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Please, Stop Relying on Intuition When Hiring

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Of all of the backwards, irrational, self-destructive practices in the modern corporation, one of the more systemic is the use of “gut feeling” in the hiring process. Relying on intuition is bad business.

First: a quick reminder on the history of business process improvement. For the past century, everyone has been working to make routine business more scientific and more efficient. No matter which of the business improvement schools of thought you subscribe to, they all based on testing, analysis, and adjustment.

Second: here’s what Professor Scott Highhouse has to say about this field (PDF link):

Perhaps the greatest technological achievement in industrial and organizational psychology over the past 100 years is the development of decision aids (e.g., paper-and-pencil tests, structured interviews, mechanical combination of predictors) that substantially reduce error in the prediction of employee performance.

Arguably, the greatest failure of industrial and organizational psychology has been the inability to convince employers to use them.


Hiring and Intuition - Facepalm

© Flickr user whatleydude

It might seem like this is just a marketing problem. Maybe people in industry just haven’t heard about all of the work being done to understand how employees are likely to perform.

Sadly, Highhouse continues:

[Researchers] sampled 201 human resources (HR) executives about the perceived effectiveness of various selection methods…they considered the traditional unstructured interview more effective than any of the paper-and-pencil assessment procedures. Inspection of actual effectiveness of these procedures, however, shows that paper-and-pencil tests commonly outperform unstructured interviews…

[Research showed] HR professionals agreed, by a factor of more than 3 to 1, that using tests was an effective way to evaluate a candidate’s suitability and that tests that assess specific traits are effective for hiring employees. At the same time, however, these same professionals agreed, by more than 3 to 1, that you can learn more from an informal discussion with job candidates and that you can “read between the lines” to detect whether someone is suitable to hire.

This apparent conflict between knowledge and belief seems loosely analogous to the common practice of preferring brand name cold remedies to store brand remedies containing the same ingredients. People know that the store brands are identical, but they do not trust them for their own colds.

Hiring and Intuition - Off-Brand

© Flickr user viviandnguyen_

What about all of the recent work covered in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink? Doesn’t that prove that snap judgments are often right?

Emphatically no. Highly trained experts in fields are often well-attuned to be able to extrapolate from limited data. But if you’re trying to build a business, you should be working to create a system. The point is that you don’t need to be an expert in hiring to make a hiring decision, you follow the process designed by experts.

So what should you do if you want make a change, but are not sure which of the many industrial organizational psychology tools to use? Here’s a start: ask candidates to do some sample work. The most direct way to predict how someone will perform on the job is to see how they perform actually doing the job.

It’s not everything, but it’s something. And it’s much better than going with your gut.

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