Here’s a difficult reality: White men are often judged on their potential, while women and people of color are judged on their past performance. This discrepancy acts as a barrier for individuals from underrepresented groups because most hiring, promotion and investment decisions are centered on potential. The good news is that talent acquisition professionals can make a huge difference with a simple intervention during the interview stage.

The Disparity in Assessing Potential vs. Proof

An illustrative example of the potential vs. proof bias comes from a study conducted at TechCrunch Disrupt involving 189 prospective founders. Researchers found that two-thirds of questions asked to men (by men and women) asked about potential. These were questions like:

  • How do you want to acquire customers?
  • How do plan to monetize this?

On the other hand, two-thirds of all questions asked to women demanded proof. These were questions like:

  • How many active users do you currently have?
  • How predictable are your cash flows?

The study found that when founders got to talk about their dreams and plans (i.e. their company’s potential), they got more funding. But not everyone gets to talk about their potential—because they aren’t explicitly asked to.

4 Steps for Fostering Equality in Potential Evaluation

Recruiters and talent acquisition leaders play a vital role in creating a better, less-biased hiring process. One important way to do this is by raising awareness about the bias between potential and proof during candidate evaluations, and recommending strategies to improve interview techniques. Here’s how:

1. Encourage consistency: Challenge interviewers to consistently ask questions focused on potential when evaluating all candidates, especially those from underrepresented groups. It’s vital to consciously apply the same evaluation criteria to all candidates, regardless of their background.

2. Provide interviewers with potential questions: Make it easy for interviewers to ask questions that allow every candidate to discuss their potential. These could include:

  • What is your vision for this role?
  • What is your vision for our product/service?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What kind of obstacles have you had to overcome to get to where you are today?

If your company employs a structured, competency-based interview process (an essential component of inclusive hiring) incorporate “potential” questions into that process.

3. Align on evaluation metrics. Bear in mind that potential-based questions can be challenging to score and compare across different individuals. Therefore, it’s essential that hiring teams establish what differentiates a good response from an average one before posing these questions.

4. Review interviewer feedback: Lastly, review the feedback provided by interviewers for potential biases. Are interviewers discussing potential for some candidates but not for others? Are they holding some candidates to more stringent standards?

As partners in the hiring process, recruiters play a vital role in ensuring fair and effective hiring practices by helping the hiring team spot and address biases. For too long, potential has been applied selectively and unfairly. As we seek to optimize talent acquisition, fully embracing the potential of all candidates, especially those that have been historically overlooked, can lead to a more inclusive and successful recruitment process and a more creative, high-performing company.

Liz Kofman-Burns

Liz Kofman-Burns, Ph.D., is co-founder of the DEI consulting firm Peoplism. She has over a decade of experience studying and implementing high-impact DEI solutions. At Peoplism, Liz and her team partner with companies to measurably increase diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging through strategy, training, and process change. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Inc., TechCrunch, FastCompany, SHRM, and others. Liz has a Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA.