The reason hiring is broken (and how we can fix it)

Sean Little —  September 1, 2016 — Leave a comment

Maybe you’ve heard of the commonly cited word problem made popular in the psychology and behavioral economics field by Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky. It goes like this:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

   a. Linda is a bank teller.

   b. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. [1]

The obvious answer is B, right? Based on that 3 sentence description, it’s pretty likely that Linda is active in the feminist movement. Heck, she’s probably a vegan, too! Am I right?


I’m actually very wrong.

Let’s do the math real quick. How many people are bank tellers? Let’s represent that number of people with the variable x. Now, of that group of people who are bank tellers, how many are also active in the feminist movement? Well, since this group must meet both the conditions (feminist and bank teller), we know that it is a subset of x. With that in mind, clearly it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller than it is that Linda is a bank teller and some other thing. But, the feminist narrative fits her so well. Our unconscious biases take one look at her description as a social justice warrior and become vulnerable to the presumption that she, like so many of the people we know with similar descriptions, is an active feminist. 

This is an example of the conjunction fallacy. And if you were one of the people who was saying B was the correct answer, you’re in the majority. In one study, 85% of respondents said B, even though it is quite literally impossible for B to be more likely. [2]

Hiring is so broken

So? What gives? What’s at play here? And how does it relate to hiring?

Well, that story you just told yourself about Linda. It’s the same kind of story that’s keeping you from finding the right person to fill your open jobs.

Let’s say you are hiring for a Sales Rep. At some point in time, you’ve collected a stack of resumes. You look over the first few and start a Yes pile, a Maybe pile, and upon reading the third resume, you decide to start a No pile… in the trash. What was wrong with the third resume? Well, there was this gap in it. And usually when there’s a gap in a resume, it means the person did something bad that kept them out of work for a while.

The reason hiring is broken

I hear this “gap” story all of the time. There are hundred of other stories as well, ones that land your target candidate in the trash instead of at your doorstep. The problem with these “stories” is that they force us into thinking that what might be true must  be true. Heck, if we didn’t have some short cut for sifting through resumes, we’d be reading them for hours! But when it comes to a talent market that is already so tight, can you really afford to throw away someone with a gap in their resume without first confirming why there was a gap? Not to mention, if you had to defend your hiring process to a group of your peers, do you really think that focusing on “gaps” rather than focusing on sales skills, behaviors, and motivators would pass the eye test? The fact of the matter is, the biases that are inherent in resume reading give you about a 50% chance of failing the hiring process before you even pick up the phone and call someone for the first time. [3]

Now this might be the point in this article where you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, I get it. A lot of people are biased. The resume isn’t perfect. But I am certainly not as biased as most people.”

I’d like to introduce you to another form of bias called “the bias blind spot.” According to a Princeton University study, in a sample of 600 Americans, only 1 person considered herself more biased than the average American. That’s right — only 0.2% of the population actually believes they are in the top 50 percentile of bias. 85% of people believed they were less biased than the average American. [4] That is to say, not only are we extremely biased, but we also tend to underestimate just how biased we are.

The reason that hiring is broken has much less to do with a skills gap and much more to do with the fact that humans are the ones in charge of doing the hiring. And humans, by their very nature, are fallible. But where humans have shown immense progress is when we recognize our own fallibility. Think about some of the most important inventions of the modern era — airplanes, computers, and sliced bread. None of these could have been invented if we didn’t first recognize that we were unable to compute complex algorithms quickly, we were unable to slice loaves evenly, and we were unable to grow wings and fly. When it comes to hiring, we need to stop trying to grow wings and start building the darn airplane.

Where do we start?

At NewHire, we believe that every time you recruit, you follow a six step process. Those six steps start with Preparing to Recruit. This means sitting down and ironing out the profile of your target candidate. Who are they reporting to? What challenges will they face? What behaviors and motivations are going to be significant in reporting to that person and facing those challenges? What are the specific skills necessary for success? If you aren’t answering these questions before you start looking for candidates, then when it comes time to make decisions, you are bound to be comparing candidates against one another rather than comparing them against the ideal. Figure out what your ideal candidate acts like, and then hold yourself accountable to finding that person.

There are a handful of great methods out there for sourcing candidates. If you’re not an expert at this, there is help everywhere you look. So ask around (heck, ask me) and you should find what you need. [5] This is the piece of the recruiting process that has advanced a lot since the days of “Help Wanted” signs in the window. The next piece of the airplane that we need to build is the screening method. This is crucial. Instead of using resumes as your screening agent and inviting all of that bias into the process before you ever get kicked off, I think it makes sense to use a short questionnaire. Some multiple choice and short answer questions that are aimed at getting the right person to answer questions that prove they’re the right person. If you keep this questionnaire short, candidates will appreciate the opportunity to prove they’re right for the job. This will change everything. Now, instead of finding reasons not to call someone, you’re going to be finding reasons why you should call people. They have the years of experience. They have skills x, y, and z. They prefer to work autonomously rather than being closely managed.  And if you have it set up right, you’ll be able to search your results based on the answers to these questions, making your Yes, No, and Maybe piles automated, saving you tons of time and holding you accountable to the things you said were important at the start.

If you do these two things, your hiring is guaranteed to improve immediately. Not to mention, you might actually start to enjoy the process. The final piece of the pie is the interview stage — which would require another 1200 words. Maybe next time…

Interested in learning how to attract those top candidates? Check out our guide for Crafting Effective Recruitment Advertising. It’s a great way to ensure that your talent pipeline stays full of qualified candidates in an increasingly competitive market. 

Sean Little

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Sean is an Account Manager here at NewHire. When he isn't catering to the hiring needs of small businesses nationwide, Sean is busy campaigning for the Oxford comma, playing sports, and doing comedy. He takes his coffee with 2 creams, no sugar.

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