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Three Common Methods for Qualifying Candidates That Lead to Bias and Bad Hires

You know that expression “separating the wheat from the chaff?” It might sound harsh in relation to people, but go with me for a second, because that’s essentially what the hiring process is intended to do: start with a large, undifferentiated supply, then gradually filter out the parts that don’t quite match the desired criteria. To do that, you need checks in place throughout the process to assess the supply, identify what’s wheat and what isn’t, and separate it accordingly.

When the process works, by the time you reach the final stages (like the interviews), you should be left with nothing but wheat. That frees you up to focus on finding the wheat that is the, uh, wheatiest.

But what if you reached those final stages and discovered there was still a fair amount of chaff mixed in with your wheat? Worse, you suspect that some of the best wheat was filtered out by mistake—before you had a chance to look at it.

That would be an issue even if it was just wheat at stake. When it’s people, it’s a serious problem. Great candidates don’t have the opportunity to shine. Unqualified applicants are inadvertently strung along. Finding the best person for the job becomes a near-impossible task, dragging the process out and draining your resources while you try to figure out what went wrong.

This happens every day. Why? Because the most commonly used methods for filtering candidates don’t set you or your candidates up for success.

We’ve talked before about how job qualifiers (like years of experience) can lead to bad hires when used incorrectly. But it’s not just the qualifiers that are the problem—it’s the processes in place around them. Here are a few ways in which the standard hiring process leaves great candidates untapped—and invites unconscious bias.

Your applicant tracking system (ATS) lets qualified candidates slip through the cracks

Nine in 10 large employers use some form of applicant tracking system (ATS) in their hiring process, and many have automated filters in place to significantly narrow down the applicant pool before a human ever looks at the candidates resume. In fact, research shows that 72-75% of applicants are filtered out during the ATS screening process, so it’s crucial that this filter is foolproof.

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

ATSs are notoriously finicky. Oh, the candidate submitted their resume in PDF format, not Word? They’re out. They used a font size or style the machine doesn’t recognize? Gone. They listed their job title as “Sales Executive,” but the keyword filter was specifically hunting for “Sales Consultant?” Too bad. Too many bullet points? Goodbye!

These quirks can cause highly qualified candidates to be screened out almost instantly, while allowing less qualified resumes pass through to the next stage just because the applicant knew (or guessed) the right keywords.

And this happens more than you think. The majority of companies (62%) admit their ATS tools probably screen out some qualified applicants by mistake. When one large firm put its ATS to the test, it discovered that three out of five of its top engineers were automatically filtered out as not relevant.

If you knew your ATS was eliminating three out of five top candidates, you’d probably rethink using it. The problem is, many companies have no idea this is happening. It’s harder to spot something that’s not there, so your first inclination that something has gone horribly wrong may not come until you’re interviewing unqualified candidates.

And by that point, it’s too late. The best people have long since been filtered out—probably snatched up by companies with better processes.

Your resume screening process is bringing bias to the table

Whether you manually review every resume that comes your way or only the ones that make it through the initial ATS filters, this method of qualifying candidates is just as error-prone as the first.

For one thing, humans are just as finicky as ATS tools. A weird format might immediately turn you against a person, even if the job will never require anything close to document formatting skills. And unlike an ATS, you’re more likely to spot something random that endears you to the candidate, like a shared hobby or mutual past employer. It’s human nature to feel drawn to people like you, so you instinctively move them toward the “yes” pile—even if they’re not quite right for the job.

Of course, human bias can have more negative implications, too. You would never intentionally discriminate against applicants, but unconscious bias is incredibly hard to spot—and difficult to stamp out.

The data backs this up. Applicants with “white-sounding” names get 50% more callbacks than those with traditionally Black or Hispanic names. Older female applicants are 47% less likely to get a callback for an admin job than their younger counterparts. And in one 1999 study, a resume with a male name was deemed worthy of hire by 73% of reviewers, while the same resume with a female name was only deemed competent by 45%.

When you don’t know anything else about the person, resumes are more of a distraction than a help. A name, year of graduation, or interesting hobby can tip the balance in ways that have nothing to do with the job. And yet, resumes remain one of the most commonly used methods of qualifying candidates.

Your cover letter reviews are not doing you any favors

Cover letters come with many of the same caveats as resumes, often revealing biasing information like the candidate’s gender. On the plus side, they do give you some idea of the candidate’s personality, which may play a role in assessing soft skills and culture fit.

The downside? They offer even more opportunities for unconscious bias to creep in.

One study found that employers were 26% less likely to express interest in candidates who disclosed a disability in their cover letter. While a detail like this might not be obvious from a resume alone, candidates may reveal more details about their life in the cover letter, either to ensure the company is informed, or to express their interest in a particular subject, like an LGBTQ+ candidate explaining why they feel a personal connection to the charity work they’ve done.

The fact that the candidate is disabled or LGBTQ+ probably has zero impact on how well they can perform the job. But that little detail is in your brain now, and has the potential to bias you—whether you want it to or not.

So, what can you do instead?

Qualifying candidates the right way

Resumes, cover letters, and ATS tools might be the most common ways of filtering candidates in the early stages, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ways—or the best.

Don’t let bias and basic errors turn qualifying candidates into a farce. To learn more about how to qualify candidates accurately and fairly, read our new whitepaper today.

Or, try, where bias has been removed from the hiring equation – ensuring a fair and consistent hiring process.

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