All employers would like to be better at recruiting good employees. Mostly, it is very hit and miss, often more luck than good judgement.

No one can claim to be 100% effective in selecting the best employees but we can all improve our hit rate. The key is to improve our ability to make good selection judgements, not as easy as it sounds.

A big obstacle to successful selection is simply that we over estimate how good we are at it. The truth is that, for most of us, our hit rate is not much better than flipping a coin. We make matters worse by patting ourselves on the back for our good hiring decisions while blaming our errors on the employees who fail to deliver. It is hard to learn from our mistakes when we don’t see them.

Let’s begin by reviewing three common selection biases.

Common selection biases

1. First impressions

Everyone knows that first impressions make a huge impact on how we judge new acquaintances. The stronger our first impressions, whether favourable or otherwise, the harder they are to shake off. Initial impressions persist because we confine ourselves to looking for evidence to support our opinions while discounting counter-evidence, unless it is utterly convincing.

2. Likeability bias

Candidates who look the part and have reasonably good social skills tend to be better at getting jobs than those who are quieter or less socially confident. It is an easy mistake to assume that attractive candidates have other qualities that make them competent employees.

3. Intuition vs evidence

Intuition is present in all human judgement. No matter how much evidence we gather, we have to decide what to emphasise. The best we can do is be aware of over reliance on intuition and make sure that we gather as much evidence as possible.

Two keys for improving recruitment effectiveness

1. Interviewing skills

Interview training can heighten our awareness of selection biases and we can all learn how to ask better questions. Good interview questions are nearly always open rather than closed. Here is an example of a closed question:

‘Did you enjoy working at your last employer?’

This question is closed because it can be answered with a simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’. An open version of this question would be:

‘How did you feel about working at your last employer?’

Unfortunately, this version is too open. If candidates talk about what they liked at their last job, how do you know what, if anything, they didn’t like? A better form of this question requires a candidate to talk about both positives and negatives:

‘What did you like most about working at your last employer? What did you like least?’

Variations on such double-barrelled questions include:

  • What kinds of jobs or tasks do you enjoy most/Least?
  • In what kinds of situations do you feel most/least stressed or most/least confident?
  • What kinds of tasks most bore/stimulate you?

2. Rigorous recruitment processes

A second step to better employee selection is a well-designed recruitment process, the most critical part of which is a clear set of selection criteria. Job responsibilities are not as useful as knowing how candidates must actually behave on the job to be effective. For example, a nurse is responsible for patient wellbeing but what are the key behaviours that such a nurse needs to exhibit to meet this responsibility?

It helps to have a scale that sets out how less effective candidates differ from their more effective counterparts. This makes it easier to ensure that we look for evidence on both sides of the coin instead of just exploring what a candidate might be good at. Positive and negative criteria complement double-barrelled questions.

Because we are never completely immune from bias, it helps to use some assessment tools in addition to interviews. Personality questionnaires can be very helpful, but it is essential to view them, not as providing definitive evidence, but as helping to focus the interview on behaviours that could be less effective.

Without such tools, we have to spend an equal amount of time interviewing across the full range of selection criteria. A good psychometric assessment allows us to be more strategic by investing more time in areas of possible weakness and to explore key competencies in greater depth.

In summary, effective recruitment is actually much harder than it seems. Getting it right requires skilled interviewing and a professional selection process designed to gather as much valid evidence as possible within a reasonable timeframe.

by Dr. Jenny King