We are often marginally better than chance at hiring the right people. In most of corporate America, and in small to medium businesses across the land, our hiring practices are based on getting resumes, screening candidates and selecting people to interview. As a percentage, a miniscule number of people (generally senior executives at large companies) are hired as a result of a process that has been conducted by industrial or organizational psychologists. And even then, without the right tools and the skill to interpret the results, psychologists get it wrong sometimes, too. Just ask Daniel Kahneman and his research partner, Amos Tversky. Here were two well-trained behavioral psychologists who found that they were marginally better than chance at predicting success for the Israeli army officer corp. Lest you think that these were two run-of-the-mill psychologists, Kahneman won the Nobel prize for economics, based on his research about how we choose, given options with varying risk profiles. And what is it that we are doing when we hire someone? We're predicting that they will succeed in the job for which they are selected.
The problem comes from the way our brains are wired. We like categories because the schema with which our minds interpret our experience neatly organizes things so that we can associate, expect, and predict - all unconsciously, of course. We post a job description with our desired characteristics which end up being a list of categories and superficial adjectives that we believe are characteristics. And prospective employees evaluate themselves against the categories and submit their resumes. They might be screened by an HR person (who is generally the least qualified to judge), but eventually a pile of resumes end up on your desk. Looking at the daunting pile, you say to yourself (or maybe not, but the brain is naturally lazy, and so it is thinking this), "I'll just look through this pile to get to the top half a dozen or so candidates". Since you can’t really judge character from a resume, you do the next best thing: you attempt to judge characteristics by the categories you read. More times than not, with a big pile of resumes, you're looking for the categories that would disqualify someone: ".....this person didn't go to Harvard"; "...that person hasn't managed more than 100 people"; "....this person doesn't have a degree in economics", and so on. You get the picture.
To add to this, each interview will most likely be conducted differently. Sure you may have some of the same questions you'll ask everyone, but most of the questions you ask will be based on either what you saw in the resume, or what you didn't see in the resume. Then, after your first 30 seconds or so of interaction, you’re either asking questions to confirm that you like the person, or you’re asking questions that will give you the reasons to disqualify them. The person you eventually hire will fit neatly into your little categorical box with all of its characteristics. Then something happens, about 6 months to a year after you've hired them, and you begin to think you could have hired someone better, or worse, that you may have hired the wrong person. Truth be told, you're probably not much better than 60-65% successful in hiring the best person for the job.
Categories can be dangerous and have been shown to be woefully lacking in their ability to adequately predict outcomes. Up until just recently, insurance companies, for instance, had no way to set insurance rates except through categories. Moving violations became an after-the-fact way for an insurance company to change your rates because the behaviors that led to getting a ticket will predict that you might get another. But why not have the ability to set your rates ahead of time, based on your behaviors? That's exactly why you'll begin to see options for drivers to have potentially lower rates by placing a device in the car that monitors behaviors such as cornering, acceleration, braking, average speed, and so on. All of these are behaviors that much more adequately predict whether you'll get a ticket or be in an accident, than the fact that you're a white, 60-year old, overweight male, like me. In fact, research shows that behaviors are more than twice as powerful as categories at predicting outcomes.
While no process is completely fool-proof, there is a way to drive up your odds for a successful hire to an amazing percentage! It involves a few steps of thought and discipline, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll get as close to predicting success as you can get without the aid of an industrial psychologist steeped in Myers-Briggs assessment. The first step is to think about the job you want to post as a set of behaviors that lead to good results. In doing so, you’ll likely come up with the top 6 or 8 predictors of success. For instance, you might say that someone who makes great eye contact, smiles a lot, and has a solid handshake, is a person who could succeed at your job of head sales clerk (you wouldn’t hire him based on one behavior, but this would definitely be one of your predictors of success for that job). Defining these predictors of success is hard work, but once you force yourself to get as much as possible away from categories toward behaviors, you’ll increase your chances for success. To be fair, there may be some categories that are absolutely essential (like a person looking for a security guard would almost always want someone who was at one time a policemen), but these can be part of the screening process prior to the interview.
Once you have defined the top 6 or 8 behaviors (you’ll know what they are because when the person you just hired doesn’t do those things, it aggravates you!), start writing the open-ended questions which help you see the strength or weakness of that behavior in the interviewee. For instance, if safe behaviors is one of the predictors of success for a driving job, you might say “tell me about your personal safety habits”, or “tell me about a time when you avoided an accident because of your situational awareness”. Questions like these give the interviewee an opportunity to give you a lot of information about them self. You needn’t come up with more than 3 or 4 questions per predictor, and you needn’t ask all the questions; only as many as you need in order to get a response that you can evaluate.
Next, establish a scoring system. It shouldn’t be difficult. Make it a scale of 0 to 3 or 1 to 5. A scale of 1 to 10 becomes too difficult to manage: “was that a 3 or 4?” After many interviews, it’s difficult to manage consistency of scoring and remember why you assessed one answer as a “5” and the same answer from a different person as a “6”. So, here is the math part of the process. If you have 8 predictors of success, and you’re scoring on a scale of 1 to 5, the maximum anyone could get is 40 points. Scoring systems work very well as an aid to predicting success. Anyone who has given birth to a baby in the last 62 years knows the Apgar score, developed by Virginia Apgar, an anesthesiologist, in 1952. The score is based on a scale of 0 to 2 among 5 attributes of a newborn (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, respiration). This scoring system is so accurate that it is used in virtually every hospital in the world. The discipline is around the scoring and the decisions that go with each score. Likewise, when assessing your candidates, keep the scoring simple and maintain discipline in the decisions.
Lastly, before the first interview, decide the threshold by which someone could “pass” and get to the final round of interviews (try to keep it to the top 3 or 4). Resumes are good, but just understand that if you see one that you really like based on categories, it will influence how you score the question. It’s best not to look at resumes too much until after the interview. That way you can use them to confirm your assessment. So, if you decide that on a 40 point scale, you’ll only accept scores above 30 to the next round (or maybe your bar is set higher at 34), then score each question and don’t total scores until you’re done with all your interviews. Go back and add them up, and be disciplined around the threshold. I promise you that for someone you thought was great, but ended up scoring only a 28, the very first thing you’ll do is start justifying violating your rule by saying to yourself or your hiring partner, “…but I really liked that person!” And that will be the person that becomes the one you wish you wouldn’t have hired. We all believe that we can get them to change enough to make them acceptable, and the numbers prove that more times than not, we’re wrong.