Friday, June 21, 2024

Prejudging Talent Can Cost You

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The name caught my attention immediately. There it was, staring back at me from the top of the resume — a very foreign first and last name.

At least it was foreign to me. This was my first hire as a manager and I wanted to make it a good one. I needed a consultant who could work side by side with our customers. What if this person couldn’t communicate well? What if there were cultural issues that caused conflicts?

Luckily for me, our more-experienced HR person championed this candidate over the other people who had submitted resumes. Not only did I hire him, but he became a leader on our team. It just so happened that he was brought up in the U.S., and like me and many other U.S. citizens, had at least one parent that immigrated here. But because my name was more “American” sounding, I was less likely to be scrutinized in the same way.

According to Neil Konstantoulas, director of sales with Harbor Point Resources in Baltimore, Md., occasionally recruiters and hiring managers are more interested in the Joe Smiths of the world.

“I have seen candidates include a pseudonym such as Charlie instead of Cheng, but I’m not sure if that helps,” says Konstantoulas. “But look at my last name — I could be right off the boat from Greece. You simply cannot discriminate with anything on paper and should give qualified resumes the benefit of the doubt.”

In today’s heterogeneous world, a name means very little. In the evaluation of IT resumes, preconceived notions based on names can cause you to miss out on hiring talented, qualified candidates. If the skills on a resume match or exceed the job’s requirements, it is important to overcome our tendency to prejudge based on extraneous factors. Let’s review four other areas where there is a tendency to prejudge.

I realize this article is U.S.-centric (and maybe a bit ethnocentric), but hopefully there is some commonality of this theme across countries and cultures.

Foreign work experience and education

When reviewing the experience and education of a candidate, it is probably natural for a hiring manager or recruiter to review the qualifications through their own window of experience. It may feel safer to rank a candidate with a master’s of computer science from MIT ahead of a candidate with similar experience who has the same degree from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Turns out that IIT is considered the MIT of India and has extremely stringent admission and graduation standards, supposedly tougher than MIT.

Granted, you do have to take into consideration a candidate’s ability to communicate, whether they are from India, China or Peoria. However, if the candidate’s resume is solid, then a phone interview will be well worth your time.

Take Adel Hedfi as an example. He is originally from Tunisia and completed his undergraduate degree with a double major in Mechanical Engineering and Operations Research from the University of Texas. After he graduated, as a part of his scholarship arrangement he returned to Tunisia to work for two years for Marathon Oil, earning a patent for his work there.

Fulfilling his obligation, Adel returned to Texas, where he sought employment but found no one willing to hire him. “Everyone I talked to discounted my experience because it was out of the country, regardless that it was with a recognized, multinational corporation,” says Hedfi.

“Finally I interviewed for an engineering assistant position for work well below my qualifications, but it beat washing cars,” says Hedfi. “The interviewer commented that based on my experience I should be doing his job. Luckily, he took a leap of faith and within two weeks, the company offered me a full-time position.”

Hedfi is now president of Axiom Decision Systems, an engineering consulting company that provides infrastructure management decision support systems.

Lack of Degree

Many job postings require some level of a college degree, likely in a targeted discipline. But before you lay down the law, you should consider having flexibility based on a candidate’s experience. Some very smart and qualified people did not have the means to attend a university or had extenuating circumstances that prevented them from going to college. Yet these candidates may be self-taught, which is even more appealing if they have years of relevant experience as well.

Book knowledge only goes so far, whether it’s from the classroom or Internet> There is, however, no substitute for hands-on experience.

“Although degrees from non-accredited universities can be frowned upon, many of our clients are willing to consider candidates that only have the experience required for the position,” says Konstantoulas.

Time Gaps

Most employers want candidates who have a contiguous work history. If there is a gap on the resume showing that the candidate was not working for more than a few months, it must be explained. This is becoming more common with maternity (and paternity) leaves, elder care, etc., so it isn’t an impossible bias to overcome.

“Does anyone really believe someone loses all their skills in a year?” asks Konstantoulas. “I suggest explaining the gap on the resume. Put the start and end date and label it as maternity leave.” Konstantoulas goes on to say that he would go as far as including descriptions of areas where you kept skills fresh by doing work on the side, whether or not you were compensated.

Frequent Job Changes

I am totally guilty of this, having stayed at any employer no longer than a few years. But should I feel guilty? I wouldn’t change a thing about my past experience, even though I have lost out on opportunities because I was considered a “job hopper.” If you provide a qualified candidate the opportunity to explain their job history, you may find there were good reasons for their many jobs.

“Although it is rare to find a candidate with ten or even five years with one company, our clients tend to evaluate a candidate’s potential stability based on their job history,” says Konstantoulas. “If a person was a contractor, it makes sense for them to list all their client projects under one main contracting header. Or even list your references for each job on the resume to show you aren’t concerned about the circumstances surrounding that job’s departure.”

Is it possible to not prejudge a resume? I don’t have that answer, but if you want to avoid missing out on a future leader or technical whiz, you had better make the effort. That person who I almost overlooked based on his “foreign” name is now the VP of engineering with my current company. It really does pay not to judge a book by its cover.

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