How to Hire for Quality

Hiring people is rarely based on objective evidence and is, perhaps, the least-objective activity that organizations participate in.

When we see a candidate who meets a large number of our pre-existing conditions for employment (i.e., a candidate who has gone to a school our hiring manager likes; has worked at a couple of well-respected companies; or has written the right key words on his resume), we have already hired him in our minds.

Interviews are examples of how easy it is to abandon the tools of objectivity, the scientific method, logic, and the rules of evidence, for our “gut” or for “chemistry.”

While there is considerable evidence showing that testing candidates is far more likely to predict successful performance, we still rely almost exclusively on interviews. Though numerous researchers have pointed out the need to gather a variety of data about a candidate, we generally settle for an application form and an interview.

Why are we so resistant to testing and other more objective sources of data?

Perhaps it is because our expectations, preconceptions, and prior beliefs pretty much always influence our interpretation of new information. Experiments conducted over and over have shown that we see what we expect to see and conclude what we expect to conclude.

Tom Gilovich, a Cornell University psychologist, writes:

“Information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs is often accepted at face value, whereas evidence that contradicts them is critically scrutinized and discounted.”

I was recently helping a hiring manager evaluate his staff for promotion. We carefully determined success criteria and agreed that the candidates had to meet those criteria for consideration. In fact, we spent quite a bit of time validating the criteria and ensuring that others agreed with them. We then tested his entire staff using highly validated, widely accepted tests of ability and potential.

As you might expect, one of his favorite people did not do very well on any of the tests. He struggled with what to do and finally decided that his own judgment was more valuable than the tests and promoted her. Six months later she was not performing, was not happy, and he was now faced with the task of demoting her or letting her go.

This is just one example of some general truths. If we are presented with evidence from a test that a person we really like is not very good at whatever skill we are looking for, we say that he must have had a bad test day or we find some other excuse to downplay the tests results because we want to hire him.

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On the other hand, if the person had not gone to the right schools and not worked at the right companies, or had displeased us in some way, we would be more likely to accept the test results as accurate.

There are countless examples of how we deceive ourselves in the process of interviewing and screening candidates. We ask leading questions to elicit the responses we want: “You have made presentations to senior management, haven’ t you?” We ask references the same kinds of leading questions.

It is not that we don’t examine information critically. In fact, experiments have shown that we look at all the evidence quite carefully, but we subtly massage it to make it support our preconceived idea or wish.

If evidence seems negative of our desire, we find excuses for why the information is bad or we lower it in our priorities for making a decision. We do just the opposite for favorable information.

We also will find data to validate our choices later on. If a person is successful, we will tend to attribute that to our superior interviewing skills, but if they fail we will find other reasons. Managers and recruiters are expert at the art of scapegoating their poor hiring decisions. What is most interesting, is how often someone removed from the process predicts the end result well before it happens because they see things more clearly and do not suffer the same preconceptions.

The bottom line is that assumptions, beliefs, and interviews are very poor tools for selecting people for specific jobs. It is almost impossible to apply objectivity to the interview process or to rid ourselves of deeply held (and mostly unconscious) beliefs.

Here are three things you can do to make you more effective as a selector:

  1. Become aware. While we cannot prevent our preconceptions from clouding our judgment, we can apply corrective measures. We can develop criteria for jobs that are based on competencies, not on beliefs that cannot be validated or objectively supported. We can apply the scientific method to the recruiting process, just as we do to most other processes. I highly recommend How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich at Cornell, and Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart by Ian Ayres. They are eye-openers to how easily we are duped and misled by seemingly objective evidence and by our own human nature.
  2. Learn that superficial, circumstantial evidence is probably misleading and often wrong. Every court of law has developed elaborate rules of evidence to ensure that they get as accurate and well-rounded view of a situation as possible. Even with all of those rules and procedures, many innocent people still get convicted. Finding objective criteria and evidence takes time and a willingness to seek it out.
  3. Use objective tools such as validated tests and multi-rater feedback. By starting with one or two well-known tools, we can refine and hone them to our exact needs until they are excellent at predicting success. Proctor and Gamble has been doing this for more than two decades with remarkable success.

When it is essential that people learn rapidly and perform at superior levels, you need objective and repeatable ways to judge candidates. No scientist would rely on interviews, feelings, or opinions to judge a scientific experiment. Neither should we in judging a candidate.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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9 Comments on “How to Hire for Quality

  1. Kevin is right-on with the Gilkovich comment. However, we must not forget some additional facts:

    1) An interview is a test…Yes, that’s right…a test..it has questions, “right” and “wrong” answers…and it’s not a very accurate one.
    2) An application blank is a test for the same reasons as the interview
    3) MRF is not always a good tool to use. Sometimes the questions have absolutely nothing to do with the job, contain gender and race bias, and filled with subjectivity. They also tend to lose effectivenes and objectivity over time (i.e., the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” syndrome, or… put another way, “an eye for an eye…a tooth for a tooth”).
    4) As for all tests, it’s a good idea to stay away from them if you don’t have extensive training, experience and professional qualifications in the field. There is good reason why occupational testing is a graduate school subject. You can easily hurt people and nevr know it.

  2. This is a nicely summarized article on conducting due dilligence for hiring quality. The only disagreement I have is using multi-rater feedback assessments for selection. This is very problematic since a lot of folks game the system when it is used for hiring decisions. However, the tool is very useful for development purposes.

    Stay far away in using multi-rater feedback for selection decisions! There are many articles that prove this point.

  3. This is a great summary and very practical. One thought I have: I’m not sure I’d recommend starting with “well-known tools.” Some of the most well-known are the MBTI and the DISC, and similar populatizations. These are generally not recommended as selection tools. Moreover, the assessments I find the most revealing, those measuring judgement and decision making ability in a non-self-report format, are not as well known. They are relatively new to the scene. Thus I’d encourage looking into more cutting edge methodologies. Classical psychology can only take us so far.

    I’d also be interested in hearing who else is using these newer, non-psychological methodologies and what your experience is.

  4. So if interviews, application blanks and assessments are all tests and you effectively need to have a graduate school education to use tests (according to one post), then most organizations are left with only random selection? Probably a more accurate characterization is that assessments are no different than any other employment decision making tool both from a legal and pragmatic perspective. Employers need to be adequately trained to ensure they are using hiring tools (e.g., interviews, background checks, application blanks, assessments) that are reliable and valid, while attempting to minimize disparate impact and invasiveness. While graduate education in measurement is certainly helpful in this area, it doesn’t preclude other HR professionals from developing and/or appropriately implementing applicant screening tools.

  5. Kevin, I couldn’t agree with you more…

    The human syndrome in the interviewing process is not unlike the dating process — mired in so much denial — either because you WANT this person in front of you to be “the one” so badly that you overlook the obvious red flags (remember all your friends saying “I KNEW s/he wasn’t right for you from the beginning”?) or because all the upfront flash has you snowed.

    CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

    Here are a few factors that I see contributing to this syndrome:

    1. Employees in the last 20 years have changed jobs more than at any other time in history. They are becoming more adept at interviewing, especially with the myriad of recruiters and career counselors coaching job seekers in the fine art of the interview – how to dress, how to answer questions, how to research the hiring manager for the great kudos close.

    2. Technology is making it easier to ‘ace’ the interview , and more information than ever is available on the internet so that candidates can hone up on the company and hiring manager for the maximum first impression. There are even new “interview practice” systems now (e.g. InterviewStream) aimed at those coming right out of college.

    3. The first onslaught of tools to mitigate the risk of a bad hire were created as money makers, not as problem solvers. The giggles of finding out that your co-worker was an ENTJ didn’t really drive more productivity or pinpoint the top 10% of the workforce. But a lot of consultants made money off it. The recent trend (no, “contest”) in generating great resumes from online templates and populating resumes with keywords has not solved the screening process, but added to the volume by allowing candidates to ‘manipulate the system’ using colored fonts, photo additions, and popular keywords to get attention (e.g. “…willing to learn C#, Flash actionscript, Java”…).

    But the resume databases are overflowing, RKO (Resume Keyword Optimization) is right up there with SEO, and we’ve regressed all the way back to heralding in a system that encourages candidates to put their most charming photo on their resume…(see thoughts on that at webinar with the EEOC)

    4. Hiring managers believe that they were promoted to “manager” level because they are good at gut feel in hiring. This may have worked in the past, but candidates are more informed and more coached now. AND, back to your point, since hiring managers spend a lot of their day at work, they simply want to work with someone they would like to hang with, and rationalize that they can “fill in the missing pieces” with other hires or existing employee talent.

    5. Last, but not least, is the fact that a lot of this due diligence is simply foregone, since it is traditionally done in a long iterative process of phone screens, then additional questioning, then “insider networking” to find out more, then first interview, then testing, etc. If done “right” the process takes weeks and even months, and hiring managers just don’t want to wait, or risk losing the candidate to a competitor.

    So, yes, resumes aren’t the answer… and now interviews aren’t even the answer, because these two previously personalized, candid, and unique tools just AREN’T anymore.

    And, even with the addition of assessment tests, the due diligence process is often still stuck in a long iterative cycle, with one piece of information given to the hiring manager at a time.

    So, why aren’t we, in Human Capital Management, utilizing technology to its fullest to solve this problem?

    Given the fact that information like these assessment results, and public endorsements, social network investigation, and video interview tools are readily available on the market today, there is no excuse to even bring in a candidate for a first interview anymore without the pre-determination that he/she is qualified and matched to the corporate culture.

    So your suggestions to “become aware” and “learn that superficial, circumstantial evidence is probably misleading and often wrong” and “use objective tools” are points well taken. But given the nature of changing human behavior, perhaps there is another, quicker approach that could be taken in parallel with these.

    How about if we ONLY put candidates up for consideration AFTER we’ve done a lot of this due diligence upfront, so that erroneous subjectivity and pre-disposition towards finalists won’t matter so much, since one choice could be as good as the other.

    I think this is possible, if technology can be used correctly this time around… to merge and deliver the best tools out there for high-integrity due diligence on candidates… upfront.

  6. You’ve hit several nails on the head, Colleen. When I was internal we were finding candidates who were slickly prepared for both standard interviews and behavioral questions. That’s when we found the Thinking Pattern Profile. There’s no way to prepare for it. In fact, it makes so little sense to look at it, I threw it out the first time I saw it, saying that,if I couldn’t figure it out, it mustn’t be any good. I saw the output four years later and realized what I was missing. I’ve become a believer.

    You mention the time that objective analysis entails, and hope that “another, quicker approach that could be taken in parallel with these.” I’d recommend this assessment as part of that solution: it takes about 10 minutes and has powerful output that tracks decision-making and judgment. These, after all, are what we’re “buying” when we hire.

  7. Excellent article Kevin. I agree with the need to use objective data in the hiring process.

    I also agree that it’s critical to use assessment tools that are continuously being tested for validity and reliability for pre-employment purposes. I know you didn’t mention this, but it’s important to emphasize…DISC-type and MBTI assessments are not valid for pre-hire as KT points out…they can only be used for post-hire purposes.

    Also, 360-degree feedback tools, IMHO, are used with existing employees to provide feedback regarding the raters’ perception of another employee vs. the employee’s perception of themselves. I have never heard of it being used in a pre-hire situation since the questions relate to on-the-job observations.

  8. As recruiters, how many of us actually understand the true function in our position in the corporate battlefield known as recruitment? How many of us are properly prepared to take the challenge and make an impact in the process of success? As Shakespeare so eloquently wrote, “to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”, bottom line—it means results, results, results! In our work, we impact many professional lives on a daily basis, and at the same time provide so many personal opportunities to shine, for ourselves and those we recruit, by challenging ourselves to higher levels of accomplishment. Bottom line—it means success, success, success. That is the way of the ultimate recruitment warrior.

    No doubt that quality is more important then quantity but typically when the topic of quantity arises so too does the topic of quality. Quite simply, quality and quantity go hand in hand. Practically, it is a fallacy to think they are mutually exclusive. You can have both. If your organizations’ sourcing function values quality, then how can it not value quality in quantity as the means of improving the sourcing function ? Don’t let the quality versus quantity arguments stereotype your sourcing function into a size that limits your ability to become more than you are currently.

    Depth of wisdom inspires a true recruitment warrior to get out on the edge, expand horizons of knowledge and bring forth a new paradigm of rules that will create a cause to reach new levels of excellence only imagined. This cutting-edge knowledge is what I believe is the path of the ultimate warrior. It is what separates the top producing recruiter from the average recruiter.

    So finally, as a result, we must strive for perfection in all our recruitment endeavors by paying attention to all details of all phases of the recruitment process: sourcing, developing candidates’ interests, follow through, and thorough communications with the client and hiring staff. This can only be accomplished by becoming true partners with the clients we service and by helping candidates see the opportunity as the perfect time to choose a different path for professional and personal success (our process becomes people-focused versus numbers driven, quality versus quantity).

    Regards,
    Rajnish Sinha

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