How to (Not) Hire the Right Person

The NYT Business section recently published “How to Hire the Right Person,” full of hiring principles and tips from various business leaders. Most of it reads like common sense. Yet this advice contains numerous pitfalls and traps - the kind we continually see crippling our clients’ hiring efforts.

The article starts with three guiding principles: “be creative,” “be challenging,” and “allow your employees to help,” which all sound sensible. But then comes a list of suggested tactics, and this is where things really start to go south. The suggested techniques reliably - and unfortunately - introduce personal and cognitive biases, while avoiding areas that deserve deep exploration. Hiring based on these tactics loses predictive rigor, resulting in any number of bad outcomes: the wrong person is hired (then fired), the search drags on far longer than it should, someone who seems great ends up being mediocre, and so on. 

Being Creative

To avoid scripted answers, the article suggests asking unexpected questions in the hopes of discovering deeper insights into “how a person thinks.” Suggestions include asking, “What qualities of your parents do you like the most?” and “What kind of animal would you be? And why?”

Such questions fail to provide both reliability (will members of your team agree on good and bad answers?) and validity (do the answers accurately predict success on the job?). Without reliability, one interviewer might pass forward the aspiring salesperson who says they’d be a wolf, only to be rejected when the next interviewer thinks choosing a predator is too obvious.

But let’s say your team decides that, yes, good sales candidates will all choose a predator as their spirit animal. Does that mean we have validity? We argue that it doesn’t. Designing truly predictive personality tests - since that’s really what these questions amount to - takes expertise. That’s why companies like Caliper charge hundreds of dollars for their professionally-created assessments (and even they face scrutiny). You can’t just wing it, and pop-psych quizzes invented in 20 minutes over lunch probably have as much predictive value as a “Which Famous Quidditch Player Are You?” quiz on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the most important questions - those that explore a candidate’s strengths through past experience - go unanswered.

Being Challenging

The article also advocates getting out of the interview room and into situations that allow you to watch the candidate with other people, including touring the company hallways and going to a restaurant. The idea is to see whether candidates do things like make eye contact with waiters (respectful) or ask appropriately curious questions.

There are two major problems with this. First, the interviewer becomes the sole interpreter and judge of a candidate’s actions. But is that wise? Most honest people would admit they’ve misjudged the intent behind someone’s actions recently. (Most partnered people will admit they’ve done this even with the person they share their life with - probably within the past week!) Becoming sole interpreter and judge also opens the door for all sorts of biases to flood in, from implicit bias (which can verge on the illegal), to cognitive biases (notably the fundamental attribution error and the halo/horns effect).

Second, candidates know they’re under the microscope, want to look good, and may intentionally (or unintentionally) modify their behavior. Ironically, this often hurts as often as it helps - one interviewer’s “charming” is another interviewer’s “smarmy”. And as with the oddball questions above, this pulls the interviewer’s focus away from objective exploration of a candidate’s background and toward subjective interpretation. This is how the charming-but-unqualified get hired over the awkward-yet-awesome. (And let’s not forget that serial killers are often described as “extremely charming.”)

Getting a Second (Third, Fourth) Opinion

The final principle is to involve other employees. In many ways, this is the best principle of the three - you definitely want to involve other people and viewpoints in a strong hiring process. But as always, teamwork only succeeds if the team shares a single goal. In hiring, this means the entire hiring team agrees - in detail - on what attributes they’re looking for, why, what those attributes look like, what questions to ask to assess those attributes, and how to grade answers to those questions. (In other words, we’re back to reliability and validity.) Without this kind of close calibration, hiring processes can drag on interminably as hiring team members prioritize different things, making consensus impossible.

This extends to references as well. The article recommends not just standard references, but “back door” references, where you call a friend or friend-of-friend who knows the candidate in the hopes of getting the real dirt. Not only are these references ethically dubious, they also raise several questions: who is this reference? Why do we trust their judgment? How do we know they have an unbiased view of the candidate? Do they even know what our company needs? The list goes on and on.

Anyone who’s ever felt unfairly represented by someone else can understand not only the dangers of subjective opinion unmoored from objective criteria, but also how awful it feels when your strengths are missed or dismissed. For companies who care that their candidates have positive experiences (and you should - negative candidate experiences get shared widely and damage employer brand), this is a disaster.

What to Do Instead

The antidotes is simple: throw out techniques like these. If it's been a while, it may be worth auditing your hiring process to ferret them out. At any point where judgment is passed on a candidate, ask yourself the following questions: What are we judging them for, and by what criteria? Why do we think this will predict their future performance? Are we judging them on something that will be critical for success in their job, or something that's a personal preference? This will free you up to sharpen your focus on what matters most: gathering all the information you can about a candidate's greatest strengths and seeing how these overlap with your business's greatest needs.