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How Busting Your Bias on Resumes Can Maximize Diversity

September 1, 2021

Clients frequently ask us how to find candidates who help them diversify their leadership teams or boards. They also ask about how to assess candidate quality and credibility, particularly when it comes to connecting with candidates from new pools of talent (or who may be taking on a role for the first time).

The usual approach for finding candidates is to search for people who have some things in common with us, or have some experience that resonates with us, and that we can more easily put in a box. We start by looking at our LinkedIn network. Is there anyone who is a first or second level connection? We trust people who have some level of connection. We may look, for example, at where they went to school. Is it a school we know? Did we go there? Is it well regarded? We also look at companies someone has worked for. Is it a company we know? Does it have a reputation about the type of people they hire or that are successful there?

While these approaches may be effective, at least giving us a comfort level, they won’t be successful in building a more diverse candidate pool. To do that, you’ll have to look more broadly, and then figure out ways to evaluate experience. For many of us, our own biases of what we perceive “a strong resume” looks like may be getting in the way.

Below, we’ve identified five common biases about resumes and some ideas for how to look at profiles and experience through a different lens, which is required to bring real diversity to your team.

Here are 5 common biases about candidate profiles (and how to look at them a little bit differently):

Bias 1: No experience at a “name brand” tech company
What you may think it means: That they weren’t smart enough or ambitious enough to get hired by a brand-name tech company like Google, Amazon, or Facebook, and therefore they won’t have the hustle they need to succeed at your company

What it may actually mean: That they wanted to forge their own destiny, gain more leverage in a smaller company, and that they aren’t just working for a big paycheck.

What to look for instead: The actual work they did and skills they gained where they worked. In the Bolster profile, we limit people to three ‘superpowers’ - those areas that they have the most interest and impact.

Bias 2: No past board experience
What you may think it means: That they aren’t strategic enough to add meaningful value in a boardroom setting, or that they haven’t advanced enough in their career to gain this experience.

What it may actually mean: That they haven’t yet had the opportunity to get onto a board. Private board seats have historically been limited to CEOs and investors, so many people don’t have the opportunity to serve.

What to look for instead: Experience on other types of boards, such as nonprofits, homeowners associations, or PTAs. Experience in presenting to a board as part of an executive team. Board training.

Bias 3: Gaps in resume
What you may think it means: Their skills are outdated, or they weren’t able to get a job, and therefore must have a bad reputation.

What it may actually mean: They purposely took a break from work for a personal or professional reason. They may have continued with their education or gained additional skills while not formally at work.

What to look for instead: What they did while not in paid employment and how they frame the skills they gained during that time. Some of the best ideas can come from individuals who remove themselves temporarily from the typical business silos and protocols. If you’re looking for an agent of change, a gap in a resume may be the perspective shift you need.

Bias 4: No C-level experience
What you may think it means: That they don’t have the strategic experience as operator to work at a higher level on your C-suite or board.

What it may actually mean: That job titles don’t matter nearly as much as function – particularly if looking in a company or industry outside of your normal scope, the way that organization assigns titles may matter less than the type of work they did.

What to look for instead: Use the interview process to gauge ability to operate at the executive level in other ways: Can they look at the big picture of the business as well as the priorities of their individual domain? Do they seem tapped into industry trends in a way that would make them a trusted advisor on your leadership team or board? Have they managed multiple sub-functions at one time effectively? These may matter a lot more than their prior title.

Bias 5: University attended
What you may think it means: That going to a specific university or a top-tier university is indicative of a personality type or level of intelligence that will make someone successful in your company.

What it may actually mean: While it may be true that it takes a certain level of intelligence to graduate from a top-tier school, there isn’t always a correlation between intelligence and success in the workplace, and you are missing candidates that didn’t have the privilege of attending a top tier school.

What to look for instead: Look for indications that the candidate has a growth mindset and has achieved the level of education or training that is needed for the role. Open your mind to technical training, certifications, and other types of education.

According to research from our Board Benchmarking study, two-thirds of CEOs are open to bringing on first-time directors to their boards, which means that the profiles of these directors naturally won’t look like a “typical profile.” This is why it’s important to run “bias checks” on our typical candidate review process. As it turns out, things aren’t always as they might appear.

-Bethany Crystal and Cathy Hawley, September 1, 2021.