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David Ciccarelli (Kris Krug)
David Ciccarelli (Kris Krug)

LEADERSHIP LAB

How to prevent discrimination from taking root in your online business Add to ...

David Ciccarelli is CEO and founder of Voices.com

If you work at a digital company, it’s been hard to miss the controversy swirling around other online providers. Namely, the ways in which their platforms have been unintentionally twisted to enable prejudice. It’s been hard to miss how Airbnb has landed in these crosshairs, as their members have found ways to actively discriminate against one another based on ethnicity.

Once a problem like this has taken root, it can be difficult to truly fix it. That doesn’t mean just technologically, but also in terms of reputation and brand association.

The kind of hurt that discrimination causes runs deep, and can take a long, long time to heal.

Whether or not a company founder envisioned their platform would be used that way or not doesn’t matter. What’s important is to realize that business owners do have a responsibility to be stewards of a marketplace that’s free from discrimination, whenever they are able to.

As the CEO of an online company, the issue of guarding against discrimination hits close to home. Much like Airbnb, the Voices.com platform is meant to connect two parties who can mutually benefit from working with one another. A discrimination-free space is especially important to our business, as we were founded to enable voice actors and companies looking for the best talent to connect. We are an online marketplace and our clients deserve a safe and fair place to operate.

Throughout the course of our company’s evolution, we’ve put a lot of thought into guarding the rights of both parties - those looking for work, and those looking to hire.

So what can online marketplaces do in order to level the playing field so that all people can reap the same benefits? Here are some of the insights gleaned from our experience.

Enable customizable profile photos and names

When you’re allowing individuals to create a profile that will be put in front of hundreds – if not thousands – of people browsing through your site, it’s important that users be able to protect their identity online. However, after a decision to connect is made, it’s equally important that both parties gain a deeper degree of transparency, such as knowing the legal identity of who they are working with.

But that being said, for the purpose of avoiding bias at the outset, allowing users to modify their profile picture (or not have one at all) and create a screen name empowers personal branding that goes beyond physical or cultural indicators.

Take for instance how, in the entertainment industry, stage names are pretty commonplace. People change them for all sorts of reasons, whether as an extension of their creativity or to create a more memorable moniker.

There’s no reason why online platforms should bar people from this practice, especially if it is going to add equity to someone’s personal brand, all without impacting the client experience.

When it comes to photography, it should be up to the individual as to whether or not their outward image is something they would like to show. Profile photos can offer users a chance to showcase their creativity, with work samples, logos or photos that serve as metaphors (e.g. a mint leaf for a voice actor with a “fresh” sound).

Allow users to control the personal information included on their profile

When someone creates a profile online, more often than not, it gets listed in search results on your site and ultimately in search engines like Google.

For this reason, it’s worthwhile to offer flexibility in how much – or how little – personal information users are required to outwardly show on their profile (what you collect for registration is a different matter).

Some businesses can be hesitant to allow for this degree of freedom, because, for instance, allowing users to post their contact information is one way for those looking to hire to circumvent your platform and work directly with the service provider instead.

But if your platform is built to create community and connections – and the experience you’ve created is good – then your platform won’t have to be a gatekeeper. While you may lose some business, most people on your platform will stick with you.

Provide a digital screen when appropriate

If your company is helping to put pitches and proposals in front of an end client so they can make a selection, the work should have a chance to speak for itself. Sometimes this means that when a client gets a pitch, they don’t immediately see the user name or profile photo of the individual who has put the proposal together.

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If you’re not running an online business, there are still many examples of practices that you can implement in the spirit of fostering fairness and equality.

Recognize bias and take measures to address it

Perhaps one of the more famous examples of an industry revolutionizing their practices to eradicate prejudice is when orchestras revised their audition processes in the 1970s and 80s by putting up a physical blind during auditions. In some cases, applicants even removed their shoes in order to remove all cues of their gender identity. According to Harvard University, by ensuring that a candidate’s gender was hidden, the number of female staff in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the US increased from 6 per cent in 1970 to 21 per cent in 1993.

Appreciate that some bias is unconscious and don’t let it creep in

Other research published in Scientific American suggests that removing names from resumes could help companies overcome unconscious prejudice towards race and gender. And today, many companies are adopting this practice.

In the end, always have the discussion. Be open to being better

While it may be disheartening that businesses have to take such precautions and measures to ensure that they aren’t opening the door to hurtful discrimination, the fact that those discussions are now so far-reaching is actually a positive.

It’s only by recognizing the places where prejudice lives that we can address and eradicate it. It’s only by opening ourselves to taking a hard look inward that we can help create a better place for the world at large.

We have to always be open to being better.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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