Take a Chance on Less-Than-Stellar Resumes

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer June 2, 2016

Imagine that, as a recruiter, you’ve thinned the applicant pool down to two equally qualified candidates. There’s candidate A, with an Ivy League diploma, excellent recommendations and a spiffy internship. And then there’s candidate B, from a state school, with employment gaps and odd jobs like singing waitress and dog walker.

Regina Hartley, vice president of HR at UPS, has created terms for these two categories of applicants: silver spoons and scrappers.

“Silver spoons clearly had advantages and are destined for success. Scrappers had to fight adversity to get to the same point,” she told attendees at Indeed Interactive, a conference for recruiters held in Austin, Texas. Resumes that “read like a patchwork quilt” and aren’t exactly perfect can lead to outstanding employees and shouldn’t be dismissed outright.

Hartley suggested that recruiters and hiring managers may perceive a series of odd jobs and employment gaps as indicative of a lack of focus and unreliability, which may be true, or such a pattern may instead exemplify a committed struggle against obstacles.

“That resume has only told you what a person has done. It doesn’t tell you who a person is,” Hartley said. “That takes an interview. If you ask the right questions, you may find that the applicant who is really qualified for your job had to leave her last job after eight months to move home and care for her dying mother.”

This advice hits close to home, because Hartley was a scrapper herself. Her father was a paranoid schizophrenic. She grew up in poverty with a single mom and five siblings in a “bad neighborhood” in Brooklyn, N.Y., and got her bachelor’s degree at a state university.

“I was highly motivated to understand the relationship between scrappers and business success because my life could easily have turned out to be very different,” she said.

And it’s not just her: Many famous business leaders started out as scrappers. Hartley listed off the well-known stories of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Sam Walton, none of whom had a stellar college education. She advised HR to push back against the rigidity of educational requirements and take a deeper dive into otherwise-qualified applicants’ resumes.

“I don’t hold anything against the silver spoons,” she said. “Getting into and graduating from an elite university takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. But have you ever had someone with a puffed-up resume turn out to be just an empty suit?” she asked the audience. Many hands shot up.

Top Degree Holders Preferred

The theory that applicants with degrees from a top institution are more likely to get hired than those without such experience was validated by the results of a new Indeed survey. Almost half (48 percent) of respondents to the survey of 500 senior-level and executive managers believe the college or university a candidate graduated from plays a somewhat important role in hiring. Another 29 percent said they prefer to only hire candidates from top institutions, while only 4 percent said they don’t care about the pedigree of the school as long as educational requirements for the role are met.

The study also found that managers who graduate from top-ranked colleges prefer to hire graduates from similar schools. Thirty-seven percent of managers who self-identified as coming from a top school said they like to hire candidates from top institutions only, versus just 6 percent of managers who did not go to a top school. Conversely, 41 percent of managers who did not graduate from a top college find experience more important than the degree, versus just 11 percent of managers who said they went to a top school.

“It’s a worrisome trend that a manager’s personal experience and background has such an influence on hiring decisions,” said Paul D’Arcy, senior vice president for marketing at Indeed.

When asked about the attributes of top performers, however, respondents said the college name on a diploma is the least important factor. Only 35 percent agreed that top performers generally come from top schools. What matters most is working well with others (72 percent), being a strategic thinker (71 percent) and being self-directed (66 percent).

“The fact that managers don’t feel that top performers [necessarily] come from top schools shows that we need to pay more attention to hiring practices,” D’Arcy said. “It is often an unconscious bias that leads managers to hire people with similar backgrounds, but that means many talented and qualified candidates are being overlooked.”

NPR science correspondent and writer Shankar Vedantam, who spoke at the conference, said employers can avoid some of these biases by using blind-screening techniques such as redacting race and gender indicators from resumes and having multiple people not directly related to the job take part in the hiring process.

Failure Is Growth

Vedantam also urged recruiters to take risks and embrace failure. “It’s very easy for recruiters to fall into the trap of blame and regret,” he said. “If you’re fearful of blame, you’ll be more likely to choose safe candidates.” Like Hartley, Vedantam believes that there is value in unconventional employment histories. “Ask your candidates about their failures,” he said. “A person who says ‘I’ve never failed’ might not be the person you want to hire. People who have failed and tried different things are resilient.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy



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