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Following Your Gut – The Role of Subjectivity in Hiring

By Dana Hagenbuch

When it comes to evaluating candidates during the hiring process, there are objective and subjective measures at play. Objectively, a hiring manager assesses the candidate’s demonstrated experience, and then compares this information to the skills required to be successful in the role. Subjective measures tend to be more nuanced. An interviewer’s response to a candidate’s body language, communication style, or even his/her attire often carries a good deal of weight. Enter “gut instinct,” or the way a hiring manager instinctively feels about a candidate.

Paying attention to our gut instincts is perfectly natural during a hiring process but should be used with caution. According to the book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, gut instinct helps our brains process information quickly, but it can also lead to snap judgments -- which is not always fair or helpful when making decisions during the interview process.

So what’s the appropriate role of gut instinct in hiring? The trick is to notice and be curious about any hunches, but not draw absolute conclusions without considering other data. Undoubtedly, this is easier said than done. Here are a few guidelines for creating a balance between gut feelings and factual evidence:

  1. Plan ahead for an objective and competency-based process. Nonprofit consultant and former Director of National Recruitment Strategy at KIPP Foundation, Erin Ewart, suggests that a competency-based hiring approach helps to keep gut feelings in check and ensures that organizations can gather the most complete and accurate picture of a candidate’s skills and qualifications. “While there will always be some level of subjectivity in hiring,” Erin suggests, “hiring managers can curb it by identifying skills and competencies required for the job up front, and then fairly and objectively evaluating all candidates against this criteria.”
  2. Pay attention to gut responses to candidate’s presentation skills. How do you respond when a candidate mumbles, rambles, or bulldozes their way through an interview? These experiences generally send up a red flag, making us wonder how a candidate will operate on the job. It is especially important to pay attention to these perceptions when interviewing candidates for roles with external-facing responsibilities, such as interacting with donors, partners, or Board members. In subsequent interviews, try changing the setting of the meeting, creating a different tone or employing a different communication style in subsequent interviews.  If the candidate is able to adjust their style and presentation accordingly, then perhaps your initial gut reaction wasn’t telling the whole story.
  3. Recognize when gut instinct may actually be unfair bias. According to Liz Maw, CEO of Net Impact, it’s common for hiring managers to show bias towards candidates who are similar to themselves – e.g. same alma mater, similar age, or a familiar communication style.  She points out, “It’s human nature to gravitate towards people who remind us of ourselves. However, the best teams are diverse in background, perspective, and demographics, so it’s important to recognize any bias and keep it in check.” Only considering candidates who are similar to us stands in the way of diversity, and it can also be interpreted as unfair or illegal hiring practices when based upon against a candidate’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or any other protected status.
  4. Consider a broad array of data before drawing conclusions. Erin Ewart shares, “Even if you have strong instincts one way or another, you should always challenge your assumptions by gathering additional evidence and involving others in the hiring process. While gut instinct can be a powerful and valuable tool, it’s essential to look at a variety of information to gain a holistic view of a candidate’s qualifications and potential fit.” Allow other data points – such as input from other interviewers, performance tasks or job simulation activities, and thorough reference checks – to inform decision making.

The bottom line is this: a little gut instinct never hurts, as long as it’s measured with other information about a candidate. Hiring managers and organizations that plan ahead, stay aware yet open-minded about gut feelings, and rely on a variety of data end up making the best hiring decisions and building high-performing teams.

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