Five Equity-Driven Steps in Reviewing Resumes to Find the Best Applicants
Updated: Aug 29
Establishing a system for reviewing applications and resumes will help you/your organization improve your chances of including the most relevant candidates in your interview pool, including uncovering some hidden gems. This piece discusses key steps and shares a practical assessment tool to consider incorporating into evaluating candidate resumes.
To ensure an equitable and smooth search process, it is critical that your organization’s goals and inclusive practices are reflected and align with your mission, vision, and values.
Step 1: Identify the hiring team members and ground the search process.
Your selection team ideally includes colleagues across roles who have the capacity and carry a deep commitment to the process, including a deep understanding of the role and department. This is with the understanding that you and your hiring team colleagues have already discussed creating a job description inclusive of your programmatic and equity goals and also defined the experience and track record examples you seek (and that you have listed them in the “Qualifications” section of your now-public job description).
During the kick-off meeting with your hiring team, consider incorporating this inquiry to ensure that the organization’s values are honored at the onset of the search process: How will our values show up in this search process?
As you move into the next step in the process, how will this grounding support the development of a proactive outreach strategy to widely circulate your job description? For example, if deep and authentic community partnerships are core to your programmatic model, hiring team members could map their networks of partners and personally reach out to share the opportunity for distribution or to request ideas they might have as connecters: into which networks would they urge you to share the opportunity?
Talent Tip: We believe the hiring team should be equally invested in welcoming and supporting the onboarding of their future colleague. Begin thinking now about onboarding steps and the roles each team member can take in that process.
Step 2: Agree on your resume review process and team member involvement.
Processing applications and screening resumes is one of the most challenging steps of the hiring process. Each applicant brings a different set of experiences and skills and may not have a resume that highlights their skills, experience, and track record in a fully translatable way to your organization. Deciding which ones best match the responsibilities and requirements of the position is challenging.
Creating a system for reviewing resumes will help you improve your chances of including the most aligned candidates in your interview pool, including those hidden gems. You can take several steps to screen resumes equitably and systematically to support the best candidates selected for interviews.
Begin by identifying who will be conducting the resume review. We recommend creating a sub-group (2-4 people) from your hiring team to take on this work. Ideally, these individuals have been involved since the beginning of the process and have helped to co-create the job description.
Talent Tip: Depending on your organization, the position, and the availability of team members, your hiring team might consider partnering with a professional recruiter to engage in this process independently or as a hybrid that involves a portion of, or the entire, hiring team.
If you decide to do this exclusively within your hiring team, we recommend you have two people screen resumes—each independently and then together. Having two people conduct the resume reviews ensures that the hiring team receives balanced viewpoints of potential candidates and a consistent perspective on the candidate pool overall.
The point person in this process will be responsible for collecting and organizing resumes. If resumes will be submitted via email to the point person or recruiter, creating a dedicated email address for this position (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org) can be incredibly beneficial. Incorporating this practice allows you to streamline engagement. It serves as a smooth and efficient way to alert candidates through an auto-response that their resumes have been received and provides a sense of the process going forward.
Talent Tip: It is important to note here that generating an automated response is the minimum level of response we suggest. Though it facilitates prompt acknowledgment, this approach is less personal (and more transactional) than an individual reply. Our recommendation is that your hiring team develop a process involving human touchpoints to ensure equitable practices are embedded throughout the entire hiring process.
For example, a personalized outreach before and after every interaction with your organization—a real “checking in”—to ensure that candidates receive the information they need vs. merely participating in your process. An example of a hidden gem could be that though the candidate may not be the right fit for the current role, they may possess skills, talents, and abilities that could serve another role.
Responding is a critical and basic courtesy, as candidates often feel uneasy being left without a response. To that end, we recommend communicating with all potential candidates that their resume has been received and is under consideration and that you will contact them whether they advance in the process or not. Besides, responding helps promote your organization’s brand.
When and how you hold this session will depend on your hiring cycle, the immediacy of your needs, and how many resumes you receive. It will also benefit the hiring team to set an initial date for reviewers to meet in person or via video conference call for the first resume screen. This is especially critical since the initial resume screening meeting typically takes a few hours.
Step 3: Organize cover letters and resumes to speed up reviewing.
To support the influx of resumes coming in, it will be beneficial to create a process that organizes resumes by the date received and save them in an email file. To take this process a level deeper, consider assigning each resume a number code to ensure that the resume reviewing team receives all of the resumes in the same order and streamlines communication in a timely manner.
Step 4: Review resumes thoughtfully and objectively.
As your hiring team reviews resumes and discusses the essential qualifications for the role, it will be helpful to keep in mind which aspects of a candidate’s resume might allow for bias to creep into your process as an ongoing check-in (individually and as a collective).
Talent Tip: If you think someone’s name, educational background, address/neighborhood (or any combination of the above) might hinder applicants from advancing, consider anonymous materials focusing on the role and track record highlighted in candidate resumes.
If you manage the process internally, consider creating an assessment grid or rubric to evaluate candidates’ resumes. An assessment grid is a tool that outlines the core criteria from the job description and allows you to compare candidates across criteria. Grids should include categories such as accomplishments, job experience, technical skills/licenses, and relevant volunteer experience.
Once all resumes are received, distribute the resume packets to the resume review team before your first meeting. Clearly outline the intention and timeframe to review the resumes. Have each member of the team review the resumes individually and place resumes in one of three piles—“yes,” “no,” or “maybe”— based on the criteria in the assessment grid. To level-set each potential candidate, invite team members to capture evidence as they are note-taking in each category.
To support your team in providing the needed information and details of potential candidates, below are key questions to keep in mind when reviewing resumes:
How do the candidate’s professional skills map to the prioritized requirements in the job description?
Do you have a sense of the environment in which this person has worked? How similar or dissimilar is this to our organization?
Which articulated accomplishments would resonate at our organization? (You might suggest reviewers highlight them as they read the resumes.)
Does the candidate’s cover letter put their experience in a context that allows us to see how close a match it is to our organization?
What is the candidate’s work history?
Has the candidate’s career progression been quick, steady, or slow?
Which of these three options gives you the most confidence there might be alignment with our organization?
What do the candidate’s work choices say about their willingness to take risks? How does this fit (or not) with our organization?
Do you get a sense of the person behind the resume?
If this person has never worked in the nonprofit sector, do you see personal and/or volunteer activities that show the mission commitment we’re seeking?
Using the remaining resumes, begin discussing the strengths and areas to probe for each resume that the team collectively agrees falls into the “yes” or “maybe” piles.
A good goal is to agree on roughly 10 candidates with whom to hold an initial phone interview and four to seven to invite for in-person or video interviews (depending on the overall number of candidates). If the pool of candidates from the “yes” pile does not meet those goals, it may be worth revisiting the “maybe” candidates who might miss critical criteria but bring a relevant track record and with whom you can explore how they’ve learned new skills in prior roles.
Step 5: Make the interview decision.
Now that you have your pool of potential candidates for the first round of interviews, it’s time to make the interview decision. Begin with an analysis and comparison of resumes in the “yes” group with the following prompts to anchor decision-making.
What are the strengths/development needs of each of these candidates?
What are the fundamental tradeoffs you must make in picking a candidate
Additionally, this time would also be used to talk through the “maybe” group in detail, to move candidates into either the “yes” or the “not for this role” piles.
Openly discuss what you would probe with each candidate you decide to interview. Remember, you’ll have some key questions you want all candidates to address – for consistency and related to your criteria. To establish a relational and equitable experience, consider inviting as much of the person into the experience as possible by holding space for other questions specific to a candidate’s career choices or trajectory, interests, and passions. Sometimes, an opening invitation to the candidate to take 2-3 minutes to share their interest and how they feel their experience sets them up for success in the role can be helpful.
By the end of your discussion, there should be agreement on which resumes are in the “no” group and established plans to inform candidates that they will not be moving to the next round.
Talent Tip: It’s always hard to share disappointing news with a motivated and interested candidate. Remember, it might be “no” for this role, but perhaps “yes” for a role in the future. As a hiring team, agree on the level of personalization that best reflects your organization’s culture.
Sample Assessment Grid
An assessment grid can help you compare candidates' resumes, making the screening process more objective. Base your decisions on track record and work examples, instead of a specific degree, for example. For example, requiring an MBA will create a barrier for some candidates to apply when your real need is for analytical skills, which you can identify through work examples.
Use the requirements and qualifications outlined in your job description to create a grid. In the example below, you’ll see the requirements of a VP of Finance job description. Often, job descriptions include both quantitative and qualitative requirements; the qualitative pieces can be challenging to assess.
Regardless, you will want to use the interviews to dive deeper into the qualitative aspects of a candidate’s experiences.
Place job description criteria in the left-hand column, highlighting the top three to five track record examples you seek.
Rate the candidate based on whether the skills and experiences outlined in the resume exceed, meet, or do not meet the criteria. Each candidate is ranked on a scale of 1 – 5, with five being the highest.
Compare totals (considering the lack of complete information on some candidates) to rate candidates against one another.