Should You Trust Your Gut in Hiring Decisions?

It’s been said that humorist Will Rogers famously quipped, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” an axiom that has become a call to action for job hunters looking to capitalize on this “first-impression bias.”

Current hiring practices support their efforts. Most hiring professionals say they make hiring decisions within the first five minutes of each interview. That gives candidates barely enough time to make small talk and deliver their response to “Tell me about yourself” before their fate is sealed, according to research conducted by Rachel Frieder, assistant professor of management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and her colleagues.

Yet there’s scant evidence that hiring decisions based on first impressions and gut feelings are effective. About one-third of new hires quit within the first six months, according to research from BambooHR, an HR software company in Salt Lake City. Factor in employees who were terminated because of poor performance or attitude, and that adds up to a groundswell of turnover before the onboarding process is even completed.

“What is it about gut feeling that makes it so ineffective? It is the absence of hard data and the lack of facts and reality,” said Tom Sorensen, a partner with Boyden Global Executive Search in Chicago.

Given this poor track record, hiring managers might do well to take a page from Jack Welch’s playbook. The former chairman and CEO of GE told an MBA class that he never trusted his gut when making hiring decisions because first impressions and subjective opinions are unreliable predictors of success. He preferred to look for evidence that candidates had the right skills and were a good fit for the company.

Gut Instincts Favor Style over Substance

“Using your gut is similar to scratching the surface. You only discover the superficial aspects of the candidate,” Sorensen said. “You are falling in love with the candidate’s personality. It’s easier to just flip a coin. Heads, you hire; tails, you don’t.”

Jim D’Amico witnessed this firsthand when a sales organization hired him to help figure out why the sales team was underperforming. After interviewing various managers about their hiring criteria, he discovered a fatal flaw in their assessment process.

“The phrase ‘executive hair’ surfaced several times. They liked hiring people who had executive hair because they looked like successful people,” said D’Amico, a global talent acquisition leader at Celanese, a chemical innovation and manufacturing company based in the Dallas area. No wonder it wasn’t working out. Their “follicle-based approach” to hiring was ineffective and potentially discriminatory (against women and older men with receding hairlines.)

“It’s okay to have a hunch or gut feeling about someone, but that should never become a substitute for the disciplined work of gathering evidence and evaluating competencies,” D’Amico said. “Hiring is not magic. It’s science.”

Reducing Implicit (Unconscious) Bias

Research of Chicago-area companies conducted by Lauren Rivera, associate professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, revealed a triumvirate of emotional faux pas that led to hiring mistakes.

Likeability topped the list. Simply put, people preferred hiring people they liked regardless of the candidates’ other qualifications (or lack thereof.) One hiring manager named this the “stranded in the airport test” (i.e., if you were stranded in the airport with this person, would you want to hang out with him or her?)

A self-validating approach that Rivera called “looking-glass merit” led to hiring mistakes that occurred when hiring managers preferred people who reminded them of themselves.

“Like hires like,” D’Amico said. “A lot of hiring managers feel more comfortable with people who are like them.”

The downside of this desire to create a company of clones is that it limits cultural diversity and diversity of thought and undermines innovation and creativity.

“There are other ways people can be likeable and socially skilled other than being a mirror image,” Rivera said.

Finally, there was an excitement factor toward people who shared similar interests and passions.

Take the case of a hiring manager whose face lit up when he saw that a candidate played squash.

“She plays squash. Anyone who plays squash I love,” he said. And then he immediately identified her as his first choice.

Scott Wintrip has been studying the relationship between emotions and hiring errors for decades. He found that “incidental emotions” frequently led to hiring errors.

“Incidental emotions that are unrelated to a decision skew thinking and cause people to make poor choices,” said Wintrip, founder of The Wintrip Group, a Florida-based consulting firm, and author of High Velocity Hiring: How to Hire Top Talent in an Instant (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017).

Likeability was the No. 1 culprit, but negative emotions figured prominently as well. For example, hiring managers who felt overwhelmed with work and had trouble fitting interviews into their already packed schedules made hasty decisions based on gut feelings—a problem that could be remedied with a well-managed process that allowed them to better manage candidate flow.
The Argument for Objectivity

An objective, evidence-based hiring process can be an effective way to minimize biases and limit impulsive decision-making.

“When you have a clear set of criteria based on patterns of success, as well as negative patterns about what to avoid, emotions no longer run the show,” Wintrip said. “It’s infallible as long as everyone follows a set of nonnegotiable rules that make clear what constitutes deal-makers and deal-breakers.”

Most evidence-based approaches include the following elements:
Defining the behavioral skills and competencies that are necessary for exceptional performance.
Implementing a consistent process to evaluate and develop these competencies so that everyone involved asks the same questions and uses the same rating system.
Using standardized assessment tools as well as a variety of behavioral and situation questions.
Following up on a regular basis to determine the effectiveness of the process and make necessary adjustments.

Although some hiring managers balk at what they perceive to be a mechanistic approach, a well-designed process requires creativity and flexibility. In a tight labor market, it is imperative to be open to candidates from nontraditional backgrounds who may, for example, be new to the workforce, changing careers or taking on new roles, in order to determine whether they have transferable skills and desirable attributes.

When compiling a job profile, hiring professionals must resist the temptation to throw in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, Wintrip said. And after candidates have been hired, their progress needs to be tracked and measured so that there’s a feedback loop between hiring and on-the-job performance.

To assess potential, D’Amico looks at how candidates performed in other roles, settings or industries. Were they able to adapt quickly to new environments? Did they embrace new challenges? What is their preferred learning style?

He found the answers to those questions in an unlikely candidate.

It began when a colleague asked him to meet with his daughter to give her some career advice.

She was a new college graduate whose only previous job was working for The Walt Disney Co. as a Disney princess.

Although he was initially skeptical (a gut feeling that didn’t pan out), he was pleasantly surprised to find that she had exceptional communication, customer service and problem-solving abilities. She presented herself confidently, demonstrated adaptability and eagerness to learn, and was willing to embrace new challenges. Regardless of whether she was playing Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, she understood that she was a company ambassador who was representing the brand.

Recognizing her potential, D’Amico hired her for an entry-level recruiting position where those skills were prerequisites for success. She exceeded expectations and within three years was promoted to a director-level position.

Learning to Read People Accurately

Savvy HR professionals can effectively blend their people skills with data analytics during the recruitment and hiring process.

Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Wendy Patrick Mazzarella, authors of Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior—Anytime, Anyplace (Ballantine Books, 2007) have developed an approach to understanding people that complements evidence-based hiring.

“People reading, or at least the process of gathering clues is much easier for most of us if we have a score card or checklist to use to gather information,” the authors wrote.
This begins by objectively observing individuals, gathering facts and looking for clues. After that, look for patterns within the multitude of clues that point consistently to one reliable conclusion.

Hunches or gut feelings provide meaningful clues. Perhaps there are inconsistencies in the candidate’s story that raise red flags. Or a candidate who claims to be interested in a position sends a different message through body language, demeanor or attitude. These clues tip interviewers off to the need to ask more questions and gather more information.

Although it is possible to improve these skills with practice, even experienced hiring professionals with highly sensitive “BS detectors” can fall prey to overconfidence. Notably, Frieder’s research showed that experienced interviewers made hiring decisions more quickly but with less efficacy. Instead of learning from their mistakes, they had grown attached to their preferred style and were reluctant to change. To avoid getting locked into a static approach, she recommended that all hiring managers periodically participate in refresher courses in order gain fresh perspectives.

Ji-A Min, chief data scientist at Ideal, an AI recruiting company in Toronto, Canada, encourages hiring managers who rely on gut feelings to rethink their priorities.

“Gut feelings about how much you like or dislike a candidate can be factored in after evaluating the candidate’s qualifications,” said Min. “When you get to know people better they may turn out to be different than you initially thought. It makes more sense to step back and think about where your gut feeling is leading you.”

Finally, a structured, objective approach can be helpful to HR professionals who aspire to leadership roles because of its emphasis on data and outcomes.

“A numbers-based approach to hiring allows HR professionals to align themselves with business priorities and get strategic buy-in,” Min said. “This is how you gain credibility and earn the respect of leaders.”

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.

Society for Human Resource Management
April 30, 2018

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