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Is Hiring an Art or a Science?

November 24, 2015

hiring-science.jpgWhen the conversation turns to hiring methods, it’s not unusual to hear an anecdote having to do with someone having a good ‘instinct’, or relying on a ‘gut feeling’ when making personnel decisions. There are even individuals who actively dismiss proven hiring strategies and assessments, believing their intuition to be the only tool they need to bring top talent to their organization. While one’s assessment of a candidate in a well-conducted interview can play an important role, a gut feeling isn’t going to help narrow down a large applicant pool and, in fact, relying on a gut feeling without tying observations to job-relevant factors can be dangerous. The debate over whether hiring is an art or a science has fiercely loyal supporters on both ends of the spectrum, but when it comes down to it, hiring the best new employees to come work for your company can be achieved through a combination of both scientifically proven screening assessments as well as effective interviewing skills.

Scientifically Proven Screening Assessments

Whether you’re hiring one candidate for a specific role, or numerous candidates simultaneously to perform the same work, such as seasonal hires, you’re likely going to receive multiple applications. The numbers can range from dozens to thousands, but regardless, it will need to be narrowed down systematically to a more manageable pool to allow for proper vetting of the most qualified applicants. Some form of screening is needed to filter out the applicants who aren’t appropriate for the job for one reason or another. Sometimes multiple steps are needed for a larger volume of candidates. Knowing which processes to employ, and how best to utilize them, first requires a methodical analysis of the position.

To know whether an applicant is qualified for the job, you first need to know what the qualifications for the job are. What skills does the position require? What experience or background is needed? What sort of personality traits and intrinsic motivations would lead to the closest alignment between candidate and company? These are all questions that need to be answered before the hiring process can begin to ensure you don’t waste resources working through applicants who might not have what you’re looking for. One of the best ways to gather this information is through a job analysis. Job analyses can take various forms, but on their most basic level, they entail studying the job with the goal of understanding what knowledge, skills, and abilities are required to perform it successfully. This can include strategies such as speaking with incumbents, reviewing job descriptions, observing the job being performed, and collecting job performance data. A thorough job analysis will result in a detailed understanding of what competencies are needed to hire the right candidates.

Armed with the results of the job analysis, an informed decision regarding screening tools can be made. Do the applicants need to be able to lift heavy materials on the job? Include that requirement in the job description and the initial application questions. Would someone with expert knowledge of a topic or process fare better than someone with moderate knowledge? Include a skills assessment designed to measure applicant knowledge related to that topic. Getting an objective read on the capabilities and skills your applicant pool possesses will help you decide which to progress further in the process and which to screen out at various stages. Including screening tools and assessments designed to quantify candidate’s knowledge, personality, and skill level ensures that you bring a manageable number of qualified candidates in for an interview later in the hiring process.

Effective Interviewing

Once you’ve narrowed down your applicant pool to a handful of qualified candidates, one of the final steps before making a decision is to interview them. This is often the stage in the process that anecdotal evidence will come into play, as mentioned before, with some hiring managers claiming to know within a few seconds of meeting someone if they’ll be a good fit, relying more on their gut than objective data. While the interview is inherently more subjective due to its personal nature, there are ways to ensure it maintains a good amount of objectivity as well.

Making sure to ask all candidates the same questions, and allowing for probing follow-up questions based on responses, will go a long way towards being able to compare their interview results after the fact. Taking the time to explore each candidate's work history and understanding their experience, as well as factors such as why they’ve left previous jobs, is another good objective metric to include in the interview. There are also some skills that are more amenable to assessing in an interview, as opposed to other assessment methods. For example, if oral communication is an important trait for the target position, this is typically easier to assess in an interview. To get the most from your interview process and hire the best candidates, it’s critical to follow a structured process tied to job relevant traits. Following such a process will also help ensure legal defensibility.

Sometimes the observation of job relevant traits is readily apparent in an interview, such as a candidate applying for a customer-facing retail position acting very closed off, despondent, and untalkative despite performing well on screening tool. Other times it might not be so obvious, such as a candidate that was great on paper and is interviewing relatively well still giving you pause for a not quite identifiable reason. This is where the proponents of utilizing instinct say you should go with your gut, when there isn’t necessarily an apparent cause for concern, but your intuition is making you wary of the individual anyway. Allowing this feeling to influence your opinion can be a risky choice; you should always pinpoint specific, job relevant reasons for hiring decisions. The ‘art’ behind interviewing relates only to one’s ability to identify any subjective intangibles that may influence their ability to do the job, which then need to be considered carefully, quantified, and tied to job relevant traits. Immediately discounting an applicant based on nothing more than intuition is a recipe for trouble.

So what’s the answer? Is hiring an art or a science? The (unsurprising) explanation is that’s a combination of the two. Beginning with scientifically proven assessments will assist in whittling down a potentially vast applicant pool into a final list of qualified candidates. Interviewing them using a scientifically valid method will increase your hiring process’s objectivity and consistency, and allow employers to assess job-relevant skills that may not be amenable to measuring in assessments.

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Greg Kedenburg Greg Kedenburg was an I/O Psychologist with PSI living and working in Chicago, IL.