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Tour of the common resume biases


One little document that serves to capture a professional lifetime of achievement and experience. With six seconds review time (or 6 nanoseconds if that review is done via an ATS) the fate of the candidate is sealed – did they get that phone screen or not.

That one little document is stuffed with information designed to get candidates passed the first step of the job process – if they know what they are doing. And that one little document is stuffed with biasing information that often weighs heavily in those six seconds whether it is relevant to the job or not.

And that’s the problem – with one document and six seconds (or less), there’s a lot of room for guesses, assumptions, and shortcuts to quickly move candidates into the yes or no pile. In other words, resume reviews are built on bias.

Common biases triggered by resumes

1. Name

Names are biasing. They can give away race/ethnicity, gender, religion, country of origin, and age which are all bias triggers that can influence if a candidate is selected.

For example, according to a study published by Harvard Business Review, when all else is identical, resumes with distinctly black names received only 1/3 of call backs when compared to distinctly white names. What exactly made those white candidates more worthy of the callback than their black counterparts for the exact same resume?

Then there are the names that don’t give away specific pieces of information like gender, or those that are hard to pronounce. This also influences candidate selection. After all, why schedule an interview with someone whose name you can’t pronounce when there are plenty of others with pronounceable names?

2. Title/Rank

Vice President-level experience is always better than Director-level, right?


Not all titles are the same, nor is the access to those titles therefore titles are biased.

For example, consider the title Vice President. In banking there are countless VPs. In the federal government, there is only one. Therefore, a VP at a bank is not equal to a VP in the federal government.

Access to those titles are also not equal. For example, women are promoted far less than their male counterparts. People of color, people with certain disabilities, people in certain industries also get promoted less often.

This doesn’t mean those who have the “right titles” aren’t necessarily good candidates, but it does mean that there are likely a lot more candidates in that pile that do deserve the title than the ones who list it on their resume.

3. Address

“This person is on the other side of town; they aren’t going to want to commute to our office.”

“I know that area… this person is not going to be a cultural fit.”

“Hey, this person is in my neighborhood – we could carpool.”

Addresses can trigger a lot more biases than most people realize. From preferences based on familiarity to assumptions of people’s preferences such as tolerance of commute times. Addresses can give away socio-economic information, cause cultural assumptions, and even trigger sports or old school rivalries.

4. Years of experience

Years of experience trigger age bias.

It is so prominent that it’s commonly reflected in the requirements themselves. Have you ever seen a requirement like this: “must have three to five years of experience in XYZ.” What happens if the person has over five years of experience? Are they no longer qualified?

Too many or too few years of experience triggers assumptions about the person’s preferences, stamina, capabilities, and worth. In addition to the fallacies of the age-based assumptions, there are other biases lurking in years of experience. For example, those that don’t have many years of experience at higher ranks may have all the right experience but, because of unequitable access, took longer to earn the title.

5. Number and duration of jobs

How many jobs and the duration of those jobs trigger bias.

Those who list many jobs or jobs with limited duration (i.e. “job hopping”) may be considered a flight risk, inadequate at the job, or otherwise problematic which causes them to leave (by their choice or the employer’s). But what about military spouses who relocate with every new order? Or those with family obligations that drive relocation? Or those that thrive in start-up growth environments and leave post-acquisitions? There are many reasons that cause job shifting beyond the bias-driven assumptions.

On the other end, those who have longevity in positions may be considered change adverse or have lack of drive. But there are many reasons for longevity - family obligations, stock options, overly aggressive salaries (i.e. overpaid so they can’t afford to leave), or just a really fantastic position where they thrived.

6. Education

Education triggers bias.

Degree inflation, or degree requirements for jobs that previously have not required them, has plagued the job market since 2008. Degree inflation adds socio-economic bias (i.e. those who can afford to go to school vs. those who can’t) and bias against other valuable career paths such as military service, vocational training, and on-the-job experience.

Preferences toward higher-ranking or specific schools adds bias. These preferences don’t result in better candidates but they do introduce socio-economic bias (those who can afford more expensive schools vs. those who can’t) and stresses childhood decisions and academic excellence. Would you want to be judged on decisions you made when you were 16?

And there is familiarity bias. We naturally value those with similar experience to ourselves – such as favoring those who went to the same school or a school within the same conference. Or discarding someone because they had the audacity to go to your school’s rival (looking at you, Bruins!).

7. Previous organizations

Organizations candidates have previously worked at triggers bias.

“They worked at Apple – they must be good.”

“Blizzard, I love their games! I must talk to this person.”

“Federal government – No. This person is not going to thrive with our demanding schedules.”

“Whole Foods Market, I used to work there. I need to talk to this person – I wonder if they know Bill.”

Organization biases include familiarity, prestige, personal preference of brand or product, skewed perceptions driven by popular tv shows, etc.

Another flavor of organization bias comes with assumptions around size and type. For example, working at large organizations does not necessarily mean the candidate is better at working in larger teams and thrives in niche roles surrounded by complex rules. Working in the small organizations doesn’t necessarily mean they are more flexible or inclined to work longer hours.

8. Key words

Words add bias.

When scanning documents (either manually or through an automated process such as an ATS filter), we look for key words. These are the words that let us (or our technology) know the candidate has what we are looking for. These can be titles, roles, skills, technologies, industries, markets, or any other number of things that trigger confidence that the candidate meets the requirements.

This is an excellent way to see if the candidate knows the keywords, but not if they have the experience. Candidates may have done exactly what you want but called it something different. Or they may have an extensive background across technologies and systems and only used a few examples of their knowledge, not including the specific one you are looking for.

And those who know how the system works can game it. For example, they can keyword load their resumes. But just because someone knows how keywords work doesn’t mean they are right for the job (or even that those keywords are relevant to their background).

But wait, there’s more!

Here are a few other bias-triggering content lurking in resumes:

  • Role can trigger bias as different organizations describe jobs using different terminology so it’s easily missed.

  • Length of resume can trigger biases on concise vs. attention to detail, depth of experience, value, arrogance.

  • Industry Terminology can trigger biases around culture fit and ability to ramp quickly.

  • Tone can trigger biases around formality, age, cultural background, and personality.

  • Email address can trigger biases of age and technology savviness. For example, means >60 years old.

  • Phone number can trigger biases based on where they live or lived.

  • Resume design can trigger biases based around attention to detail, creativity, professionalism. But, with professional resume writers, it could just be they can afford to pay someone.

  • Fraternity / Sorority associations can trigger biases based on personal beliefs of the Greek system and the specific house listed.

  • Association memberships especially those that give away political, religious, gender or other affiliations can trigger biases based on personal affiliations or standings.

  • Hobbies that you share or don’t share can trigger familiarity bias.

  • Sentence structure can trigger preference biases (passive voice is loved by some and hated by others).

  • Word choice can trigger biases around education, sophistication, maturity, and personality.

Bringing it all together

While resumes provide a lot of information they also open the hiring process to an endless stream of bias-triggers. Awareness helps. Removing resumes and the accompanied biasing information helps more. Clearly articulate what the job requires. Then look for that without any extraneous information.

You can do it, can help. Career.Place replaces resume reviews with an anonymous screening process that only evaluates candidates based on what matters without any extraneous and bias-triggering information.

So, if you are looking for a solution that skips the resumes in favor of finding the right talent, we would love to talk to you.

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