Examples and Inferences

I have been working with a search committee for the last six months, screening candidates for a leadership position. Members of the committee include a highly successful sales manager, an HR manager, an experienced turn-around manager, and the owner of a well-known professional recruiting franchise office. Although they are all fine people, and successful in their careers, they represent the human recruiting condition. Here are some examples.

The Sales Manager

A highly successful commercial for Wendy’s restaurants once showed a “grandma” looking at a competitor’s sandwich and repeatedly asking, “Where’s the beef?” Well, in this case, the sales manager forgets to ask candidates, “Where’s the beef?” When one candidate was asked to submit a plan for growth, the sales manager was “wowed” by the candidate’s charts, graphs, and list of recommended resources. A close examination actually showed that the plan seriously lacked substance. In short, the sales manager fell in love with a big-picture, little-substance presentation. It was all sizzle, and no beef. Potential for making a hiring mistake: Huge!

The Turn-Around Manager

The turn-around manager was a legend in his own mind. He carefully examined “snippets” of information from the resume and made sweeping assumptions based on little or no objective data. One candidate, for example, spent the last six years managing a staff in an administrative position. The turn-around manager examined this part of the resume and announced, “This person only has staff experience! He could not possibly be successful in our position.” The turn-around manager considered himself to be a good judge of people, but he repeatedly looked for small details on which he could base big assumptions. Potential for making a hiring mistake: Huge!

The HR Manager

One candidate was asked how he made group presentations (i.e., from behind a podium or in the middle of the group). After describing how he used a podium, the HR manager concluded, “Any one who stands behind a podium to talk is ineffective. Disqualify that candidate!” Was the candidate an ineffective speaker? The HR manager believed no one could be effective unless they spoke extemporaneously from the middle of the group. His personal opinion (totally unencumbered with facts) was his reality. Potential for making a hiring mistake: Huge!

The Professional Recruiter

The professional recruiter wowed everyone with his magic questions like, “What was your greatest challenge and what did you learn from it?” as well as the question, “If you gathered 100 of your friends in a room what would they say was your greatest strength and greatest weakness?” Groan! Questions like these are, no doubt, interesting, but they constitute psychobabble. That is, the recruiter wants to learn about undisclosed information that, he believes, could predict job success. Sorry, close, but no cigar. Potential for making a hiring mistake: Huge!

Reading Tea Leaves, Resumes, and Interviews

When faced with too much data, such as an inbox filled with dozens of job applicants, our human nature often encourages us to take an elimination strategy. That is, instead of qualifying whether a person has the right job skills, we seek information that will allow us to disqualify a candidate for attending the wrong school, holding the wrong job title, citing the wrong experience, or even misspelling a word. The turn-around manager, for example, considered himself to be a leadership expert (the rest of the group is still searching for a personal example). He zeroed in on one aspect of the applicant’s resume and jumped to an equally silly conclusion: Applicants coming from staff positions could not possibly have leadership skills. He had no data to support this claim, only a resume that cited job history and job experience. He was reducing the range of choices by making negative inferences. The HR manager made the same mistake. After a candidate responded to a question about giving presentations, the HR manager heard a magic word that triggered an avalanche of misinformation about public-speaking techniques.

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On the other hand, when we personally like a candidate, we fill in the blanks and make positive assumptions based on little or no hard evidence. The sales manager, for example, looked at the applicant’s proposed plan, and although there were almost no supporting facts about what the applicant would do, his mind automatically filled in the blanks. Did he have an example from the applicant’s history about how to grow and organization? No. The sales manager liked the candidate so much that he unconsciously supplied the positive information he was looking for. It was hard to see where the professional recruiter was coming from. His questions sounded deep and insightful, but had only two possible responses: positive ones that gave the interviewers warm-fuzzies, or negative ones that gave them cold-pricklies. One candidate, for example, cited learning from a past failure. He was disqualified. Another candidate cited being warm and empathetic. He was accepted. None of the interviewers stopped to probe for examples. It was just a case of “say the right magic word” and either win the job or lose it. What did both responses have in common? Neither response had anything to do with the skills to perform the job. Were they deep and insightful? For a psychologist, perhaps. But they were shallow and myopic for a recruiter.

Examples and Inferences

Reducing hiring mistakes to the minimum requires knowing one simple, yet obscure concept: An inference unsupported by facts is not the same as an example of job performance. An inference is jumping to a conclusion based on a “clue.” An example, on the other hand, is a clear-cut illustration of job ability. Examples are substantially more accurate than inferences because they are observable demonstrations of job performance. However, as we mentioned above, interviewers and hiring managers are often mislead by highly inferential information.

Of course, we have to start by knowing exactly what kind of examples to look for. Let’s say that a candidate says she is highly critical. One employer might find that to be a good thing and another might not. They each defined in their heads what the phrase meant. “Highly critical” could indicate a problem-solving skill or it could mean a general tendency to find fault with something another has done. Employers must translate candidates’ words. To do this, they should use structured interviews. Structured interviews (i.e., the ones that require a candidate explaining a situation, action, and result) are better than the “get to know ya'” ones because the interviewer (hopefully) knows explicitly what to probe for and how to phrase questions that minimize error. But interviews are still highly dependent on the skill of the interviewer and the ability (or career experience) of the interviewee to provide trustworthy and reliable answers.

Giving the candidate a problem-solving test provides a good example of whether he or she could solve a job-related problem. But these, too, have to be done carefully. The problem must be clearly written; it must be time-bound; it must have a clear set of answers; and scores should directly relate to job performance. This is not an easy task to master. Cases studies and other types of pencil-and-paper exercises, however, do provide solid examples about the candidate’s ability. Interpersonal skills are difficult to measure using pencil and paper for a variety of reasons. Some people are smart enough to fake it. Others have unrealistic opinions of their own ability, and interpersonal behavior often changes depending on the situation. Aibo, the Sony robot dog, may act cute but it will never be as unpredictably emotional as my live dog (who refuses eye-contact for days if we get her hair clipped too short).

Examples of interpersonal ability almost always require some kind of one-on-one simulation. A situation is clearly outlined, a role-player is carefully trained, and a clear set of desirable responses is developed. Unlike the pencil-and-paper format, a simulation invites the candidate to show an example of his or her interpersonal skills. Decisions about team-membership, management, salesmanship, customer service, coaching, and so forth, are often substantially improved using simulations. There are many methods available for identifying applicant skills. The most trustworthy and reliable ones measure examples of job-related behavior. The least trustworthy and reliable methods invite people to make inferences based on snippets of incomplete information.