Perception Isn’t Reality Unless You Think It Is

Here’s a big problem with interviewing. If you like someone, you maximize their positives and minimize their negatives. If you don’t like someone, you maximize their weaknesses, and minimize their positives.

Now consider how many great candidates didn’t get the jobs they deserved because someone on the hiring team used perception of ability vs. actual ability to make the yes/no decision. In the last 30 years I’ve been involved in over 750 different separate hiring decisions. After the first 50 or so, I realized I had to personally intervene to prevent flawed hiring decisions based on emotions, perceptions, and biases to ensure the best person got hired. I did this for many reasons. The big two: I didn’t like doing searches over again, and I didn’t like good people not getting the jobs they deserved for some dumb reason.

The solution to the problem starts with making sure that everyone on the hiring team had a clear understanding of the real job requirements. When an interviewer doesn’t know what it takes to be successful in the job, they substitute their own superficial, subjective, intuitive, or biased criteria. For proof, consider managers that like to hire people who went to the “right” schools, have the “right” experience, are too brilliant for the job, and are just like them in how they look, talk, and act. Not knowing what they’re looking for also delays the decision making, as managers wait for the perfect candidate to show up who meets the unspoken and collective criteria of each hiring team member.

Overcoming this critical but common problem starts by defining the job based on what the new hire needs to accomplish in order to be successful, rather than what the person must have in terms of skills, experience, looks, intelligence, background, and communication skills. For the past twenty years, I’ve been calling these achievement-oriented job descriptions “performance profiles.” A performance profile defines the actual work in terms of performance objectives (e.g., build a team of accountants, design a circuit, make quota in six months, etc.). Most jobs have 5-6 tasks like this that represent the bulk of the job. The interviewer then needs to determine if the person can accomplish the tasks. If so, it’s then obvious the person has the appropriate amount of skills and experiences.

However, preparing a performance profile is not enough to eliminate perceptions, biases, and emotions from affecting the hiring decision. Here are some other things that can help increase objectivity and reduce hiring mistakes…

Some Things You Can Do to Minimize Perception-driven Hiring Mistakes

  1. Wait 30 minutes. Listen to the judge. Hear all of the evidence, pro and con, before making any decision. In the case of interviewing, wait for at least 30 minutes after the interview starts before concluding if the person is a possible hire or not. This forced delay will minimize the impact of first impressions. After 30 minutes you’ll discover the good aren’t as good as you thought, and the bad aren’t as bad.
  2. Don’t give anyone on the hiring team a full yes or no vote. I use a talent scorecard listing all of the competencies and factors driving on-the-job success to make the assessment. (Contact me if you’d like to view a sample.) There are about 10 factors on the form including things like technical ability, leadership, motivation, problem-solving, and cultural fit. Instead of assigning each interviewer all of the factors to assess, I suggest that each interviewer be given only 2-3 to “own.” During a formal debriefing session each interviewer is then required to substantiate his/her 1-5 ranking with facts and evidence. This “divide and conquer” technique forces each person to be more factual, and gives the group, not one individual responsibility to make the assessment.
  3. Ask people you like tougher questions. When you like a candidate you naturally go into sales mode, ask softball questions, and ignore or minimize negatives. To overcome this natural tendency, force yourself to ask tougher questions, digging deep into the person’s accomplishments.
  4. Treat people you don’t like as consultants. When a candidate makes a weak first impression we typically tune out, ask hardball questions, cut the person off, and ignore or minimize any positive information. Sometimes candidates are nervous, sometimes they’re different in appearance or personality, and sometimes they talk with accents you don’t like. And sometimes, these are great people. To find the truth assume they’re great, and treat them as expert consultants. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume what they’ve done is remarkable. By treating them as consultants, rather than potential coworkers, you’ll naturally focus on their achievements, not their personality and fit. After 30 minutes you might discover they’re not so bad after all.
  5. Ignore fact-less decisions. During the debriefing session, ignore assessments that include these terms: feel, think, like, dislike, bad fit, too soft, too aggressive, anything about personality good or bad, or the term “soft skills.” Also, ignore anything similar that smacks of bias, emotions, prejudices, or hasty judgments. These are all clues that the candidate was interviewed through the wrong filter. Unless the interviewer can attach concrete evidence to the assessment, it has minimum predictive value. Saying the person wouldn’t fit because the last five decisions she made used flawed data, and then providing specifics to support the claim, is certainly valid evidence not to move forward. Saying, “While the person is a little quiet, he has been assigned to manage important cross-functional teams in his last two jobs,” is equally appropriate for moving the candidate to the next step.
  6. Don’t conduct short interviews. If you want to make the wrong hiring decision have 5-6 people each spend 30-40 minutes with the candidate, then add up their yes/no votes. If it takes 3-6 months after the person is hired to determine true performance, how is it possible to predict this in a short 30 minute get-together? Instead, follow all of the rules in this list and either have each interviewer spend at least an hour with the candidate one-on-one, or conduct a panel interview with 2-3 people for about 60-75 minutes.
  7. Conduct phone interviews first. Conduct a 30-minute exploratory phone interview before meeting the in person. Review the candidate’s work-history looking for the Achiever Pattern and ask about a major accomplishment most comparable to the performance profile. Not only will this indicate the person is a strong match for the job, but it will naturally minimize the impact of first impressions when the interviewer actually meets the person.

Interviewers typically seek out evidence supporting their initial reaction to a candidate, filtering out conflicting information. This is how perceptions become reality. However, by forcing a delay into the hiring decision, and demanding that interviewers justify they’re assessments with evidence, you’ll overcome the insidious impact of human nature. Changing perceptions starts by recognizing how they change you.