Why CVs are stopping you hiring the best people

Alongside inventing the first parachute and helicopter, Leonardo da Vinci is credited with creating the first CV. In 1482 he wrote to the Duke of Milan to try and secure some work. And it worked. The Duke become a fan, commissioned da Vinci for The Last Supper, and the rest is history.

Clearly 538 years on, much has changed. But not our love of the CV in the recruitment process.

Curriculum vitae translates from Latin as the story of your life.

But when it’s typically the heavily edited highlights version, perhaps better placed in the fiction section, how useful is that story when trying to find the best talent for your business?

I’ve been recruiting for 20 years, but it’s only after speaking at some recent events that I’ve started to realise that it’s time to think about letting go of the security blanket that is the CV in 95% of hiring processes.

Does the CV help diversity?

Numerous studies have shown that a foreign sounding name on a CV can reduce its chances of success by 25-75% so it definitely has a part to play.


With the exception of some big boss CEOs (who happen to be white males) most people agree that hiring diversely finds you the best people.

So let’s look at how a CV performs as a diverse hiring tool, and particularly at some ways it might introduce bias into your judgement. I learned a lot of this from some amazing training on unconscious bias with Applied, who created the image shared below. (Do check out their webinars if you want to learn more)

As you can see, there are many flavours of unconscious bias - confirmation bias, affinity bias, and stereotype bias. And it seems that the CV is a problem when it comes to removing them.

Does the CV help show capabilities?

So let’s put that to one side and think about how well the CV might show you evidence of the capabilities you’re looking for.

Well, it does it well in some basic ways. Say you need someone to write code, and a chef and a software developer apply. It will be obvious from their CV which one is likely to perform better.

But a more realistic scenario is that 5 software developers apply. Now it’s trickier to quickly exclude the mismatches with common sense.

You’re probably now likely to be looking at things like years of experience and previous employers. How good are these things at indicating future performance?


Not particularly good is the answer.

A lot of people look at education, amount of experience or maybe even interests when they’re reading through a CV, and use that to make a judgment on who to interview. But the research shown in the image above has them as the worse indicators of performance.

It also shows that work samples and cognitive ability tests are the strongest predictors of performance. Cognitive ability tests measure general mental ability, often through logical, verbal and numerical reasoning tests. Work samples (and job knowledge tests) are something that we’ll cover in a minute.

Is sifting through CVs a good use of your time?

We’re still living through a global pandemic, but in the UK and many other countries the job recovery is well and truly here, with demand for talent the highest in over 23 years.

You can’t expect hundreds of great people to apply to your roles, leaving you able take your pick at leisure.

But for some roles (e.g., head of marketing, customer success executive) you will get a high volume of applicants, and there will be a lot of CVs for you to read.

So if you have 200 people applying, how much time will it take you to filter CVs? An average recruiter apparently takes 7 seconds, so in theory that’s 1400 seconds or around 23 minutes.

It’s likely you’ll want to take a bit more time looking at the resumes, not to mention the time opening and closing files, and making notes. So you’re looking at hours not minutes.

And as we’ve seen, whether you spend 7 seconds, 7 minutes or 7 hours, you’re unlikely to find information that helps you to filter the best talent.

So if the CV isn’t the best way to find the best person for the job, what can you do instead?

We saw earlier that interviews are valuable (particularly structured ones) as are work sample and job knowledge tests. So, one way of thinking about this is how can you bring these types of assessments forward.

For example, if there are key questions that you want to ask all candidates at interview, can you move those earlier in the process?

Maybe you’re looking for ambition and drive, so you often ask people what they’re proud of achieving so far. Or you want people with humility who will grow with your startup, so you ask what they’ve learned about themselves in the last year and how they felt as they travelled that journey.

That’s pretty similar to some of the key things we look for in trainee recruiters, so here’s a real-life example of what worked for us.

We used those questions, like 'what achievement are you most proud of and why?' and 'what have you most enjoyed learning in your career so far and how has that helped you?'.

We sent these to everyone that applied (within 24 hours) and asked them to give us a few words in response. I’d estimate it was less than 15 minutes of effort and certainly we didn’t need War and Peace.

The first time we did this we needed to filter almost 500 applicants for our 4 roles. How many of those candidates provided the information we’d asked for?

25% - 125 people of the 500 that applied.

Removing the answers that made no sense and the ones that showed a lack of attention to detail we moved almost all of them to the next stage, a telephone interview.

Jumping to the good news we made 4 strong hires, including people like Jon who has proved a great hire for us over the last 7 years. Although sorry to say he’ll be leaving us for a new life in Australia when Covid allows, but such is life!)

You could argue we missed potential hires from the 375 people who didn’t come back. You’re probably right.

But we didn’t have to spend time on the people who couldn’t be bothered with 10-15 minutes of effort to improve their chances of securing a role they’d applied for.

And for those that did reply, we had much richer information than was shown in a CV. Information much more closely related to the things that we wanted to hire against.

Work samples and job knowledge tests

The earlier chart showed us these are both far better than CVs in assessing a candidate.

But what are they?

A work sample is something that should aim to simulate in some way the job that you’re hiring for.

If you’re looking for a COO who can scale what you’re doing internationally, why try to read between the lines on their CV to judge their approach? It makes much more sense to ask  them how they do it. No guarantee that they can do it, but the information you’ll get from their answer is far more relevant to you.

Job knowledge tests are aiming to test the technical knowledge or professional expertise that you’re looking for in your next hire.

In the tech world this is most commonly a programming test. A HR person could be quizzed on relevant employment laws. You’ll want to keep them relevant to the job you’re hiring for, not ask someone to recall textbooks from years gone by.

Rachel Carrell, Founder & CEO of Koru Kids, uses work samples brilliantly. She ignores CVs, instead asking people to answer some simple screening questions which are linked to capabilities needed for the role. These are shared with her team anonymously, helping to remove bias.

This blind hiring without a CV resulted in her making two great hires for writer roles, of people who had English as a second language. Would relying on a CV risked her ignoring them at first glance?

Even if you don’t automate and anonymise like Koru Kids, it’s simple to start by sending one or two questions to every applicant, or requesting it instead of or alongside a CV, and using that information to filter.

Will it put off candidates?

Yes. If you’re reading about these different ways and thinking it might put off people who would rather simply send you a CV than put in some additional effort, then you’re right.

The 15 minutes to take a test or answer a work sample question might stop people applying or moving to the next stage.

But I’d argue that might not be a bad thing.

Because maybe they aren’t that interested in your role.

Assuming you’re got your employer branding right, and your job adverts explain what’s in it for them, then excluding the people that your opportunity doesn’t resonate with is a good thing.

Maybe they don’t feel confident answering your questions.

If your questions have a genuine link to the role and the capabilities (that doesn’t mean curveball questions like 'how many tennis balls you can fit in a jumbo jet') then filtering out those who struggle is a positive.

Of course, you can’t ask candidates to jump through hoop after hoop and expect everyone to keep going until you say stop. One company I spoke to last year was setting a three hour technical test before they would even set up a telephone interview and wondered why they were struggling to hire.

A little friction is good to help filter out those who aren’t interested or capable. But too much friction and you’ll find the best talent is swerving you for the startups who are running a more balanced process.

Candidate experience is key in building talent pools now and for the future, so you don’t want to frustrate good talent.

But a process that measures what matters can produce a better candidate experience than one that lacks transparency. Or one that seems to exclude those from under-represented backgrounds who might have travelled a non-traditional route.

When we ignored CVs in our trainee hiring process the feedback from all candidates, including those unsuccessful, was positive.  People were delighted they’d been given a fair assessment, and that we open to hiring people with different experiences and backgrounds.

When I’ve talked to others that have hired with less importance on the CV it’s been the same. Plenty of delight at the quality of the hires alongside some really good feedback from many of the candidates they’d considered along the way.

So have confidence this can improve your process from both sides, not simply give you better data for decision making which comes at the expense of the candidate’s experience.

Are you ready to change?

I know, this sounds like it’s going to involve some effort. Maybe you and your team like the familiarity of CVs, and no-one likes change.

But let’s stop and think about how valuable finding the best person for the job can be. Or how much of a problem finding the wrong person can be.

Here’s a slide that I often show when presenting to startup founders, highlighting how important it is to improve your chances of hiring the right people.


So it might take you a couple of hours, maybe a day or two, or even a week. Setting up a system, trialing new ways, and getting used to a new process. Pretty insignificant when there’s plenty of evidence that what you’re doing at the moment isn’t giving you what you need.

And remember, this is largely about the early stages of assessment. You still need to get the interview process right later, and I don’t think you’ll ever remove the need for a human touch to secure the best people.

But putting the pile of CVs to the side and trying some different methods is something I’d strongly encourage you to think about.

Hire for potential

A phrase that isn’t mine, but I keep in mind when I’m thinking about hiring for my business or for the startups and scaleups that trust ISL to find them great people.

Hire for potential over credentials.

It’s not easy, but optimise your hiring process for potential and I hope you’ll see huge payoffs. You may well surprise yourself with the diversity of talent that you find to join your journey.

You never know. Maybe you’ll uncover the next Leonardo da Vinci.