A case for “nameless” resumes

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Jamal, Billy Bob, Lupe, Gilberto, Mohammad, Ebony, Saschi …

There’s something amazing about chance encounters in hallways. To borrow a quote from John le Carré, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.”

During one such meeting, I met someone I knew, someone I’d heard so much about, so I asked what was it about her that every time her name came up in conversations about talent, the response was overwhelmingly, “Oh yes, she is talented and going places here, and quickly.” 

She smiled, then deftly sidestepped my question. Clearly she had something else she wanted to talk to me about, a specific reason why she pulled me aside.

“Terry I think it’s time for us to move to ‘nameless’ resumés when considering candidates for opportunities. All ears now, I asked her to elaborate.

“If we took names off resumes and let the candidates’ qualifications speak for themselves, a diverse team will emerge naturally. I’ve long felt that way. And my team is very diverse, I might add.”

That got me to thinking as we parted company. Removing names is one thing, but how about removing other indicators of a person’s background that may cause others to give an advantage or disadvantage to talented candidates – gender educational background, for example?

And how’s this for a jaw-dropper – what if we took GPAs off as well?

Not long after that encounter, I had a similar conversation about “nameless resumes” at a neighborhood coffee shop with a gentleman from a nearby high-tech firm. He pulled up a seat next to me and had this to say:

“A boss and the personnel working for her interviewed two candidates for a job position: One candidate was Chinese, and the other Indian. Each of the interviewers recommended hiring the Indian candidate, but the boss chose the Chinese candidate instead. The boss privately explained why she had gone against the other recommendations.

“As an Indian female with a surname belonging to a low caste, she was convinced that the Indian male candidate (whose surname belonged to a high caste) would be prejudiced against her. She explained that based on her experience having grown up in India, she knew what to expect and wanted to avoid it.”

Hiring in one’s own image

When all things are equal, individuals tend to gravitate toward the “known” rather than the “unknown,” and name recognition and familiarity is probably no exception. Additional research shows bias can turn up in interviews because of “affinity bias” (we prefer people who are like us) or “confirmation bias” (when we look for confirmation of our conscious or unconscious stereotypes).

Experts caution that the first step in addressing this kind of bias is to acknowledge that it is frequently not intentional and simply reflects the way our brains work as human beings. Creating defensiveness will not create change.

Here are ways to manage this kind of bias in the interviewing and selection processes:

  • Remove the names and addresses of applicants from resumes before they are circulated.
  • Structure interviews so that all candidates for the same position are asked the same questions.
  • Use multiple interviewers with diverse backgrounds.
  • Use group interviews.

A parting true story

Years ago an organization came to grips with the reality that it had virtually no diversity and met as a leadership team of 20 managers to figure out what to do to address the problem.

“Our problem is not getting qualified candidates from our recruiting and staffing team,” said one manager. “That’s so true,” said another. “Based on the low quality resumes I’m seeing, there’s no way we should hire them just to achieve diversity. The folks in HR must produce better candidates.”

Later HR reconvened a meeting with this team with a new list of resumés for the team to pore over, but with the names of candidates, as well as their universities, omitted from each in the stack of resumes.

“C’mon, you’ve got to do better than this HR,” said one leader after reading the resumes. “I agree,” said another. “This is still another very weak slate. Where on Earth did you get these resumes from?”

Said the HR person: “Actually these are the resumes of those of you in this room, the ones that got you hired here in the first place. We just removed your names and the schools you attended from them!”

Not long after, diversity in that organization increased significantly!

Questions for a thoughtful analysis:

  1. What assumptions did you make, if any, about the names that appeared at the outset of this column? What visual images did they conjure up in your mind?
  2. If names, universities and other indicators of candidates’ background are removed and the “diversity” of the organization remains unchanged, what could that mean?
  3. Although the likelihood of removing these indicators from resumes is probably nonexistent, what are other ways to reduce the possibility of name-sounding biases in the selection process?
  4. Besides names, what are other ways people may unconsciously be selected in or weeded out?
  5. Reflecting on your responses to the preceding questions, what do you need to do more of, less of, stop doing altogether or start anew to reduce the impact of hidden biases that let some in and keep other out? What’s the incentive for you to do so?
  6. If you can think of, say, five people you know who could possibly benefit from reading this column and the questions for a thoughtful analysis, whose names would appear on your list? What stops you from passing this one along?
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