Fixing the recruiting process - Part 2, the recruiter bias problem

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer September 9, 2018
Recruiter bias cause qualified applicants to drop out of recruiting funnels. Ergo, recruiters are an integral part of the recruiting process problem.

This story is going to be a harsh critique about recruiter bias so strap in tight for what will be a rough ride.

We live in a world of bias, and from what I observe, this is actively harming the potential for firms to hire the best people. In part one, I talked extensively about the genuinely awful ATS systems used to stuff applicant funnels. Now it's time to put the spotlight on the recruiters and the toxicity they bring to the recruiting process.

Recruiters come in two forms: internal recruiting personnel within a company’s HR department and external recruiters. Internal recruiters may try to avoid many discrimination issues. External recruiters, from anecdotes shared with me, may get requests to fill positions in ways that are not acceptable. Either way, biases are getting into the process and cause harm to both job seekers and employers.

What if recruiters were truthful and transparent? What a concept that would be! Applicants could see a list of things your company’s recruiters ‘believe’ and use to discard applicants. Armed with this knowledge, applicants could skip over your firm, not bother filling in your lengthy online application, and avoid waiting at the phone/mailbox for the rejection letter that many recruiters are loathe to send.

Would anyone be surprised to learn that your recruiters believe the following - see image at right below:

recruiter bias

While many of these beliefs form the basis for actions and practices deemed illegal in the United States and many other countries, the behaviors are still there, objectionable for sure and, yet wholly preventable in my view.

Recruiters don’t want to look at these candidates. When they exclude large portions of the workforce, they lose out on the opportunity to hire great talent. That is another reason why your firm is likely losing the so-called war for talent.

Let’s look at some of these behaviors.

1.    We don’t read (much) of your resume

Why do recruiters lean on ATS technology? They do it to save time. When the ATS is solid, it can help eliminate scores of unqualified candidates and free up a recruiter to spend more time on the resumes that count.  At least that’s the theory. But as I demonstrated in part one of this opus, ATS technology is generally of poor quality.

But recruiters aren’t spending much time reviewing anybody’s resume. Time magazine reported:

According to a study released last week by TheLadders, an online job-matching service, recruiters spend an average of six seconds reviewing an individual resume.

The source data for that study by The Ladders also stated:

The study’s “gaze tracking” technology showed that recruiters spent almost 80% of their resume review time on the following data points:

  • Name
  • Current title/company
  • Previous title/company
  • Previous position start and end dates
  • Current position start and end dates
  • Education

Beyond these six data points, recruiters did little more than scan for keywords to match the open position, which amounted to a very cursory “pattern matching” activity.

Recruiters may only scan ‘above the fold’, a newspaper concept where many newspaper buyers decide to buy a paper based on the stories on the top half, i.e., those above the fold, of the edition. Job seekers should not expect any recruiter to look beyond the first half of the first page of a resumé.

This focus on the first half of page one is detrimental to workers that have had many different work experiences in their career. They may possess the desired skills an employer wants but if the recruiter doesn’t see that in the first position listed, their resumé gets tossed.  This is how great talent leaks out of the recruiting funnel.

2.    We may not understand the job you are applying for

Even when a resumé miraculously makes it through much of the funnel, it still requires a recruiter to make an assessment. The recruiter will take the top-rated resumés from the ATS, give them a quick once over, and then invite a subset of these candidates in for interviews.

This assessment can be seriously flawed as the recruiter may not know how to judge the merits of one candidate against another. No human being can know all things about all jobs, careers, skills, certifications, etc. Worse, no one person can identify all of the synonyms for some skill attributes or acceptable alternate skills that would also satisfy a job requirement.  For example, if the job requirement specified: “must know about major ERP software products,” then why wouldn’t this meet the requirement work: “have installed SAP, ORACLE and QAD software”?  Recruiters and an ATS by inference have to know HOW to judge whether someone possesses the skills not just match keywords.

This problem is worse than readers might think when one considers that recruiters are matching resumés to a potentially flawed job description that someone outside of recruiting wrote.  How can firms win the war for talent when the job description they’re using is sure to create poor matches?

3.    We don’t hire older workers

A recent U.S. News & World Report article advised older readers to mislead potential employers.  Older job seekers were told to:

  • Drop their oldest employment records
  • Drop their email address
  • Drop their landline phone number

The rationale was because these things date a person. In this way of looking at the world of work, it no longer matters that your skills are substantial, myriad and still rocking it; employers and recruiters are looking for direct and indirect proof of your age so they can discard your resume and hire someone younger.

But the fact that people write articles advising older workers to ‘pass’ as younger job seekers is disquieting. If someone had written an article advising persons of color to pass as white, there would be a justifiable outcry. Likewise, an article encouraging women how to pass themselves off as men would be equally wrong and offensive. Why is an article that advocates older workers passing as younger ones deemed acceptable?

The answer is that it is not acceptable.

Why do people have to lie or mislead to get a job interview? The fact that they do this proves the recruiting game is rigged and that recruiters and employers actively discriminate against older people. This kind of rigging is illegal. Nolo states:

The ADEA protects workers from age discrimination in every phase of the employment relationship, including job advertisements, interviewing, hiring, compensation, promotion, discipline, job evaluations, demotion, training, job assignments, and termination. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the ADEA prohibits practices and policies that are seemingly neutral, but have a disproportionately negative impact on older workers (disparate impact), as well as those that explicitly treat older workers less favorably than younger workers (disparate treatment). (See Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, 544 U.S. 228 (2005).)

How bad is the age discrimination problem?  According to USA Today,

The median age of an American worker is 42. Yet at Facebook it’s 29, Google 30, Amazon 30, Apple 31 and Microsoft 33, according to self-reported employee data collected by research firm Payscale last year.

But it not just a tech sector issue. It happens across most every industry. Part of the continued discrimination lies in people’s expectations as to what age someone should quit looking for work, what age they should not attempt to start a career, etc.  A Ladders post had this troubling statement: “Age 61 is average cutoff to starting a new career.

Ageism is a problem because employers, recruiters, and technology create it:

Age bias can certainly hamper older job seekers. “It can come in the form of employment algorithms that screen out anyone above a certain age, or job advertisements that call for ‘digital natives,’ or that prospective employers think an experienced candidate will cost too much without ever asking,” says Susan Weinstock, AARP Vice President of Financial Resilience Programming.

Even when employers will consider older workers, they are shunting them into fewer positions that often pay less:

As men and women 55 and older looking for employment probably suspect, at a certain point the kinds of jobs available to them narrow significantly. New research by Matthew Rutledge, an economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, found that they are increasingly being funneled into what he describes as “old-person” jobs.

While evidence is clear that older workers adapt to change well, mesh well with company cultures, etc., the number of employers hiring older workers is embarrassing low.

Using a longitudinal survey of households and individuals from the census, Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, found that, between 2008 and 2012, workers age 62 and older with a college degree had less than a 50 percent chance of finding work even after two years of actively looking. For the same age group without a college degree, the chances fell to 35 percent.


Manufacturing employment has been in steep decline for over 20 years, but even within this shrinking sector, older workers are less likely to be hired for manufacturing jobs than their younger peers. For example, men and women age 55 to 64 are 25 percent less likely to get machine operator jobs and 58 percent less likely to get metal worker jobs.

When reviewing data from many sources, it is clear that:

  • Employers and recruiters, not potential workers, are choosing to exclude older workers from their recruiting efforts.
  • Ageism is a polite way of describing blatant age discrimination
  • Some technologies may be aiding and abetting these discriminatory practices.

Lame Age Discrimination Excuses

Hiring managers, recruiters (internal and external), etc. can offer up some reasons why they discriminate based on an applicant’s age. These rationales include:

  • “Our younger managers are uncomfortable interviewing older job seekers.”
  • “Our younger managers don’t feel comfortable giving direction to, providing feedback for, or training older workers.”
  • “Older workers may not be as productive.”
  • “Older workers might resist some retraining opportunities.”
  • “Older workers won’t work long hours we demand.”
  • “Older workers are too inflexible.”
  • “Older workers are too expensive.”
  • “Older workers don’t fit our culture.”
  • “Older workers don’t want to get their hands dirty.”

While the excuses are myriad, most of these are based upon learned biases that go back many years and, is illegal. Blanket exclusions are just wrong. When I was right out of college, I was given two senior individuals to supervise. Did it bother me? No. I treated them no differently than any other worker. Over the years, I’ve hired younger, older, female, male, etc. workers.  If I don’t let these demographic differences alter my hiring practices, why can’t others?

If you think, for example, that an older worker won’t accept the salary you might offer them, then ask them what they think of your salary. To assume they won’t ask does your firm and the job seeker a disservice. They might just accept it, and your firm could have missed out on a great hire.

Assumptions HR and recruiters make shouldn’t be there at all. If only they’d ask a person before jumping to an incorrect assumption, there would be a lot less age discrimination.

If you are a recruiter and you (or your firm) engages in this ageist discrimination, do you have the solid, factual basis to defend your business practices? If it’s your technology doing the dirty work, could you explain how your algorithms work and how you’ve made them fit the spirit and the letter of the law? Will your people, business practices, processes, and technology stand up to a court challenge? I’m doubtful.

Ageism takes a large portion of the workforce out of consideration for employment. These people, many with considerable and varied capabilities, are kicked out of the recruiting funnel prematurely. Employers who do so can’t complain that they can’t find enough qualified or experienced talent for open positions when they intentionally exclude a whole cohort of capable workers.

4.    We don’t hire the self-employed

“So, did you get a chance to review my resumé? What did you think?”  A colleague recently asked a headhunter. The headhunter’s reply: “You’ve been self-employed for several years now. I won’t present your resumé to employers as no company wants to hire you.”

A few years back, we had a monster of a recession, and for years after that, companies continued to shed employees. More employees have been discarded since then because of increased use of automation. Unless you’re one of those independently wealthy people who doesn’t need a paycheck, people still need to put food on the table. So, what did a lot of people do? They became part of the contingent workforce.

Unfortunately, being part of this workforce is death to one’s resumé.

The perverted logic is that recruiters believe that ALL self-employed people are people who can’t work for someone else. I know that's true in a few cases but does that mean all Uber drivers are toxic, too? Understanding the inverse logic is also necessary. Many recruiters will not hire someone unless they are already fully employed elsewhere. Unemployed persons, a group many recruiters also lump self-employed people into), get excluded from consideration. To disregard the self-employed and the unemployed is to cause more capable people to be tossed from the recruiting funnel.

How prevalent is this bias? A scan of an Indeed discussion group (i.e., “What do employers think of self-employment?”)  is eye-opening. Here are a few choice tidbits:

Self Employment, owning your own business on your Resume will get you summarily rejected.

So my question is this: if you are able to avoid admitting (w/o lying) in an interview that you are self-employed/owner how do you deal with the reference check for that job? I've found that companies are increasingly thorough in their reference checking these days so what's the best strategy?

Just like the military I think an employer wants someone who follows directions and makes their job easier. I have worked with former business owners and its hard because they think they always know best.

I was self-employed for the last 6 years. It has hurt my chances quite a bit. Almost as bad as having a 6-year gap on your resume.

Like older workers, capable people are dropped out of recruiting funnels because of their self-employed status. Why these workers are treated as pariahs escapes me and makes me wonder what proof employers have to justify the denial of employment to this segment of our workforce. What’s particularly galling is that this prejudice is based on what people might do even before a person has spoken with this potential job seeker.


It’s the rush to judgment without facts that makes this so disturbing. Like the assumptions recruiters have about older workers, the assumptions about the self-employed and unemployed may be just as wrong-minded. The same goes for people of color, women and those in the LBGT community about which diginomica has plenty to say.

In Part 1, we looked at the recruiting funnel and how leakage along the way means fewer qualified workers make it through to the interview stage. In this part, we saw that bias and prejudice further reduce the pool of potential job seekers further. In Part 3, we’ll examine how technology can help or hurt a firm’s ability to plug these leaks and help solve a firm’s war for talent.

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