Episode 697: Help Wanted : Planet Money When you're an employer looking at a giant stack of resumes, you have to find some way to quickly narrow the field. How do you do that fairly? And what happens when your good intentions backfire?
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Episode 697: Help Wanted

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Episode 697: Help Wanted

Episode 697: Help Wanted

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Over my life, I have applied for a lot of jobs. I have stayed up late tinkering with my resume, fixing every line in the cover letter. I've practiced for interviews - eye contact, firm handshake, the whole thing. But lately, I've been on the other side of this process. I have been hiring people. And it is amazing how, from this side, how different things look.

I know - you think that someone is reading every line of your resume. I have news for you. I have sat in front of a 4-inch stack of applications. And I have wanted, of course, to know the real people inside, but then I've also thought - how do I get through all these by 5 o'clock? Danny Shoag has stared at those resumes, too.

DANIEL SHOAG: You have to make decisions quickly. It isn't always possible to talk to every applicant, to do a full background check. And so very often, you're looking for quick signals to limit the pool.

SMITH: Essentially, you are looking for reasons to say no.

Shoag has hired employees, but he also studies hiring as a professor of public policy at Harvard. And he says that every employer develops this list of tricks, filters so you can say no quickly. And you've seen this in job descriptions, right? Requirements - college degrees, three years' experience, must pass drug test or a credit check. Must be able to lift 60 pounds - I love that one.

Now, some of those may really be necessary for the work. But Shoag has studied this, and he finds that the exact same type of jobs often have different requirements year-to-year. In years when lots of people are looking for a job - when the stack of resumes and applications grows to six inches, seven inches, employers have higher standards. The filter gets tougher. Oh, we want five years' experience instead of 3. Then when there are fewer applicants, employers are willing to settle. Eh, I guess if you can lift 40 pounds, you're cool. And yeah, OK, 2-year degree is fine.

SHOAG: And that is telling us that those requirements are not fundamental features of the job, but really a way of adjusting the applicant pool. How many people - you know, how many resumes we're going to have to go through to find somebody we can hire.

SMITH: This early part of the hiring process - this filter - this is when employers quickly rule out almost everyone who has applied - 1,000 resumes down to 20, which makes sense. You only want to interview a few people. There's nothing wrong with that. But Shoag says you have to think very carefully about what this early filter is. Who is getting ruled out so quickly? The filter may not be doing what you think it's doing. In fact, that shortcut to get through the stack of resumes may be straight-up discrimination.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY AND SKINNY WILLIAMS SONG, "SEARCHING FOR CLUES")

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. Over the last couple of weeks, we've been working on stories about. Today on the show, we'll bring you a few. How do you fix hiring so that the best people get jobs that they'll succeed in? And what happens when those fixes backfire?

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY AND SKINNY WILLIAMS SONG, "SEARCHING FOR CLUES")

SMITH: From a purely economic standpoint, there should be no discrimination in hiring. Every company wants to maximize their profits. Every company wants to hire the best people. And so to discriminate against someone because of their gender or sexual orientation or race, that would just be illogical. And yet, of course it happens. We know it happens.

And companies are finding this sort of a tough nut to crack because sometimes these biases are unconscious. So we looked into some of the ways that companies are dealing with this and trying to figure out - how can they get the best people without unconsciously sort of standing in their own way and creating these biases? Noel King has been looking into one firm in Silicon Valley who's trying to deal with this. Hey, Noel.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

So there's this whole concept called blind hiring. And the ideas is when you're considering a job candidate, you want to scrape away all of the bits of their identity that might lead to some kind of bias. So you don't want to know their name. You don't want to know how old they are.

SMITH: Or where they live?

KING: Right. You don't want to know where they went to school. You don't want to know if they're a man or a woman in case some gender bias slips in. So a handful of companies have been set up to do this - this scraping process.

SMITH: And you found a company that is taking this scraping to a new, extreme level.

KING: So it's run by this woman named Aline Lerner. And she says even if you scrape away all of these bits at first, at some point, you are going to have to talk to the person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALINE LERNER: If you can hear somebody's voice, it's going to be, in most cases, very easy to tell what their gender is.

So we were trying to think of how to get around that, and then someone suggested that we actually just mail all of our female users a Bane mask like from "Batman."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

ADRIAN GILLEN: (As CIA Agent) If I pull that off, will you die?

TOM HARDY: (As Bane) It would be extremely painful...

GILLEN: (As CIA Agent) You're a big guy.

HARDY: (As Bane) ...For you.

SMITH: A supervillain mask - extreme, I know. But the solution they came up with was not that far off.

KING: So Aline Lerner runs this firm called interviewing.io, which is a recruiting software - recruiting platform.

SMITH: She started out as a software engineer and then she switched to recruiting, in part because she was thinking about this question of gender bias.

KING: Yeah, Aline Lerner - like a lot of people in Silicon Valley - she went to MIT. And from the time she was 18 and got into MIT, people would say to her - did you get in because you were a girl? It always really bothered her, in part because she didn't know if she got into MIT because she was a girl.

So she thinks a lot about why certain people get things and why others don't. And as she moves into recruiting, she starts to think about this problem of the interview. So when you sit across from someone in an interview, there's all these things that you just know about them right away, including their gender. Because Aline Lerner is a software engineer, she said this is a problem I can solve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LERNER: We've realized that we could actually modulate people's voices and their pitch in real time.

KING: Meaning she can disguise the voice so you cannot tell if someone is male or female. So she builds this software and she starts playing around with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LERNER: The first version of this actually made everybody sound like the serial killer from

"Silence Of The Lambs." So we had to do some work to try to make the sound just a little bit more human and a little bit less serial killer/witness protection.

SMITH: Like Anthony Hopkins?

KING: (Laughter) No, Buffalo Bill.

SMITH: Oh, Buffalo Bill. Oh.

KING: (Laughter) So then I asked her to - you know - can you show me how it works?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: Can you just, like, switch it on?

LERNER: Yeah. Let's give it a shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARTUP TONE)

LERNER: (Through voice modulator) Noel, can you hear me?

KING: Aline, is that you?

LERNER: (Through voice modulator) I am afraid it is.

KING: You really sound like a man.

LERNER: (Through voice modulator) Yeah, you do as well.

KING: How do I sound as a dude?

LERNER: You sound very - very self-entitled and confident.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Noel, I want to hear it. I want to hear it. I want to hear you as a man.

KING: You want to hear me as a man?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: (Through voice modulator) Aline, is that you?(Laughter) Oh, my God, you really sound like a man.

SMITH: You two sound identical.

KING: (Laughter) Kind of.

SMITH: Like, you would not be able to tell...

KING: You don't think (laughter)? I can hear my cadence, though. I can hear myself in that dude's voice.

SMITH: Now, we should say - like, this can also - you've had the default that you're a woman sounding like a man. But you can do it the other way, too.

KING: Yeah.

SMITH: You can make everybody sound like a woman.

KING: She could make you sound like a woman, yeah.

SMITH: Excellent. This is amazing technology. But has anyone actually used it - because it seems, like, a little bit awkward to say, like - oh, we're going to interview you through this weird system?

KING: So it is in very early stages. Aline Lerner's going to be rolling it out this summer. And one company she told me that expressed interest in this is Yelp, the online review company. They've said we think we would like to at least try this out.

SMITH: Now, you talked to a lot of people about this...

KING: Yeah.

SMITH: ...And asked them - will this solve the problem or go some ways toward solving the problem?

KING: Yeah. And people disagree on that, right. Some people say blind hiring is a good fix. There's been evidence that it does improve the diversity. It does improve gender for companies. There is evidence of that. And some people say it's like one step out of 100 that need to be taken. For instance, I met this woman Kaya Thomas. She's a junior at Dartmouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KAYA THOMAS: I am studying computer science. And I am the only black woman studying computer science in the class of 2017.

KING: So she's going to graduate into this world. And she's going to go looking for a job, probably in Silicon Valley. And she's got companies telling her - you know, we want people like you. We want more women. We want more African-Americans. And so when I asked her about, you know - now you have this option. You can have your voice changed so they don't know who you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: Would you do it?

THOMAS: No, I would not do that.

KING: She worries that if companies say look, we're using blind hiring to fix the problem, they might also then let themselves off the hook on diversity. And they might stop actively recruiting people like her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

THOMAS: Kind of just slapping on blind hiring and calling it a day is a terrible, terrible mistake. I think what will happen is a company will become complacent.

SMITH: And it will at least be a step back from the sort of - at the least the last 5, 10 years of awareness of, say, like, women in high tech.

KING: Yeah, that's right. And you know, I asked Aline Lerner about this - about the unintended consequences. And she said blind hiring is not supposed to be the only step that we take. It is supposed to be one step. And at a certain point in this process, you do take the blindfold off. And you do sit down with the person and then you get to know them and you talk about all kinds of things. And that's really how hiring decisions are made.

SMITH: Thank you, Noel.

KING: Thanks, Robert.

SMITH: As we were doing these stories, we talked to a lot of people who have studied the hiring process. And they said you have to kind of look at it sometimes from the point of view of employers. Employers are faced with sometimes thousands of applications for a job. And so oftentimes, they have to set up a way to weed out the best applicants. Sometimes that's the amount of experience, maybe that amount of education a person has or a whole list of other factors that can go into whether someone gets the job or not.

Keith Romer looked into this. And he specifically looked at one factor that employers may be giving a little bit too much importance to.

SMITH: Hey, Keith.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

So I met this 22-year-old guy from the Bronx Alexis the other day. I'm only going to use his first name for reasons that are going to become clear. Alexis has been looking for a job for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALEXIS: I've been applying for every type of job there is available. Anything that's unavailable, I still apply for.

ROMER: One of those jobs was at Target. When they called him back, he was ecstatic.

ALEXIS: I was jumping around. Thank God that I put the phone on mute because she would've heard me scream - of joy. I was happy as hell.

ROMER: Alexis went through two interviews. He thought it went great. They told him at the second interview - if we like you, we'll call you back. If you don't hear from us, that means you didn't get the job.

SMITH: And?

ROMER: Alexis didn't hear from them.

SMITH: OK.

ROMER: He's pretty sure that's because of criminal background check the company ran on him. A few years ago, Alexis violated a restraining order. He went to prison. That means he's a felon.

SMITH: That means he has a felony record. And for a lot of companies, that is a deal-breaker. When they're faced with thousands of applicants, especially for an entry-level job, why choose someone who has a criminal record when there are plenty people who don't have criminal records?

ROMER: Right. I called one of the largest employers in the country to see what their policy was these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LT. COL. JERRY PIONK: The perfect applicant we take is a decent student, a high school graduate, has resiliency and fitness of character. And that's the kind of folks we are trying to appeal to and get.

ROMER: Notice that little bit there about fitness of character. That spokesman was Jerry Pionk. He's a spokesman for the U.S. Army. That's Lt. Col. Jerry Pionk. He says the Army wouldn't hire someone like Alexis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PIONK: At this time, the Army is taking no applicants with any felonies.

SMITH: This was not always the rule, though. In fact, during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of people with felony convictions were given waivers that allowed them to enlist. If you had committed a crime - if you had gone to prison, the Army would still at least consider you, give you an interview and say perhaps you can join the Army.

ROMER: And the reason was pretty simple. The Army needed soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PIONK: We needed more people in, so we allowed and granted more waivers to be signed.

ROMER: For people who study this kind of thing, this is amazing. They have all these questions.

Do ex-offenders do well in the workplace? Can you hire them? Are they going to be good employees?

SMITH: Because you have, all of a sudden, this giant employer - U.S. Army - who previously excluded people and now was hiring them. And you could see what was going to happen.

ROMER: So one sociologist who decided to take a look at all this is Devah Pager from Harvard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEVAH PAGER: We realized that the military, in fact, represents kind of an ideal setting to test some of these questions.

SMITH: Yeah, a lot of people have these questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAGER: Something like 8 percent of the working-age population in this country has a felony conviction. So this is a fairly common status.

ROMER: So Pager needed data. She goes to the U.S. military. She files a Freedom of Information Act, and she gets the enlistment records of service members who signed up from 2002 to 2009. That's more than 1 million people. Five thousand of these people have felony records.

SMITH: The next step is she has to figure out a way to determine whether these convicted felons were good employees, essentially good members of the military. And that's a hard thing to look at, but she ended up figuring out what did these soldiers sign on for - how long did they promise to serve the military and how many of them got the boot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAGER: On average, those with felony waivers are no more likely to get kicked out.

ROMER: So they did just as well as everybody else. So the next thing Pager looks at is promotions, and this gets even more interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAGER: We actually find that those with felony-level waivers are promoted faster and to higher levels than those without waivers. And that was quite a surprise to us.

ROMER: So the people with the felon records - they actually did better on this measure. They were getting promoted faster and higher than their counterparts.

SMITH: Which is sort of unusual. Did Pager have any theories about why this is happening?

ROMER: Well, she thought that one thing that might be going on is that people who were coming out of prison are worried about getting jobs. And so when they get one, they try hard to hold onto it. And so, maybe those people who were joining the Army were getting promoted because they were more serious about being in the Army.

SMITH: Sort of the second chance hypothesis.

ROMER: Right. But at the same time, she does acknowledge the possibility that working for the Army or working for Target are kind of different things.

SMITH: A little difference in discipline, perhaps.

ROMER: Right. But she does think that civilian employers still could learn from what the military was doing. Right? The military was not using a criminal record as a litmus test. They weren't saying if you have a felony, you're out. They were saying if you have a felony, let's look at some other things. Let's look at what kind of felony was it, how long ago was the felony. Do you have recommendations from people in your community?

They were using something the whole-person standard. And Pager thinks that civilian employers should think about adopting something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAGER: Employers are probably missing a lot of talent when they exclude people with criminal records.

ROMER: And that this is obviously the position of people who have those criminal records, right? Remember Alexis from the beginning, the 22-year-old from the Bronx?

SMITH: Who did not get the job at Target.

ROMER: Right. This is the point that he basically wants to make about himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALEXIS: I'm a natural hard worker. Even if I didn't go to prison, I would still work hard, harder than I'm originally supposed to. I'm just a hard worker.

ROMER: If you - if you were allowed to, would you ever consider joining the military?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALEXIS: I would love to join the military.

ROMER: But right now, as the rules stand, Alexis cannot join the military because of his felony conviction.

ROMER: Because the Army isn't giving the number of waivers they used to give back when we were fighting two wars.

SMITH: At least as far as the Army goes, they're barely giving any waivers.

SMITH: Thanks, Keith.

ROMER: Thank you, Robert.

SMITH: Now, there's an obvious way to fix hiring practices that society feels are unfair. You can pass a law against them, and that has definitely been happening. A hundred cities and counties have made it illegal to ask about a person's criminal record, at least early in the application process. Eleven states have said you can't take credit history - you know, your credit score. You can take that into account for most jobs.

Danny Shoag, the Harvard researcher we met at the very beginning, he's been looking into how effective these laws are. So he started to look at these states that have banned employers from checking your credit score. He specifically studied neighborhoods where the residents have very low credit scores. Usually, these are poor neighborhoods. And when a ban on checking credit history went into effect...

SHOAG: We see a jump up in employment in those neighborhoods following one of these bans. There's a real positive affect.

SMITH: So people with low credit scores are more likely to get jobs?

SHOAG: Yes, exactly. The bans do what they set out to do.

SMITH: But there is a complication. Remember that big stack of applications that employers need to get through quickly? A credit check was an easy way to throw out a quarter or half of those resumes. It was sort of a convenience factor for employers.

Now, all of a sudden in places where you are not allowed to check credit histories, they had to find another way to filter the resumes. Shoag found that employers started to increase other job requirements. So for instance, a job that previously did not require experience, all of a sudden, after they banned credit checks, would require job experience.

SHOAG: Right. Or go from, you know, not saying that you need a college degree to saying that you do need a college degree - and you can see these changes in the data set.

SMITH: The theory in passing the laws against credit checks was that it would help black applicants, that it would help young applicants, people who tend to have lower credit scores. But now that employers were asking for more experience, asking for more education, Shoag found that the laws were hurting the very same people they were meant to help.

SHOAG: The switch from checking credit scores to relying on other signals like education and experience actually created relatively worse outcomes for African-Americans.

SMITH: So fewer African-Americans were getting jobs?

SHOAG: Yeah. Employment went down for African-Americans - and for young people.

SMITH: For young people, too?

SHOAG: Yes.

SMITH: Once again, these bans helped people with low credit scores, but black and young applicants were relatively worse off, maybe because of those stricter job requirements he found. But Shoag also can't rule out the theory that without being able to do a credit check, some employers were falling back on racial stereotypes as a filter.

The key thing to remember, Shoag says, is that with all these tweaks to the job filter, you do have consequences because changing the way you hire doesn't create more jobs. There are the same number of openings. And so if you change something to hire more women, say, you will then logically hire fewer men.

And that may be fine, especially in Silicon Valley, but sometimes the trade-off is tougher. If you make it easier for people with low credit scores to get jobs, then some other struggling group may get fewer opportunities.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DUFILHO AND SKINNY WILLIAMS SONG, "GATHER 'ROUND")

SMITH: Let us know what you thought of today's show. We are planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can find us on Twitter or Facebook - @planet money. Thanks today to Nick Fountain who produced this episode along with Sally Helm, Jess Jiang and Alex Goldmark.

And perhaps now that you're finished listening to us in whatever podcast-playing app you use, may we suggest that you try out NPR One? If you've never used NPR One before, it is a revelation. First of all, it has all the news you need from NPR and your local member station plus podcasts.

Plus - special for NPR One listeners, you can hear some NPR podcasts ahead of everybody else. We're doing this with Pop Culture Happy Hour. Every Thursday, you can hear their take on the pop culture of the week before anyone else only on NPR One. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

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