“Blink” and Hiring More Passive Candidates

If you want to hire more top-performing passive candidates, you should read a new book called Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. While it has nothing to do with hiring or management or recruiting, reading it will make you a better recruiter, since it has much to do with human nature. Here are some key points:

  1. First impressions are powerful emotional triggers that usually set a person up for making mistakes. One example cited is Warren G. Harding, considered by most historians as the worst U.S. President, but the one who looked the most presidential. Additionally, a number of studies are cited which prove that racial biases are prevalent in decision-making ó even in those people who are the most open-minded. This does not bode well for the hiring process, as just about every interviewer makes a judgment about candidate competency in the first few minutes of an interview, based on first impressions and gut feelings. They’re never accurate, and if they are, it’s just due to random luck, not insight. Aside from hiring the wrong person, think about how many good people didn’t get hired because they made an average or weak first impression? This is the real problem when first impressions play too dominant a role. Proactive action must be taken to eliminate the impact of errors due to first impressions.
  2. Thin-slicing is a means to accurately predict future outcomes based on selecting small samples of highly relevant data. The author cites a study of short interviews (15 minutes to one hour) of newly married couples to determine the likelihood that the marriage will last. Focusing on just a few emotional determinants related to respect, communication skills, personal warmth, and attitude towards others, the study was able to predict the marriage’s long-term success with better than 90% accuracy. This same thin-slicing concept can be adapted for hiring. As long as an interviewer remains objective, only a few traits need to be measured to accurately predict candidate competency. These include leadership/initiative, team skills, and motivation to do the work required.
  3. Asking people their opinions will usually result in bad information. Remember the famous Pepsi vs. Coke taste test? Pepsi always won. Even Coke was convinced, and as a result came out with New Coke, which was an abysmal failure. Coke Classic was then reintroduced. The problem is that no one takes just a sip of cola. They drink the whole can. On this basis, Coke always won. Here’s one hiring equivalent. Asking people if they would relocate will generally result in a “no” the first time, 90% or more of the time. Even if a relocation is not involved, asking any passive candidate if he or she would be interested in a specific job opening will usually result in a “no” most of the time ó unless the job is spot-on. So make sure you never ask this type of question the first time. Instead, ask the person if they’d be open to discuss future career opportunities. The initial 15-minute engagement period is the most critical part of recruiting passive candidates. Based on our survey of over 400 corporate recruiters, most are not as sophisticated as necessary to handle this critical phase. Here’s a self-scoring questionnaire you can take to see where you stand on handling the needs of recruiting passive candidates.
  4. Opinion polls are even less valid when evaluating new ideas and products. Initially, the Aeron chair was considered too ugly to sell ó until it became cool. Based on surveys, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore show were considered too controversial for their time, and only CBS decided to take the risk. Everything on HBO is too controversial, but they seem to always make the best shows. Introducing a new type of performance-based hiring or multi-channel sourcing program is doomed to failure if hiring managers are asked if they would like to participate. This is why few recruiting initiatives ever get launched properly. Instead, recruiting department heads need to take a leadership role in implementing new recruiting techniques based on validated pilot programs.

There are many other relevant ideas presented in Gladwell’s insightful book. Collectively, Blink introduces some interesting insights about human nature that will help you better understand candidate and hiring manager behavior. So if you’d like to hire more passive candidates, you should read the book. However, here are some ideas you might want to try out based on the four ideas noted above. There are ways to minimize the impact of first impressions. This is a critical area that should be tackled first. The book presents a great case that presentation actually affects judgment. Studies were documented that show that the same ice cream seemingly tastes better when it was scooped from a round container rather than a square one. The preferred brandy was always the one in the more attractive bottle, even when the contents were switched. So first impressions matter, even though they don’t. Tasters came to the wrong conclusion because they were overly influenced by the presentation. It wasn’t until the presentation effect dissipated that reality prevailed. When you’re meeting candidates who make great presentations, don’t assume competency. And when you’re meeting candidates who don’t quite fit the image, do not assume incompetence. Instead, buy some time to overcome the powerful bias that first impressions make. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

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  • Phone screen. Conduct a short interview on the phone before meeting the candidate. A quick work history review and a quick overview of two major accomplishments are sufficient. Knowing the person’s career highlights this way will minimize the impact of first impressions.
  • Wait 30 minutes. Once the interview starts, fight your instincts for 30 minutes before making any judgment about candidate competency. Instead, measure the person’s first impression after 30 minutes or at the end of the interview. To get through those first 30 minutes, be more suspect with people you like and more open-minded with those you don’t.
  • Desensitize your clients. Tell clients ahead of time about your candidate’s first impression to minimize the impact of any negative biases. You can substitute a major accomplishment to offset a weak first impression and ask your clients to discuss this right away.
  • Interview the candidate behind a black curtain. This is what the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra did. Until then, males always turned out to be better musicians. But there was no gender difference once the black curtain audition process was used.

As long as the interviewer is objective, thin-slicing around a few important traits is an effective means to assess candidate competency and motivation. It’s certainly far superior to relying on first impressions and intuition. Over the past 30 years, I’ve found four traits common to all top performers. These are 1) leadership, 2) competency to do the work or the ability to learn it quickly, 3) motivation to do the required work, and 4) team skills (persuasiveness and the ability to influence others). To understand these, obtain a few comprehensive examples of the candidate’s most significant accomplishments at the person’s past few jobs. Dig deep and spend about 10-15 minutes on each accomplishment. Within an hour, you’ll know how good a fit your candidate is for the job at hand. (This is what the one-question interview is all about.) We’ve used this same type of method with great results for YMCA camp counselors and entry-level retail sales positions, as well as senior level executives, seasoned sales people and experienced technical staff. If you want to hire more top passive candidates, everything counts. While overvaluing presentation when assessing candidates will result in many hiring mistakes, not considering your overall company presentation when developing a new sourcing campaign will prove fatal. Top performers (passive or not) consider everything when evaluating new career opportunities. In rough order of importance, the biggest concerns are: the job match, the company’s growth prospects, the hiring manager’s professionalism and competence, the opportunity for rapid advancement, the offer package, the quality of life-balance issues, the career web site and collateral material, and the benefit package. A company must make sure that all of this information is available in job descriptions, on its web site and in the collateral material handed out. Hiring managers must be professional interviewers, knowledgeable about job prospects, who understand the company’s strategy. Everything counts, even how interviews are conducted and how the candidate is treated. Creating an atmosphere and culture for hiring the best is a critical part of hiring the best. Now consider this. If your hiring managers tell you they don’t have enough time to discuss real job needs with their recruiters or don’t have enough time to interview properly, your company has a lot to do before it can consistently hire top people. Since creating a culture for hiring the best is a new idea, don’t ask for everyone’s opinion if it should be done. Instead, convince the CEO or a small group of advanced-thinking managers to try out the process. Use the results from this as proof to obtain the resources required to consistently hire more top performing passive candidates. This is real leadership, and this is what it takes to hire top people. It’s also why leadership is the most important trait of them all.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


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