Turning a blind eye to bias

TwelveJobs aims at workplace diversity.

Amy Seibel is in the process of launching a company named TwelveJobs - Courtesy Amy Seibel

Doing well by doing good is a win-win business construct which holds that socially beneficial work is also personally and professionally rewarding.

Longtime Aquinnah summer resident Amy Seibel and her husband Nat Seelen are in the process of launching a for-profit company named TwelveJobs (twelvejobs.com) that has been designed to remove bias from the hiring process while providing good fits for job seekers and potential employers.

Ms. Seibel spoke last weekend with The Times from her home in Cambridge, where the 2009 Brown University graduate and Fulbright M.B.A. scholar and her husband have developed an algorithm that allows job seekers and employers to learn about each other in an environment free from both overt and unconscious bias related to gender, race, age, even physical addresses.

TwelveJobs users complete a multiple-choice questionnaire that produces 10 subcategories of algorithmic analyses to rate candidates on a 1 to 10 basis per category.

Wikipedia defines an algorithm as “a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed. Algorithms can perform calculation, data processing and automated reasoning tasks” using math and computer sciences. Particularly fitting in TwelveJobs’ work for diversity, the word “algorithm” combines Greek, Latin, and Persian antecedents.

One of the TwelveJob’s goals is to provide lasting employment relationships. “We found in our research that the average person now has 12 to 15 jobs in their working life. We hope to help reduce that number to the lower range of the spectrum” by providing better fits between applicants and employers, Ms. Seibel says.

The Seibels’ algorithm platform is designed to provide up to 50 key data points about applicants, including experience and education, which employers can use to measure skill and suitability for their workplace.

Twelvejobs has completed a private launch of its website, and is looking at an early fall public rollout of its idea, which has already attracted positive attention in the industry.

This month, TwelveJobs was accorded “favored status,” representing high praise among startups, at an August 2017 Massachusetts Innovation Night in which innovators and their products are introduced and recognized.

Ms. Seibel is aware of the current high-visibility discourse about bias and discrimination, and the husband-and-wife team spent a year developing a bias-free environment for interchange.

“The discussion [about bias] has entered public awareness. It’s a problem that needs to be solved. Our goal is to reduce implicit bias, so we essentially researched and interviewed people about bias they face. We don’t show photos, gender, year of graduation, or address. We provide relevant information to employers, the information they need to make a decision. For example, instead of providing an address of an applicant, we say the person is comfortable with the commuting distance,” she said.

Implicit biases are notions and perspectives we have but of which we are unaware. Ms. Seibel used as an example the now-famous 1952 Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) “blind study” to recruit players.

In that study, the BSO, then overwhelmingly composed of white male musicians, placed applicants behind a screen to audition. In the first audtion, white males predominated. In a subsequent audition, applicants were asked to remove their shoes, which identified gender and were visible to judges. In the second, shoeless audition, women and men received equally high scores.

“The BSO went from 5 to 25 women then. So women were getting better opportunities, and the BSO got better candidates,” she said.

“What led me to this idea? In my career, I’ve noticed that a lot of organizations are more diverse at the bottom than at the top. We want to remove the glass ceilings,” she said.

So Ms. Seibel and Mr. Seelen got to work. “Nat was the director of data at Boston’s Brooke Charter School, and I had worked in human resources and consulting for nonprofits, so we were both engaged in social impact and technology,” she said.

TwelveJobs enters a $135 billion employment market in the U.S. and a $400 billion market worldwide. The company has completed its beta test, and has several hundred applicants in its databases, most in the Boston and New England area. Applicants and employers can now log on to twelvejobs.com, get access to the program, and begin the process themselves.

The company is tweaking its pricing structure for its public rollout, but one TwelveJobs bias is clear: Typically, underfunded nonprofit employers will get a pricing break from TwelveJobs.

Currently, “the industry includes traditional recruiters and job boards, and a couple of companies starting up like we are. It’s a good time to be entering the market,” Ms. Seibel said.