Why Do We Make Stupid Hiring Decisions?

Hiring is an emotional issue. No matter whether we admit it or not, use tests or not, or use a professional recruiter or not, we all go through a multi-step psychological decision process to decide who gets hired, which generally looks something like this:

  1. Do we clearly know what we are looking for?
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  3. Does this person have skills that match what we are looking for?
  4. Is this person the best choice of all possible candidates?
  5. Will this person be the best for the future?

Why is it important to know what’s happening inside our psyches? Because more understanding equals fewer bad decisions. Conversely, the less we understand about our decision-making processing and the job, the more foolish and self-serving we appear to clients, employers, and candidates ó not to mention the EEOC. 1. Do we clearly know what we are looking for? You know you’re stuck not knowing whether the applicant has the “right skills” when, after reviewing all candidates, the decision-makers have trouble coming to an agreement about what the job requires or if during the search stage job requirements keep floating. Recruiters often experience this when they play “pin the tail on the applicant” with hiring managers: “Is this the guy? What about now? What about this one? What? You are changing the specs mid-stream? Can you hear me now?” Knowing whether the right person has the right skills is like being blindfolded, spun around until dizzy, and then swinging a garden hose to break a fiberglass-reinforced pinata dangled by a cackling hiring manager. The solution? Do your homework. Get a grip on the fact that managers (unless they are also doing the same job) are usually clueless about what the job takes. Sure, they know what the job is supposed to produce, but they seldom have any idea how the work should be done. And if they don’t know how the work should be done, the best any recruiter can hope for is finding someone who is merely likeable. Who knows the most about the job? The one person who is generally taken for granted: the lowly incumbent. Now, some folks are going to get all bent out of shape when I don’t tell them how to do a job analysis in a short article. The reason I won’t is because job analysis is part experience and part art. It may be written about in books, but it takes highly experienced people years to learn to do well. I once worked in a large consulting firm that only hired Ph.D.s to do their job analyses. Many of them knew the theory, but never learned the art. Bottom line? Get a true professional. It will pay off handsomely. 2. Does this person have skills that match what we are looking for? Of course, we all are highly “objective” and “rational” decision makers. We know this because we tend to buy cars the size of subdivisions and purchase over-priced underwear because it makes a “statement” (let’s hope our chatty underwear knows when to be discreet). When we apply our finely honed decision-making skills to hiring, we pick people whom we like, who fit our culture, who have similar backgrounds and experience to us, who look like us, who are tall or pretty, who attended the same schools, or who know someone we like personally. We even admit to “fudging” tests to make ourselves look good while concurrently arguing that other people would never do the same thing. Yes. We are all highly rational. Even when we are not, we’ll defend decisions to the death (of memory, at least). My point? Stop using personal standards. Learn exactly which tests measure the few critical competencies required for the job. Make sure they work by doing some high quality studies. Abandon the misguided notion that anyone can “break into the business” without so much as cracking a book. Silly test practices hurt the organization, hurt applicants, and hurt our professional credibility. If you are especially unlucky, silly tests get you “up close and personal” with the EEOC. 3. Is this person the best choice of all possible candidates? This is the fallback position after everything else goes haywire. In the absence of knowing what to look for or how to evaluate an individual candidate, we naturally shift to comparing one applicant to another. The decision-makers are lost and have no compass to point them in the right direction. Like all logical human beings, even decision-makers forget about comparing applicants to job requirements and instead start comparing them to one another. The only time we can compare one candidate to another is when we have: 1) clear job analysis data, and 2) objective data on each candidate. Data allows us to examine which candidate looks best when compared with the JOB, not the other applicants. If our candidates aren’t perfect and we don’t want to restart the whole search process, we can evaluate who has the most strengths, who is coachable, or who has the fewest weaknesses. The evaluation process becomes much more accurate. 4. Will this person be the best for the future? People often fail to consider the future when making hiring decisions. Will the job become more or less demanding? Will the requirements involve more customer interaction? Will employees be facing greater decision challenges? If we hire too “high” we run the risk of over qualification. If we hire too low, we run the risk of under qualification. Being the best for the future is a major problem faced by organizations when: 1) they try to push decision making downward (among people who were not hired for their decision-making skills), 2) people are expected to work in teams (among people who were not hired for their ability to get along with others), or 3) employees are expected to interface with customers (among people who were not hired for their ability to resolve customer problems). Frequently, the only group with future job knowledge is senior management. Did I mention they should be involved in setting job standards? When management speaks it is a good idea to implement their plans. Just keep it within a two-year horizon. Human decision making is (and will always be) an area filled with confusion and uncertainty. The only way we can hope to control it is to be aware of the solutions to the four potential problems facing every hiring decision: knowing clearly what we are looking for, being able to accurately evaluate applicant skills, being able to objectively comparing candidates to the job (not to each other), and incorporating future changes into the job search.