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7 Ways to Minimize Perception-driven Hiring Mistakes

by Oct 4, 2012, 5:06 am ET

If you like someone when you first meet, you maximize their positives and minimize their negatives. If you don’t like someone, you maximize their weaknesses, and minimize their positives.

Now consider how many great candidates didn’t get the jobs they deserve because someone on the hiring team made a superficial judgment in the first minute, and then spent the rest of the interview seeking evidence to prove it.

In the last 30 years I’ve been involved in over 750 different separate hiring decisions. After the first 50 or so, I realized I had to personally intervene to prevent flawed hiring decisions based on emotions, perceptions, and biases. I did this for many reasons. The big two: I didn’t like doing searches over again and I didn’t like good people not getting the jobs they deserved for some dumb reason.

The solution to the problem started with everyone on the hiring team having a clear understanding of real job requirements. When an interviewer doesn’t know what it takes to be successful in the job, the person substitutes his or her own superficial, subjective, intuitive or biased criteria. For proof, consider managers that like to hire people who went to the “right” schools, have the “right” experience, are too brilliant for what’s required for success, and are just like them in how they look, talk, and act. For further proof, consider all of the people you’ve presented to your hiring managers, who possessed world-class talent, but didn’t pass through this filter.

Overcoming this defect in human nature starts by defining the job based on what the new hire needs to accomplish in order to be successful, rather than what the person must have in terms of skills, experience, looks, intelligence, background, and communication skills. For the past 20 years, I’ve been calling these achievement-oriented job descriptions performance profiles. A performance profile defines the actual work in terms of performance objectives, e.g., build a team of accountants, design a circuit, make quota in six months, etc. Most jobs have 5-6 tasks like this that represent the bulk of the job. The interviewer then needs to determine if the person can accomplish the tasks. If so, it’s then obvious the person has the appropriate amount of skills and experiences to successfully handle the work, regardless of how they seem in the first one to two minutes.

However preparing a performance profile is not enough to eliminate perceptions, biases, and emotions from affecting the decision. Here are some other things that can help increase objectivity:

Some Things You Can Do to Minimize Perception-driven Hiring Mistakes

  1. Wait 30 minutes. Hear all of the evidence, pro and con, before making any decision. In the case of interviewing, wait for at least 30 minutes after the interview starts before concluding if the person is a possible hire or not. This forced delay will minimize the impact of first impressions. After 30 minutes you’ll discover the good aren’t as good as you thought, and the bad aren’t as bad.
  2. Don’t give anyone on the hiring team a full yes or no vote. I use a talent scorecard listing all of the competencies and factors driving on the job success to make the assessment. (Contact me if you’d like to view a sample.) There are about 10 factors on the form including things like technical ability, leadership, motivation, problem-solving, and cultural fit. Instead of assigning each interviewer all of the factors to assess, each interviewer should be given only 2-3 to “own.” During a formal debriefing session each interviewer is then required to substantiate his/her ranking with facts and evidence.
  3. Ask people you like tougher questions. When you like a candidate, you naturally go into sales mode, ask softball questions, and ignore or minimize negatives. To overcome this natural tendency, force yourself to ask tougher questions, digging deep into the person’s accomplishments. 
  4. Treat people you don’t like as consultants. When a candidate makes a weak first impression, we typically either tune out, ask hardball questions, cut the person off, and ignore or minimize any positive information. Sometimes candidates are nervous, sometimes they’re different in appearance or personality, and sometimes they talk with accents you don’t like. And sometimes, these are great people. To find the truth, assume they’re great, and treat them as expert consultants. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume what they’ve done is remarkable. After 30 minutes you might discover they’re not so bad after all.
  5. Ignore fact-less decisions. During the debriefing session, ignore assessments that include these terms: feel, think, like, dislike, bad fit, too soft, too aggressive, anything about personality good or bad, or the term “soft skills.” Also, ignore anything similar that smacks of bias, emotions, prejudices, or hasty judgments. These are all clues that the candidate was interviewed through the wrong filter. Unless the interviewer can attach concrete evidence to the assessment, it has minimum predictive value.
  6. Don’t conduct short interviews. If you want to make the wrong hiring decision, have five or six people each spend 30-40 minutes with the candidate, and then add up their yes/no votes. If it takes three to six months after the person is hired to determine true performance, how is it possible to predict this in a short 30-minute get-together? Instead, follow all of the rules in this list and either have each interviewer spend at least an hour with the candidate one on one, or conduct a panel interview with 2-3 people for about 60-75 minutes.
  7. Conduct phone interviews first. Conduct a 30-minute exploratory phone interview before meeting the person in-person. Review the person’s work-history looking for the Achiever Pattern and ask about a major accomplishment most comparable to the performance profile. Not only will this indicate the person is a strong match for the job, but will naturally minimize the impact of first impressions when the interviewer actually meets the person.

Interviewers typically seek out evidence supporting their initial reaction to a candidate, filtering out conflicting information. It’s how perceptions become reality. However, by forcing a delay in the hiring decision, and demanding that interviewers justify they’re assessments with evidence, you’ll overcome the insidious impact of human nature. Changing perceptions starts by recognizing first how they change you.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Richard Melrose

    While a “performance profile” may include elements of a job analysis, work outcomes often leave the “how to” hidden or fuzzy. That makes candidate’s job-related capability harder to accurately assess.

    Interviewing constitutes one of the weaker (least valid, least predictive) assessment methods, particularly when the interviews are unstructured and feed a downstream “group grope” hiring decision exercise.

    Asking different questions of “halo” and “horns” candidates would mean that selection procedures were not uniformly applied. That’s a regulatory compliance no no.

    A better approach would start with a formal job analysis and then use valid, job-related, assessments, with high combined predictive validity for job performance and job learning, as a first course; and then complete the process with “same for all” structured interviews, with documented responses scored according to well defined scales.

    Regulatory compliance with the 1978 Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures and best selection practices are still one in the same.

    r.melrose@vision21.us

  • http://sggh.net Ronald Katz

    Excellent piece, Lou! Managers who hire based on their “gut” drive me nuts!
    Your opening premise about candidates is spot on. If your first impression is to like someone, you judge them based on their intentions. If your first impression is less positive, we tend to judge them based on their results. One of the subtlest forms of bias.

    Thanks for highlighting this technique to avoid it.
    Ron Katz

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks Lou. You’ve hit upon the basis for Behavioral Recruiting (not Behavioral Interviewing)- the application of Behavioral Economics and Cognitive Science to recruiting. It says that while we may think we are “rational actors,” we are all susceptible to a large variety of cognitive biases which influence our decision-making. You’ve described a number of effective ways of recognizing and dealing with these biases.

    Cheers,

    Keith

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  • http://www.rolepoint.com Kes Thygesen

    You hit the nail on its head, Lou! Having biases about anyone is only natural, but how we handle these biases is what affects our day-to-day lives. I’m a big fan of using positive and negative reinforcement strategies to elicit the responses you desire to see. Asking more difficult questions to candidates you perceive as top-notch and assuming expert-level knowledge in candidates you perceive to be lower on food chain is doing exactly that. Great tips.