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Do Resumes Encourage Hiring Manager Bias?

Posted by: Marc

Putting together a cover letter and CV is one of the most dreaded aspects of searching for a job. Adjusting the contents for each position applied for – and knowing in some cases those contents will never even be read – can be a dispiriting process.

Employers don’t exactly love wading through stacks of applications either. The cover letter-and-CV combo is not an efficient way to identify strong candidates, and it becomes less efficient the taller the pile.

Inefficiency isn’t the only problem. Research has shown the dominant method for finding new candidates is often discriminatory. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, job applicants with ‘white’ names needed to send 10 resumes to receive one callback, versus those with African-American names who had to send 15. The research team conducted an experiment in which they responded to job ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers, sending resumes with names indicative of differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Another study, from 2014, submitted identical legal briefs to a panel of reviewers and found the standard of writing was consistently rated lower when the reviewer was told the author was black. Furthermore, a higher number of spelling, factual and grammar errors were found, despite the content being identical, suggesting deep-rooted systemic racism was at play.

It’s not just ethnicity that is routinely discriminated against. Research from Stanford suggests hiring managers are less likely to plump for mothers, if that status is presented on a CV. Multiple studies indicated that male-dominated executives consistently reveal gender biases in their hiring practices, with men more likely to advance their career than women, despite identical CVs and cover letters. According to Katherine Milkman, a Wharton professor who ran a study on discrimination in universities, “It’s not like just one group is being harmed… everyone is being harmed here relative to Caucasian males.”

That select group can be whittled down further still when you factor in background biases that relate to class. Hiring managers who review applicants from top universities and private schools are more likely to miss errors or dismiss a lack of experience or suitability. Conversely, an apt candidate from an economically poorer background may find their application on the receiving end of heightened scrutiny, with the reviewer looking for typos and other mistakes that confirm their bias. The fact that this entire process usually happens at a subconscious level only makes it more deeply entrenched and problematic.

Confirmation bias is not something most recruiters will readily admit to. They may even be alert to it, and design their hiring process in a way that minimizes the risk. But with large piles of applicants to sort through, and a recruitment process that could last weeks, completely eliminating discrimination is nigh on impossible under the CV-and-Cover-Letter system.

The most effective way to overcome discrimination is to emphasize to businesses that they are losing out. Research has shown that past credentials are not a good predictor of future performance. Reducing candidates to an ever decreasing pool of expensive educations, sought-after postcodes, maleness and whiteness is a surefire way to limit future growth.

Anonymizing the application process (at least to some extent) is one way of breaking the cycle. Some academics have suggested requesting CVs with only initials or a numbered code to identify the applicant. For some jobs, such as writing and coding, the first step of the application process might comprise a sample work assignment, submitted anonymously. This would tell hiring managers who is up to the task without fear of discrimination – unconscious or otherwise – creeping into their evaluation.

Road-testing the actual skills required for the position doesn’t seem so radical. And while hiring blind may not be suitable for every industry, minimizing implicit bias should be the aim of every business.


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Marc is a Director of The Talent Hive and leads our IT recruitment practice. Originally from the UK, Marc has been living in Christchurch, New Zealand for ten years and working in the recruitment sector for just as long. Marc has worked as an in-house recruiter and within multinational recruitment consultancies and independent recruitment businesses.

At The Talent Hive we specialise in connecting IT & Engineering professionals with the right career opportunities. We encourage collaboration, socialising your success and sharing industry insight and expertise. Start the journey, connect with The Talent Hive today.

Categorised as: Job Seeker Advice, Uncategorized