(Photo by Jirapong Manustrong/iStock by Getty Images)

As the head of talent acquisition for the FBI for the past four years, Peter Sursi realized that the bureau's career portal was persistently attracting the same kind of candidate. “A lot of white guys find their way to us,” he said. So Sursi reasoned that the task of the FBI’s recruiters was to change the model from the inside. If they wanted to have a diverse pipeline at all, the talent team would have to be proactive in wooing diverse candidates.

Andrew Myers, founder of the early-career jobs platform RippleMatch, witnessed something similar, albeit in a totally different context. When he was a student, he was watching his friends whose parents worked in tech and finance set them up with internships. “I would go to the career fair and take out my paper resume,” he said, recalling that the process was inefficient and messy, “and that was at Yale!” When he went home to Colorado, he found himself among a more diverse pool of applicants, both in terms of race and socio-economic status, but when those candidates did not come from a school targeted by employers, Myers recalled, their job applications would disappear into a black hole.

Sursi and Myers spoke on a panel of talent-acquisition experts focused on how companies can get an advantage in the red-hot labor market by recruiting for potential rather than pedigree, part of From Day One’s virtual September conference on new ideas and tactics for diversity hiring. The premise of the conversation was that employers have relied too much on narrow sets of credentials, driven by a tendency to play it safe and go with what has worked in the past.

That won’t work anymore, especially at a time when the definition of diversity in the workforce is in flux. Once it applied mainly to gender and ethnicity, but the spirit of inclusiveness is expanding to embrace people without a four-year college degree, people with disabilities, those who are caretakers, and workers who don't necessarily live in the main corporate or tech hubs. After all, if a company's diversity effort simply consists of hiring a person of color with a STEM degree from Stanford, we can hardly say they're challenging the status quo. That's when technology can work in synergy with a more humanistic approach, rooted in empathy, open-mindedness, and curiosity. “We have nothing to do with our privilege,” said PaShon Mann, VP of talent acquisition at Comcast, “we were just born in a certain situation.”

When Listing Skills, Understand That Skills Are Not Eternal 

In the contemporary job market, especially in tech fields or anything with a strong digital component, many credentials a candidate has on a resume are likely to be outdated within a year due to the ever-evolving nature of the field. “Be open-minded about what we want about the position: Can you teach the most important skills to build that role?” said Mann. “Hiring for potential, for me, is to go to non-traditional places and sources to find folks, and really be open-minded in the interview.” These places include state schools, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and community colleges.

Experts speak about improving the talent pipeline, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, PaShon Mann of Comcast, and Liz Freedman of IHG Hotels & Resorts. Bottom row, from left: Jeremy Schiff of RecruitBot, Peter Sursi of the FBI, and Andrew Myers of RippleMatch (Image by From Day One)

The speakers suggested that employers should be more practical in their expectations about candidate qualifications. Liz Freedman, head of talent, leadership and DEI at IHG Hotels & Resorts, described conversations with managers to narrow down the competencies listed for a position. “We have a laundry list of things, and we should be asking, “What is the absolute requirement?” she said. “It's three to five things maximum. Let's have a reality check on that.”

In considering candidate skills, employers should recognize the prevalence of stereotypical assumptions, for example that older candidates lack relevant technical skills or are less apt to learn them. Or that younger candidates don’t have the skills associated with maturity. “I think we don't talk enough about different generations and being inclusive and respectful of all of them,” said Comcast's Mann. “It's interesting that people forget about that. That's an under-discussed part of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I had one DEI professional tell me that everybody gets old, so it's not that sort of a thing.”

Yes, Data Is Your Friend

Reducing the number of requirements, pointed out Jeremy Schiff, CEO of RecruitBot, a machine-learning platform focusing on talent acquisition and retention with an eye for diversity, represents a challenge: how does one calibrate between getting enough candidates that are truly relevant while broadening the pool at the same time? “Hiring managers have a hard time squaring that circle,” Schiff said. His company has a rating system comparable to the one Netflix uses for movie and TV recommendations that goes from 1 to 5, which can then detect a pattern in the recruiter’s choices and present choices based on what the employer deems relevant. “It's easier to articulate that you like a candidate that's a good fit for the role, as opposed to describing what to look for,” said Schiff.

Similarly, Myers sees the limited usefulness of resumes and LinkedIn profiles, especially among early-career people, since what they list often doesn’t paint a thorough picture of the candidate. “By pulling in way more data, you can have more companies comfortable with having fewer hard filters,” he said, adding that this applies to pedigrees too. “A software developer from a state school or an HBCU can perform just as well as someone from Stanford, but you need retention data to dispel the myths and prejudices related to pedigrees.”

In Screening, AI Can Be a Help, Not a Hindrance 

“AI can do a lot of damage to diversity efforts if you're not thoughtful,” warned Schiff. “Think from the bottom up to make sure that machine learning is focused on the right attributes. We continue to double down on it [at RecruitBot], with specific messaging for specific groups, leaning into going to find that talent rather than having the talent find you,” Schiff said.

A lot of it boils down to changing the mindset of hiring managers. Schiff reported being aware of hiring managers filling in spreadsheets with LinkedIn links and asking recruiters to find candidates like the ones they listed, rather than creating a dialogue with recruiters about the criteria needed for the job. “Hiring managers and recruiters can collaborate more effectively, and machine learning and AI can help,” he said, adding that AI, if trained properly, could automate the filling-the-spreadsheet component of the talent search.

Expect Some Resistance

Yet persuading hiring managers to change their habits can be a challenge. “Part of our journey with the hiring manager is that the crappy system selected them,” said Sursi, noting that the implementation of a new system might be perceived as a slight against the managers' own qualifications. “We need to talk about evolution as the world is changing.” He continued, “I do try to anchor them to all the things that have changed that are super obvious, but we need to evolve because the world is evolving.”

“I am OK with hiring managers to feel a little bit of pain,” said Freedman. “They're searching for a unicorn. We want them to be uncomfortable in order for them to be more open for a different way to think about talent and where we source.” Quipped Schiff: “So you're looking for a purple spotted unicorn? Maybe remove spots from the requirements!”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.