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.


6 Comments on “Why Do We Make Stupid Hiring Decisions?

  1. I know it may sound too simple but best ways often are: circumvent a potential bad hire by enlisting the services of a competent TPR.

  2. Meg, Maureen,

    don’t you get it, based upon this article what seem to be said is that – Individuals who started companies don’t know how they did the job from the ground up to make it successful, so there is no way that they can create a viable job description especially based upon their own experience, and especially if they do not have a degree. Gee Dell and Gates, hope you are listening.

    Another thing that can be taught from this article – promotion is a thing of the past. So in other words, don’t expect your hard work, loyalty, and long hours to be noticed, your company will not acknowledge it and will look outside for new management. AT this rate forget about putting in the long hours, giving a darn about the company you work for. Your efforts will be in vain…. From here on just give them the minimum amoung of effor that will prevent you from getting fired.

    Gee I wonder How Walmart was able to make it as big as they did, especially as they did believe in promoting from the bottom up, what were they thinking?????

  3. I have a question. You say:

    ‘…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.’

    How is it these persons are coming into line management with no knowledge of how the job their subordinates are doing should be done, it just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Maybe a dumb question.

  4. Managers fall into three general categories: 1) those who manage others, 2) those who are job holders, and 3) those who do both.

    When managers are promoted to management, it is usually based on their ability to perform as job holders…not their ability to manage others. Ask anyone. They will generally agree that only 10% to 15% of thir managers had the ability to manage effectively (coach, plan, direct, help, problem solve, show integrity, and so forth).

    I once had a manager who told me he could learn the entire field of industrial psychology in six weeks…Oh. If I would have only followed his advice!!! I could have skipped four whole years of grad school and gone straight into the profession!

    Associating management with start up ventures such as MS, Dell and so forth is flawed logic. These are one-off examples of entrepreneurial drive: the right person, the right time and the right product…They stand out because they are exceptions. And, as any experienced person can attest, the entrepreuners who built their companies are generally unable to run it effectively!

    Stick with the basics: exceptions are NOT the norm. Want a good manager? Look for managerial skills…not just results.

    Want to make good hiring decisions? Realize that human decision making is flawed and take actions to correct it.

  5. Hmmm….
    such a cynical world we live in… with your theology it is amazing that any of the Fortune 500 companies far less any of the companies on ERE even exist, are still in business, considering that 10-15 percent of these companies managers dont know how to manage.

    Using Your statistics, well that means that 85-90 percent of the management population does not know how to manage, and based upon what you suggest, training individuals within the company is out of the question, promotion is also out of the question, and testing new hires is the only way to go well it appears the business world has a challenge ahead.

    Your theory does create mulling question though, where are all these wonderful managers getting their abilities from?.. How did they learn this wonderful information? If a company was able to promote their top people and then train these managers to become effective well then why would it not be reasonable to assume then that training does work? Shouldn?t a company look internally at their good managers, and have them train? Or were these managers born not made? If that is true, then why waste our time on these training articles?

    If your analogy is correct then maybe all companies should concede ? since what you are saying is that in a company 1 in 10 managers can do the job correctly, and if you have 100 managers, you may as well get rid of the other 90, and replace through testing only, but we all know that to be able to reach the 90 percent of this wonderful workforce well we all know will be very expensive, time consuming and virtually impossible.

    By the way, based upon the fortune 5000 lists of America, to say that MS and Dell, or even Walmart is an exception, well that seems a little far fetched, even looking at the successful companies here on ERE, they all started somewhere small. Remember There are companies on the list that also started within the last few years, out of their homes, out of the back of a car, just the little mom and pop store. Many also without a Formal education.

    Many of these individuals will more than likely take offense that they cannot create or write a job description based upon their personal experience, that they don?t know how to make a company succeed, Gee, I guess proof in the puddin? just isn?t enough.

  6. Assessing managers in hundreds of organizations is an eye-opening experience. My opinions are based on first-hand experience and observations. I stand by my comments.

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