Peer Evaluations Could Be the Key to More Equitable Recruiting and Admissions

You’d be hard-pressed to find a (respectable) business or university that doesn’t strive for a diverse, inclusive, and equitable recruiting practice. But despite decades of earnest, widespread effort to move the needle, it feels like we’re still struggling to do so.

Why haven’t we figured it out? Why is equitable recruiting so difficult?

The most obvious answer is also the truest: inequity in recruiting is a product of larger-scale inequity. It’s not an isolated problem, it’s one that runs parallel to issues like wealth distribution and education funding. They all stem from the same knot of historical roots.

Structural issues like these require structural changes. That’s why implicit-bias training programs meant to combat these issues have fallen short of making a meaningful, lasting difference. In fact, they might offer more in the way of lip service than genuine progress.

Recruiters and admissions offices need new tools and data in order to effectively tackle implicit bias. These tools and processes can come in many shapes and sizes, but they don't need to be radical in order to be effective. In fact, one of the most compelling additions might be one of the most conceptually simple: ask diverse peers to provide input and feedback on talent.

Peer evaluations help surface historically hard-to-spot but valuable qualities like passion, grit, and sense of humor. It gives recruiters and admissions officers a fuller and richer picture of candidates, an important stride toward more equitable processes.

The artifacts we measure don’t tell the full story of a person’s potential

On its own, using artifacts like test scores, resumes, and GPAs to gauge potential isn’t a bad process; it’s necessary to evaluate massive pools of candidates in a scalable, efficient way. However, we put an undue amount of weight on cognitive-first artifacts — many of which are influenced by wealth, access, and institutional access — reducing applicants to mere fragments of their full potential.

By and large, it’s understood that wealth, access, and institutional knowledge are huge assets in the game of employment and university admissions. Those privileges afford better education, competitive opportunities, mentorship, insider tips, etc.

At crucial points — specifically, when applying to universities or jobs — these advantages crescendo:

  • If they pay for test prep, their application benefits.
  • If their sibling goes to university and helps them with a personal statement, their application benefits.
  • If their family encouraged them to specialize in an extracurricular activity from a young age, their application benefits.

The same could be said for job-seekers: an enormous emphasis is placed on how well they can craft artifacts like resumes, cover letters, and high-stakes interviews. In the process, important dimensions of their personality, talent, and potential are lost.

Vital soft skills get overlooked

This overemphasis on cognitive-first artifacts fails to fully consider a person’s soft skills and character: qualities like grit, sense of humor, and drive to make a difference.

Soft skills and character are important factors for success both in academia and at work; they should be valued during recruiting and admissions. However, they take significant skill and expertise to convey on a resume or in a personal-statement interview.

Relying on exclusive artifacts that don’t show soft skills and character has two downsides. First, it excludes capable people who can’t translate their talent and potential. And when translating talent and potential correlates to wealth and class, this means the process excludes people on that front.

Second, without assessing artifacts of character and soft skills, we overvalue cognitive performance and elite experiences at the expense of team dynamics. A 2020 study challenged the assumption that top-tier university graduates made better employees. The study estimated that top-tier graduates perform about 1% better than graduates from non-elite institutions. But that 1% improvement came at the cost of higher salaries, bigger egos, and lower interpersonal skills.

In other words, diversifying the types of artifacts we evaluate isn’t just good for individuals; it stands to benefit businesses, too.

Peer evaluation adds new dimension to those artifacts

In the application process, peer evaluation can represent a new kind of artifact, specifically, one that highlights valuable noncognitive soft skills, many of which would otherwise be invisible to recruiters and admissions officers. These skills facilitate teamwork, creativity, and social good; admissions officers and recruiters shouldn’t pass them over.

Peer evaluation describes standardized, structured processes of gathering assessments from classmates, coworkers, and other peers. It might look like anonymous grading or an open-forum discussion. At Hello World, it looks a lot like social media: users can comment on one another’s projects, give suggestions, and celebrate successes.

Humans have an innate, sophisticated ability to evaluate others. As we walk through life, our brains naturally analyze the behavior of those around us to determine who is kind, determined, funny, creative, or cooperative. Plus, those assessments are more personal and unmediated than those shown on resumes and test scores.

These qualities are subjective, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be communicated to recruiters and admissions officers. That’s the goal of peer evaluation. It turns the subjective and nebulous into a concrete assessment to paint a more complete picture of a candidate’s talent and potential.

Plus, peer evaluation sheds light on a candidate’s day-to-day life. An interview might reveal a candidate’s ability to be personable in a high-stakes environment, which is important. But that doesn’t always correlate to the way they’ll act on campus or in the office. Peer evaluation can surface small acts of bravery, kindness, or teamwork in the classroom, or a creative idea that made office life easier for coworkers. It’s like the Waiter Rule: Don’t judge someone by how nice they are to you; judge them by how nice they are to the waiter.

Researchers and teachers see parallel benefits from peer evaluations

In research and in classrooms, peer evaluations are used to generate fuller pictures of subjects and students, respectively. Both cases reflect an aspect of how peer evaluations could make recruiting a better, more well-rounded process.

Researchers use peer evaluations to engage hard-to-reach subjects

A 2016 case study sought to understand the effect of using peers — in this case, trusted community members — in research. Specifically, they wanted to understand whether they could produce better, more accurate findings by hiring and training local community members to conduct surveys in place of white-coat researchers.

Typically, researchers encounter issues with underreporting and false answers in remote communities, communities with language barriers, and individuals afraid they’ll get in trouble if they talk to a figure of authority. So this study was particularly interested in finding out whether this approach might grant better access to those hard-to-reach groups.

The study concluded that researchers could benefit from including peer interviews, because it creates an unintimidating environment in which subjects feel more comfortable to express themselves fully and honestly:

Participants experience an enhanced comfort with the research process; peer-interviewers gain professional competencies and feel included as knowledge experts; team members engage in meaningful ways with colleagues who can bring their personal subject area expertise to the project; and, the data becomes richer. . . .  In involving those with insider knowledge of the sensitivity of topics like addictions, mental illness and homelessness, the research process becomes more inclusive and respectful. I believe recruiting could see many of these same benefits by adopting peer evaluations.

People — particularly young people without exposure to high-stakes environments — aren’t set up for success when they’re asked to sum up their potential in a five-paragraph essay or a 30-minute interview, especially when they’re new to these processes.

Young people who don't come from affluent families with tutors and college counselors often don't get opportunities to learn how recruiting processes work. For those students, peer evaluations make the recruiting process a valuable learning experience by making the recruiting process less intimidating and providing feedback to help them improve their applications going forward.

Teachers use peer evaluation to better assess students

A 2019 meta-analysis of 54 studies set out to understand how peer evaluation impacted academic performance. Together, the studies suggested peer feedback offers an effective strategy to engage and motivate students. Compared to teacher evaluation and no evaluation at all, peer evaluation produced the best academic performance.

I mention this meta-analysis to highlight another benefit of peer evaluation. In an ideal world, recruiting should be a productive process for the applicant, not a reductive one. In other words, an applicant should walk out of the process better off, even if they didn’t get the position — especially candidates who don’t have access to quality coaching.

Peer evaluation provides a source of constructive feedback beyond acceptance and rejection. As the research suggests, this can make a big difference when it comes to motivation and performance.  

Peer evaluation is possible, even on a global scale

Hello World is working to build a scalable platform that facilitates this kind of peer evaluation.

Our mission is to establish a platform that offers kids an unintimidating, valuable application process while simultaneously helping university admissions, scholarships, and other opportunities achieve more well-rounded, equitable recruiting processes.

On the app, users create online profiles and submit video responses to a number of creative, low-stakes prompts, like “Show us your passion” and “Make us laugh.” Peers and educators can leave feedback on these videos and promote users with creative, heartfelt, and compelling ideas. Then, recruiters can see the video artifacts and peer evaluations to get a rounder view of each applicant than a resume or test scores alone could show.

Our mission to create better ways to discover and develop talent depends on partner programs to share scholarships and other development opportunities through Hello World. If that sounds like you, and you want to know more, we want to talk. Please, say hello! I love engaging in conversations about this!