Scientists Explain All Your Dumb Hiring Decisions

You’ve definitely heard of cognitive bias by now, but you might still be surprised how deep it can run.

Scientists Explain All Your Dumb Hiring Decisions
[Photo: Olu Eletu via Unsplash]

You probably don’t need a reminder of how much bad hires can hurt–but here’s one anyway: Some research suggests that each bad hire leaves employers with a monetized loss of over $50,000 in productivity. It’s also been estimated that replacing bad hires–especially those with specialized skills–can cost companies several times workers’ annual salaries.


Yet for all the resources businesses are investing in recruitment and retention, behavioral science hints that the area where most of these later woes begin is one that you’ve likewise probably heard plenty about: cognitive bias.

There’s no way around the fact that human psychology can be a stubborn thing. These three biases mislead and often prompt hiring managers to choose candidates who just aren’t right for the position. Here’s why you keep getting duped by them and how to avoid it in the future.

1. You’re Hiring The Best Self-Promoter, Not The Best Doer

Research suggests that the job often goes not to the candidate who’s most qualified but to the one who’s best at touting their skills. If that’s partly due to the emphasis we keep placing on personal branding, it isn’t the entire explanation: As a general rule, people vastly overestimate their abilities. And in fact, the weaker and more limited our skills, the more overconfident we’re likely to be.

In one experiment led by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, participants were asked to rate their abilities and offered a monetary reward if they were able to assess themselves accurately. In spite of that motivator, though, people still overestimated their skill level considerably. Try as we might, it appears many of us assume we’re more competent than we are simply because we aren’t aware of what we don’t know. Even unintentionally, our own ignorance compounds.

Instead, try to look even more closely at the skills and knowledge base of candidates who conspicuously don’t promote themselves–even those you judge to be weak at touting their skills. That may help correct for this type of bias. If you hire the best promoter, you’ll often discover later that you’ve brought someone on board who can talk about what they can do much more adeptly than they can actually do it.

2. You’re Hiring For Looks

There’s a large and growing body of research indicating that interviewers are highly influenced by candidates’ appearance–findings with obvious and troubling consequences for diversity, among other things. Years ago, when I was a VP of sales and hiring for an open position, one candidate showed up for an interview in a really sharp suit. Later the CEO told me that he thought that person would be a good addition to our team, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t spoke to him. Why? He liked the suit.


That’s just an extreme example of something that happens much more subtly all the time. The notion that you’re making hiring decisions based largely on appearance may sound ridiculous, but psychologists have demonstrated that it happens at alarming rates, and much of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it.

Research suggests that job applicants are more likely to be hired if they’re judged to be attractive. Not only that, but good-looking candidates are offered higher starting salaries than those considered less attractive.

3. You’re Shortchanging The Context

Human decisions are always made contextually. But we tend to vastly underestimate how influenced we are by the context of a given situation when we’re faced with making a decision in the middle of it. Even factors like how hungry you are, the room you’re in, and the weather can impact your emotions, attitudes, and decision-making process.

For example, would the clipboard a job applicant’s resume is on impact how you perceive the candidate? Most people would balk at the idea that they could be so easily swayed, but that’s exactly what one study found: When people considered resumes attached to heavy clipboards, they perceived the applicants to be more serious and better overall than those whose resumes were handed to them on flimsy clipboards.

Two Steps For Making Less-Biased Hires

So how do you overcome these biases–some of them troubling and downright embarrassing–when you may not even realize you’re in the grips of them? I’ve helped many companies make hiring decisions based on this two-part hiring process, designed to account for some of these psychological forces.

Step 1: Identification


The most important part of the hiring process is also the one most companies overlook: pinpointing how you’ll choose the right people for an open position. It sounds obvious that not knowing what you’re looking for lowers the likelihood that you’ll find it, but in the crunch to fill a role quickly but effectively, many employers don’t stop to ask themselves why the criteria they’ve set for a hire is what it is or how they’re going to evaluate candidates according to it.

The identification phase involves thinking through the specific essentials any candidate must have in order to be considered. These factors may include technical knowledge, experience level, essential skills, contacts within the industry, a growth mindset, integrity, strong intrinsic motivation, or educational credentials, to name a few of the more popular ones.

Whichever factors you decide you value, you need to understand why you do: What do those qualities have to do with the role? Why will they make the person who ultimately holds that role successful there? Spend time on this from the get-go, and you’re less likely to fall back on unconscious biases when it comes down to the interview stage.

Step 2: Verification

Once you’ve clearly identified what you need in a potential candidate, you’re ready to conduct interviews to verify who meets that established criteria. The most important factor in this phase is to ask interviewees to demonstrate the desired knowledge or skills–not just to look (in your unavoidably subjective, error-prone way) for clues to them. That will help prevent you from being misled.

So if you’re looking for someone who has strong presentation skills, ask candidates to prepare a five-minute presentation to deliver–rather than, “Tell me about your experience giving presentations.”


Or if you’re looking for someone who’s a self-starter and can figure out complex tasks on their own, ask them to describe a time when they had to do that–and really probe for specifics: Have them share each step of the process they used to accomplish the goal, however nitty-gritty that sounds. Most candidates have a concise, canned response to this type of interview question, so your job is to push them to go past it. When you ask candidates to verify the competency they’re asserting they possess, you’ll have more reliable information to base your decisions on.