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Blind Hiring, While Well Meaning, May Create Unintended Consequences

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is hard to hire purely on merit. Executives may be influenced by an applicant's age or race or just where they attended school.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's why some companies practice blind hiring, testing candidates for jobs without knowing anything about them. Noel King of NPR's Planet Money team found a company that took this to a new level.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Aline Lerner is one of the people at the forefront of the blind hiring movement in Silicon Valley. She built an online platform called interviewing.io that lets companies interview job candidates anonymously. Two people first meet in an online chat room. The interviewer gives the candidate a test, like a math problem or a line of code to write. But even if they're anonymous at the beginning, at some point, she says, they're going to have to talk.

ALINE LERNER: One of the things that came up was 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.

KING: Lerner used to be a software engineer. So this was a problem she could work with.

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

KING: Disguise the voice so you can't tell if someone's male or female. She built some software and started playing around with it.

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.

KING: We connected on the platform, and Lerner showed me.

Can you just, like, switch it on?

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

Noel, can you hear me?

KING: Aline, is that you?

LERNER: I am afraid it is.

KING: (Laughter) Oh, my God, you really sound like a man.

LERNER: Yeah. You do as well.

KING: How do I sound as a dude?

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

(LAUGHTER)

KING: This is me with a man's voice.

Aline, is that you? (Laughter) Oh, my God, you really sound like a man.

She says the software can also make men sound like women. Lerner's rolling out the voice masking early this summer. Yelp, the company that does online reviews, has expressed interest in using it. The whole point of this platform is to help companies eliminate biases. But some people worry there might be unintended consequences. Kaya Thomas is a junior at Dartmouth.

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

KING: She's going to be looking for a job, probably in Silicon Valley. A lot of companies there say they want to hire more women, more people of color. And when I told her about this option, having your voice changed in an interview.

Would you do it?

THOMAS: No, I would not do that.

KING: She worries that if companies use blind hiring as a fix to eliminate bias, they might stop actively recruiting people like her.

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

KING: She wants employers to be hiring with their eyes open, not shut. I asked Aline Lerner, the woman who created the voice-altering software, about this. She says blind hiring doesn't mean you do the whole thing blind. At some point, candidates and interviewers meet. And then people can take all kinds of things into account. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.