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How to Select Resumes Without Perpetuating Bias

Posted by Bob Corlett on June 23, 2020

When we present a slate of candidates to a hiring manager, we don’t “pitch” who we like best. Nor do we suggest they start their selection process by reading the candidates’ resumes. Both practices introduce far too much bias to the hiring process.

Instead, we ask each candidate to submit some written information specifically related to the key job competencies. The writing prompts and answers mirror what typically happens in a first interview, but in this case it is a “blind audition.” We present that supplemental information on a dashboard along with the resume and recommend that our clients read the supplemental information before reading the resume. We know our approach is unusual, but in deciding who to interview, our clients find the supplemental information to be far more useful and relevant than the resume. We know the approach reduces bias in the interview selection process.

In a typical hiring process, the resume often bars the door to diversifying the candidate pool. We all form these mental pictures of what a “good” resume should look like and we are prone to reject people who do not fit our mental image. In that way, we’re all prisoners of our own experience. If a hiring manager has never seen someone with an unusual background succeed, they unwittingly rule it out as a possibility. But when they see evidence of that person’s success in the supplemental information, that perception shifts. The door cracks open. We know from experience that candidates with non-traditional resumes can be a very pleasant surprise in the interview.

The problem with pedigree

A preference for pedigree (I just call it "resume bias") is just as damaging to great hiring as any other kind of bias because, like other forms of bias, it confers an advantage to some candidates while excluding other highly qualified people (often people from a different socioeconomic background).

We also know that faced with a stack of resumes, most hiring managers have a reflexive preference for pedigree, gravitating toward the candidates who worked at well-known, reputable organizations (who in turn usually hire graduates from prestigious universities). But this pedigree preference is a pattern to be interrupted if we are serious about dismantling the systemic bias inherent in most hiring practices. Yale law professor Daniel Markovits refers to this pedigree focus in his book, “The Meritocracy Trap.” And while meritocracy may sound good in theory, he forcefully argues that it is “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” His point is that the most elite organizations tend to hire the most elite graduates of the most elite schools, who primarily draw students from elite prep schools and wealthier parents. As we all saw in the college admissions scandal, the system is too easily gamed by the wealthy turning it into “…a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth, privilege and caste across generations.” When hiring managers focus too much on pedigree in selecting who to interview, that pattern perpetuates.

I’ve long argued that for small organizations, the key to hiring success is to think more broadly about the different paths people take to reach competency. Research shows that education, grade point average (GPA), and employer pedigree are very poor predictors of success on the job. When you reduce the preferential treatment of pedigree, you improve your chances of recruiting talented people who can help you adapt and thrive.

See also:

Results-Based Hiring Scorecard: Quickly See How Your Hiring Process Stacks Up


Topics: Hiring Process, Evidence Based Interviewing