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Gaming the System to Boost Recruiting

Companies like Unilever are employing gamification to eliminate bias in recruiting, but does it really work?

Gamification is helping companies curb unconscious bias from recruiting.

Consumer goods maker Unilever announced the launch of a new digital recruitment program that will use gamification to eliminate unconscious bias from its hiring process. The technology, unveiled in September, mixes gaming elements with video interviews to identify the best candidates among its 250,000 annual graduate applicants, said Leena Nair, chief HR officer for Unilever.

“It is hoped that this innovative approach will help us attract new talent to the company,” Nair said in a statement.

This trend, which promises to make every aspect of the talent development experience “fun and engaging!” has led to a surge of new tools, vendor platforms, and social features across the HR tech platform, from recruiting through training, performance management and succession planning. It is important to note that gamification is not the same as gaming, said Kyle Lagunas, analyst for IDC.

“It’s not about turning work or job applications into games,” he said. “It’s about leveraging game mechanics for other use cases.”

For example, a status bar letting candidates know where they are in the application process is a gaming mechanic, as is giving employees points or badges for submitting good referrals. “The end goal is to incentivize a certain behavior through these technologies,” he said.

Unilever joins a number of global brands including Google, Uber, Marriott, and Deloitte , using gamification in their recruiting strategy in an effort to increase candidate engagement, shorten screening time, and build brand awareness. Though using it to eliminate bias is somewhat new.

The platform invites candidates to play a series of games that allow Unilever to gain insight into their skills and potential, which may not show up on a résumé. It also gives them a sense of how well the candidates “connect with the company’s goals and purpose.”

Nair called it a “truly interactive experience” that will allow the company to connect with applicants in a more meaningful way.

Dishwasher Hired in Coding Challenge

It’s an interesting spin on a difficult problem that recruiters and hiring managers struggle to address. “The challenge with bias is that most people don’t realize they are doing it,” said Vivek Ravisankar, co-founder of HackerRank, a tech talent recruiting platform that uses coding challenges to assess candidates’ skills rather than résumés.

Bias isn’t just limited to racial or gender issues. It can extend to what schools a hiring manager thinks are relevant, where a candidate is from and what past experience they have. “We are drawn to people who are like us,” he said. That can subconsciously impact hiring decisions, leading managers to dismiss the most skilled candidates in preference for someone more familiar, or to leave the job open. Ravisankar notes that unconscious bias has led to the myth that talented developers are impossible to find. “When you eliminate bias and just look at a candidates skills, you’ll find there are a lot more options.”

Ravisankar shared the story of a former dishwasher who taught himself to code on the side but was repeatedly rejected by companies because of his non-traditional career path — until he completed a HackerRank challenge for VMware, the virtualization software subsidiary of Dell.

“He did great on the challenge and got the job,” Ravisankar reports. “It’s a great example of someone who was repeatedly rejected in every résumé screen but now works for a Fortune 500 company.”

Gamification can also be used to challenge decisions made by recruiters and hiring managers to further drive bias out of the process, Lagunas said. For example, having recruiters and managers rate candidates with a five-star tool that requires them to provide justification for low ratings. “They can’t just say ‘poor culture fit,’ ” he said. Instead they are prompted to explain how that candidate doesn’t align with the core pillars of the company’s culture. “People often use ‘culture fit’ as an excuse not to hire someone. This use of gamification challenges that excuse.”

But technology alone, no matter how fun or engaging, will not solve the entire problem of bias, Lagunas said. While these tools help companies look beyond the résumé, managers still need to be aware of their internal biases when making final hiring decisions. “The biggest hurdle is admitting we all have them,” he said. “You have to embrace your bias before you can find a solution.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer living in the Chicago area.