Robots Reading Resumes: Dumb and Dumber?

The airwaves seem full of ads these days extolling the virtues of online screening and hiring systems. They are poised to deliver the carefully selected resumes of only the best and brightest to beleaguered hiring managers and executives everywhere. They claim to save time and frustration by presenting candidates in the flash of an eye without all that messy human attention. Really?

When people morphed from “our most important asset” to being ordered from Amazon

Let me be clear: I love progress and technology and I like and use Amazon. But also confess I have never been tempted to buy any of the titles its algorithms suggest. My problem with automated resume screening is a far deeper one. It is more foundational than the common critique of various unconscious and conscious biases designed into these systems by humans who carry them.

You are probably familiar with the alleged or actual tendency of some designs to exclude the earlier accomplishments of older applicants. A host of similar exclusionary shortcomings have been raised on other fronts and no doubt the nascent industry is wrestling with them. Sadly, none of these challenges and fixes speaks to what I consider a more dangerous assumption we have lived with in hiring for decades: resumes are an indicator of true talent, capability and promise. But are they?

Resumes are as much a summary of discriminatory opportunities as well as true talent

Yes, a resume is a summary of the chances you have been given that allowed you to gain the experience that helps assure the next step in a career. But do people secure that first position (and thus subsequent ones) because they are the absolute best possible person for that position, or for reasons tinged with randomness and bias of various sorts?

If there is any truth to the adage that “talent is fairly evenly distributed, but opportunity is not” then the resume is the embodiment of that fact. If people are indeed the lifeblood of our organizations, if talent is our most precious asset, then finding the best possible talent, and not automated ease, should be the primary goal of hiring. If resumes are themselves a partial and potentially biased representation of people’s talent, doesn’t neatly automating the process deeply turbocharge its limitations?

What then might inclusive and wholly talent-driven screening and hiring look like?

Let me describe one example of a different approach. I was once tasked with designing a process for and hiring a creative and diversely skilled executive who would direct the national replication of a highly successful city-wide conflict resolution program. The required skills were substantial and as the two leaders of the program were white males and the target communities were multi-cultural, there was a strong premium placed on diversity. There was an equally strong concern in our diverse Board and staff that we not do what was then called a “quota” hiring. Our goal was as bias-free a process as we could design to deliver the best possible person.

During a recruiting trip, I sat in my room one evening working my way through a pile of 120 promising candidates. Since we thought we could accommodate ten or so screening interviews on the way to a final choice, I dove in. As I sorted for the top ten, I was disappointed, but not surprised to find that of those ten, eight were males and eight appeared to be white. Based on resume alone, ending up with a diverse leadership team looked unlikely.

As a longtime student of history and biography, it dawned on me that like cursory bios, these resumes told only part of the story – showed only some of the person’s true talents and capabilities. I wondered what would happen if I dug deeper in the pile. When I pulled the top twenty, an amazing thing happened. By going to the apparent “second tier” of resumes, the pool became 12 men and eight women, 11 apparent whites with the balance a mix of minorities.

Mining this talent pool requires an innovative and international hiring process

To shift from reading resumes to exploring real candidates and to not exhaust our interviewers, we designed a robust and intriguing group interview process. Informed that our goal was a fair and inclusive process, applicants agreed to throw their hats in the ring. We organized two-hour interviews in groups of six with two of our staff. Thus we could accommodate 24 screening interviews in the time it would have taken to conduct eight individual sessions.

We included three components in each session: an opening description by each on the most innovative thing they’d done in an organization; a 1-1/2 hour session to tackle together a real organizational challenge, and a final opportunity to explain why each would be the best possible occupant of the role. People engaged in a lively and collegial session and freed of the burden of playing scripted inquisitors, we got to see how these folks actually worked.

And these applicants got to see the others who were contending with them for the position – something they all commented on favorably. In the first group I conducted, an African-American woman whose resume did not make the first cut emerged as such a powerful force that the other five candidates withdrew and recommended that we hire her. She went on to become the final choice.

Based on that and decades of hiring experience, count me a skeptic that turbocharging a shallow screening process and sparing humans from the hard work of attracting and identifying the best possible talent will result in great companies.

Just because you can automate, it doesn’t mean you should.


Paul Rupert, Founder & CEO
Rupert Organizational Design

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