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Rethinking Blinded Resumes

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The practice of blinding resumes–that is, removing information from candidate materials that might reveal identity characteristics such as gender, race, or socioeconomic background–has seen an uptick in popularity over the past few years. This move is no surprise since companies have increased their commitments to a diverse workforce and are actively analyzing the root causes of a lack of diversity.

The resume review process is a natural point for scrutiny. The hiring process is the “front door” for an employee to enter a company, and resumes are generally the first interaction between a company and a candidate. A few oft-cited research studies suggest that when hiring managers review a resume, they often discriminate based on a candidate’s presumed gender or how “normal” (i.e., white) the candidate’s name sounds.

    (Mind the paywall on these resources: NY Times, Is Blind Hiring the Best Hiring? and SHRM, Can Blind Hiring Improve Workplace Diversity? )

If this is true–if it is good old-fashioned bias keeping an otherwise strong resume from moving forward in the process–then it is logical to remove the data that triggers the bias.

(I cynically note, though, that the increased interest in blinding resumes seems to correlate with the increase in software and consulting companies willing to solve this problem for a fee. Hmmm…)

It is worth examining whether there is a deep and broad body of research on this topic. I have yet to see multiple, well-designed research projects that validate the solution (remove the data that causes biased decision-making) or even the defined problem (a biased read of resumes excludes candidates from the interview process). Hiring teams implementing a resume-blind hiring process should realize they are participating in an experiment, not implementing a well-researched, time-tested best practice.

A couple of years ago, in my role as a retained search consultant, two different client organizations wanted us to help them experiment with the blinded resume approach. So my team blacked-out sections in the candidate material PDFs to omit names and universities, then sent the documents to the hiring team before the first candidate selection meeting.

Even though both client organizations had asked us to try this method, the result for both hiring teams was frustration. One even circumvented the process by googling the candidates based on information that was still visible! These clients were desirous to know more details about the candidates, so they could bring a “whole person approach” to their candidate selection process as they sought to increase the diversity of their teams.

Which brings us to my most important question: What is the problem my clients are trying to solve?

Another Perspective: Applying an Equity Lens

The client organizations I work with in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector typically ask their recruiter to help them do more than simply reduce bias. As they do their internal work to create a more equitable work environment (and world!), they proactively want to interview and hire candidates who will add diversity to their team. For my clients, diversity priorities include lived experience, racial/ethnic diversity, gender diversity, or some combination of factors. In most cases, they have looked at their team and identified missing perspectives that could better inform the organization about the issues and populations they work with.

In my consulting practice now, I talk with clients about what it would look like to apply an equity lens to their hiring process. How can we design a process that proactively invites candidates, particularly those otherwise typically excluded, to participate? Instead of knowing less about a candidate, we seek to learn more.

Part of applying an equity lens is to rethink the mentality of ruling out candidates, excluding them based on resume data points. Instead, as I review resumes, I ask if I should rule them in to have a short conversation to learn more. I wonder, what else do I need to know about this candidate to determine if they’re a good fit?

On a practical level, when I review resumes, I try not to make assumptions about things like the candidate’s degree program, the number of years with a “Director” title, or gaps in their resume. If, on paper, there are several reasons why the candidate is clearly unqualified, they don’t move forward to the phone interview. In other cases, if there are enough interesting things about the candidate’s resume and cover letter that make me curious to learn more, I say bring them in.

One client I work with added a line to each job posting, guaranteeing a phone interview to candidates who would add diversity to the team:

    We encourage candidates from all backgrounds to apply, and we commit to interviewing candidates representing communities that have traditionally been underrepresented in our sector.

The only way we can do that is if the cover letter and resume give us some clues.

Looking back at the candidates my clients have hired over the past year, I can think of at least two successful nontraditional hires. These candidates would never have received a phone interview if we had simply compared their resumes to the job description. Instead, by prioritizing curiosity and an equity lens, my clients now have exceptional leaders on their team who add new perspectives and skills to their work.