The behavioural science of recruitment

By Caroline Pye


Over the weekend I read an interesting report from CIPD which sums up findings from a research mission into the behavioural science of recruitment and selection! It’s an interesting (albeit long) read; and one of the few articles actually based around significant behavioural science studies, rather than internal recruitment strategy analysis, which is often interpreted rather than analysed.

“By constantly and consistently testing their own practices, organisations will not only learn what works best, they will make better hiring decisions.” “We will argue in this report that by acknowledging and understanding the systematic biases in decision making of both candidates and recruiters, we can design better systems of recruitment and selection”. Finally! Hiring someone into your team is an extremely personal activity – if it doesn’t work out most people will take that as a direct reflection on themselves; when in reality there are so many other factors at play, most of which don’t concern your ability to guess which person you met for two hours will perform best and stay the longest.

“There is a multitude of evidence that shows that we hire people like ourselves.  Employers seek candidates who are similar to themselves in terms of leisure activities, experiences and self-presentation styles (Rivera 2012).” “Equally, the endowment effect may lead managers to value skills and characteristics of current staff disproportionately: possibly blinding them to the benefits of other characteristics.” If we took a more in depth look at these points, we may realise that someone who also plays basketball for their local team may not be just as committed as you in all areas of their life, including their job. In fact, it may just mean that they are able to play basketball at a similar level to you. Perhaps we should be looking into other factors that might show us more about the work habits of a potential employee, such as their behaviour during an employment process. It is widely accepted that if it is quite difficult to schedule an interview with someone, then they are not all that interested in the opportunity, and therefore not very committed to the company. However, another way of looking at this could be that as the interviewer is only available during office hours, this presents a problem for the already employed candidate… either take time off work, or don’t do the interview.

Someone who is completely committed to their work would find it difficult to take time out of their usual working day (which they have already mentally committed their time to) to do an interview, as you are asking them to shift their committed time to you, before you have committed to them. If they don’t have any holiday left for the rest of the year then this makes any arrangement very tricky indeed. Perhaps someone who shows dedication to something they are already committed to, even when they are planning on leaving, is generally a more committed person than the one who is happy to ‘work from home’ in order to skive off a couple of hours to do an interview with you. You see where they’re going with this now? It all makes so much sense.

Whilst it is hard being a hiring manager, our intrinsic bias’s mean that it’s also hard to be a job seeker! Honestly, it’s a wonder anyone is employed at all… “When deciding where to apply, individuals may not be able to accurately assess how well they will fit. There are large informational asymmetries on both sides, and candidates may be influenced by a range of factors, including the perceived value of a job to their career, predictions of how successful they would be in getting a job, cultural norms, previous experiences, and other personal beliefs and interests (Eccles 2005).” This has to be one of the most common issues that a recruiter handles; as people we have certain views about ourselves, and often act in ways that we think fit in with this view we have of ourselves and our future.

It’s in our nature, and therefore not something you can expect applicants to notice, but something that must be accounted for. Giving the applicant the opportunity to interview with different teams, and taking advice from the interviewers about which department the applicant would be best for is the easiest way to make sure you get them in the right role, and keep them there.

As well as this, there may be a way you can write your job ads to attract the right people to your company; “For jobs that are associated with highly able people who have particular technical skills, a job advert that highlights values and mission may be particularly appealing, differentiating it from adverts for similar jobs that do not do this. For jobs that are already seen as highly pro-social, however, an advert that re-emphasises the pro-social elements of the job may not be as impactful.”

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say. Or for that matter, what you don’t see; “In a lab study, joint evaluation of candidates – seeing more than one CV at a time, side by side – decreased gender biases and increased the likelihood that participants assessed individuals based on their performance and potential, rather than gender stereotypes (Bohnet et al 2012).”

By basing selection and interview process on the outcomes of scientific research, we may be able to eliminate much of the guesswork of hiring someone. We’ve not done all the work just yet though,  this paper calls for more research, as still so little is understood about the best way to go about finding and attracting the best talent; “A further dilemma is what to ask in an interview. A controversial point is brain-teasers – questions that are typically unrelated to the job and require on-the-spot problem solving, such as ‘How would you weigh a jet plane without using scales?’ There is a lack of evidence on how well brain-teasers predict how candidates will perform in a job (Bock 2015).

On that note, I’ll leave you with this little name drop: Steve Jobs described the process of hiring top talent as ‘the most important job’ (Jager and Ortiz 1998). Yet, how to find the right employee remains a contested question. I think this report goes a long way to answering that question, and also highlights the need to have someone suitably qualified to oversee this crucial process, and hopefully see past some of our interview biases. Apparently we are hard-wired to make personal decisions based on our intuition, past experience and feelings, and perhaps the interview room is not the place for this.

For a full list of the most common behavioural biases you should look out for please see the full report here

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