Bias can show up in unexpected ways during the hiring process, but it’s never more evident than in the way we talk about historically excluded candidates.
In linguistics and social sciences, markedness theory describes when there are two elements in a pair: One element is marked and distinctly identified, and the other is unmarked. When we mark something, we’re calling out that thing as different and outside the norm, whereas the unmarked thing is what is natural, normal and oftentimes taken for granted as the standard. Consider higher education institutions. Predominantly white institutions are typically just called “colleges” or “universities” (i.e., unmarked) while historically Black colleges and universities are specifically marked as HBCUs. We see a similar pattern with “banks” versus “Black banks.”
To apply this idea of markedness to the talent acquisition process, we often hear this dichotomy: “talent” versus “qualified diverse talent.” The qualified mark assumes that historically excluded job seekers — typically people of color, people without four-year degrees, and people from low-income communities — are largely unqualified. As a result, marked candidates may have to work harder to prove their merit and are less likely to be viewed as coachable. Meanwhile, the unmarked (typically white, middle- to upper-class, degreed folks) become the standard. When they excel, it reinforces beliefs about their inherent value and substantiates the idea that only a small portion of America is prepared to hold middle- and high-skill roles.
We know this thinking drives inequities. It’s also not sustainable. Current census research shows that the majority of U.S. adults are working class and do not hold a four-year degree. The nation is also increasingly racially diverse. Advancing justice for these groups and supporting business needs broadly will require organizations to rethink how they talk about and evaluate talent.
To be clear, we are not advocating that businesses stop looking for “qualified” candidates. We are inviting organizations to examine why requests for certain candidates necessitate a qualifier, and to consider how markedness bias can reinforce, and justify, inequitable outcomes.
Beyond engaging in guided learning and unlearning, adopting a skills-based approach is an effective strategy to mitigate this bias in the hiring process. Below are three tactics that your company can take to facilitate the shift.
- Redesign applicant tracking systems (ATSs). ATSs have filters that sort and rank candidates based on a variety of elements defined as salient by the employer. While ATSs can be supportive of the talent acquisition process, Burning Glass’s latest report on the emerging degree reset discusses the impact of traditional ATS filters and how they can exacerbate the exclusion of some populations. Here are recommendations that will support in widening your talent pool:
- First, remove degree requirement filters and ranking algorithms for level of education. Educational attainment is five times less predictive of future performance than skills, and as stated earlier, the majority of Americans don’t have a four-year degree.
- Second, remove filters for gaps in a candidate’s resume. There are a variety of reasons that could cause a break in employment, including self-employment, caregiver leave, medical emergencies, and other personal reasons. An employer looking for top talent should not consider breaks in employment as an immediate disqualifier.
- Third, remove specific filters for professional skills (e.g., collaboration, written communication, or meeting facilitation), as these can be assessed during the interview process. We also recommend removing filters for secondary or tertiary technical skills (e.g., Python, pivot tables, or ability to operate medical equipment), as these can be learned and developed on the job.
- Clearly articulate the desired skills. Another important way to mitigate the markedness bias is for hiring managers to get crystal clear on what skills are critical to the role(s) they are hiring for, so that they can focus on the skills that matter and leave less room for subjectivity and bias.
- Start by reviewing current job descriptions and separating skills into technical skills and professional skills. The Markle Foundation’s free Skillful Job Postings Generator is a helpful resource to get started or supplement your list.
- Then, sort this list of skills into required skills (must have on day one and are nonnegotiable) and preferred skills (nice to have, but can be taught on the job). The Markle Foundation resource can also support you in this step.
- Finally, narrow this list of required skills to no more than 10. Having a concise list of skills helps both hiring managers and candidates align on what skills are critical to have on day one of the job, and helps facilitate a more effective hiring process. Getting clear on the key skills needed for a job can also enable employers to better partner with skills providers in their networks, like community colleges.
- Expand your sourcing pools to consider talent in adjacent roles. Once hiring managers get clear on skills, talent acquisition teams can expand their sourcing strategy to look outside of the usual talent pools and broaden who has traditionally been considered a good fit for a job.
- Look at talent in adjacent jobs with overlapping skill sets — both from external sources and incumbent talent. Grads of Life has partnered with technology firm AdeptID to build a data-driven tool that helps companies identify potential external and internal hiring pathways for critical open roles. For example, AdeptID has found that cashiers tend to transition successfully into pharmacy technician roles. While cashiers do not have direct health care experience, they do have critical overlapping skills, like customer service and attention to detail in a fast-paced retail environment. Similarly, they’ve flagged highly predictive transferable skills in the transition from service unit operators on oil rigs to wind turbine technicians.
- Companies can also use some of these same skills-based tools to identify talent in their own pipelines who might have been unduly screened out by applicant tracking systems in their recruitment process.
Emphasizing skills matching over traditional pathways or pedigree helps to expand our collective consciousness about who is qualified, and in turn disrupt the practice of marking candidates.
The future of work depends on disruption in all areas, including talent acquisition and management. So, let’s remove the mark and redesign practices to ensure an equitable journey for all. If your company is looking to implement a skills-based hiring approach, Grads of Life is happy to begin the conversation.