting users to contact suicide prevention hotlines if they posted suicidal thoughts.

With that as a preface, there may still be hope, and positive uses, for anonymity if we look beyond message boards and social networks. Case in point: the hiring process. In our use of anonymity over the last ten months in the job-finding and hiring process, we’ve found it to be a uniquely powerful tool that almost all other forms of career networking lack.

Opening Up a Blind Eye to Hiring Bias

As calls for diversity are finally being answered in Silicon Valley, companies are beginning to realize the ways bias can negatively affect the hiring process, and with it, the diversity of organizations. As humans, our natural predispositions, which are hardwired into our brains, lead us towards certain decisions or judgments that we often don’t even know we are making. For example, when we are looking at people’s LinkedIn profiles, or scanning resumes, we are doing so through a lens clouded by unconscious biases - biases that can be quite complex.

Many studies have been done to illustrate the effect that bias has on the hiring process. But if you’re hesitant to take the word of a bunch of researchers, who as humans themselves, are subject to the same biases we are, then just look around you. How heterogeneous is your work environment?

The truth is that most workplaces have some sort of skew. They can be disproportionate in any number of ways – race, sex, age, etc. And this doesn’t mean that you work for an evil or even discriminatory company. Even the greatest companies have diversity challenges. Take Google for example, whose statistics have shown that that they too have great strides to make in diversifying their workforce. Despite the best efforts of many well-meaning people at great companies, bias is affecting the ability to truly diversify the workforce, period.

By opening up a “blind eye” towards these hiring biases and implementing anonymity into the hiring process, we can get future employee sourcing back to its roots - the work itself. Anonymous candidate profiles give the recruiter only what they need to know: experience, skills, education, career interests, and professional priorities. Gender, ethnicity, race, or sexual preferences are completely invisible early on in the hiring process, removing the element of bias and making you a better recruiter.

The Voice Effect: Judging New Hires on Only What They Produce

Look no further than the wildly popular singing competition television show “The Voice” to see why this is a positive for the hiring process. The concept of the show brilliantly assumes that if the judges are given nothing more than the chance to hear each contestant’s voice, that they will be able to choose the right person based on sheer talent alone. Not by how attractive the person is, how marketable they are, or their ability to have a “Belieber” effect on millions of teens worldwide. They’re blind.

This puts an enormous amount of power and opportunity into the contestant’s hands. Not only are we, the audience, more likely to root for the contestants who would otherwise never have a shot because of their looks or perceived appeal, but they are also unfettered from the anxiety that their voice will be overshadowed by any number of biases from the judges.

And the judges are just as empowered. By having their bias hidden from them in the initial judging process, they are given an innumerably better shot at picking someone whose talent is going to help them compete against the rest of the field. This is the same power that the job-seeker and hiring manager is given through anonymity in the recruiting process. 

As humans, we are most comfortable with what we know. When something new is entered into our world it can make us feel uncomfortable. Our schemas and biases are constructed to help us avoid these types of negative feelings.  Introducing anonymity into the hiring process early forces us to embrace our bias further along in the process. When we choose a candidate based on their talent and nothing else, it makes it easier to accept all the attributes that make them unique later on. Not only can this have a dramatic effect on our outlook as human beings, but on the work environment we create as well.

Anonymity Empowers (Just not completely) the Job-Seeker in a Positive Way

The same benefits that recruiters can reap from anonymity can also be had by the passive job-seeker who gets the assurance that their talent alone will be what gets them in the door for a new opportunity. 

Further, it’s not uncommon for people who are happy in their current jobs to occasionally pursue job boards and company sites to see what else is out there. It’s completely natural for people to want to have options and test their value in the job market. But doing so when someone else is paying the bills can be tricky.

Many networking sites like LinkedIn announce your activity to your network in a very public way. When you make a connection, update your bio or join a new group, that information can be seen by everyone in your network. If your boss sees that you are making new connections with someone who works for a competitor that may alert them to the fact that, at the very least, you are putting your feelers out there. Depending on your relationship with your boss, that could make things a bit awkward.

Part of the beauty of anonymity in this setting is that it is conditional. As the platform owner, we actually know who our members our. We just make it easy for them to mask their identity if they get matched with a potential employer. Since our members know we know who they are, they are less likely to do things that they might do on a permanently anonymous platform.

In addition these job-seekers will eventually reveal themselves to a matched employer if there’s reciprocal interest from both sides. This knowledge that the things I say in the anonymous phase may eventually be attributed to me by a company I may some day work for  keeps people honest.

Anonymity is a continuum. If you’re only known as a randomly generated avatar, it’s hard to make meaningful connections with people or even know which anonymous member you want to engage with. By sharing some non-personally identifiable information about yourself (e.g. currently work at Google as a SDE and big into hadoop) with matched employers, you can enable more meaningful initial conversations.

Reaping Workplace Diversity In Numerous Ways

As these meaningful interactions grow within a more diverse workplace and workers accept all the attributes that make their fellow colleagues unique later on, their companies reap the benefits.

A recent study from Deloitte University found that diversity has many benefits to an organization, and I’m not talking about the political correctness kind. To name a couple, diversity helps guard against groupthink and expert overconfidence because it triggers more careful and creative information processing than typically occurs in homogeneous groups. 

Generating a great idea quickly often requires connecting multiple tasks and ideas together in a new way. Diversity allows these different ways of thinking to come together to create the best possible outcomes. One of those outcomes is finding ways to continue to hire more diverse employees like themselves. Perhaps by anonymizing and gender-neutralizing future jobs and job-listings themselves.

While Secret bred contempt among its user base, anonymity in the hiring process seems to foster respect. I think we can all agree that’s not a bad thing the base your workplace on.


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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