Recruitment & Selection

A Leap of Faith: Why knowledgeable professionals rely on gut instinct to select employees

While much attention has been given to the perceptions of various selection tools by applicants, relatively little attention has been dedicated to how hiring managers, HR professionals, and other gatekeepers in organizations choose to make hiring decisions.  New research indicates that despite greater access to information and an abundance of valid, reliable selection tools, decision makers still tend to rely on intuition, gut instinct, and subjectivity to make employment decisions. Subjective judgments about applicants are usually made during an unstructured interview.  Interviewers tend to approach the interview as a time to “get to know” the applicant by asking questions loosely aimed at uncovering an applicant’s personality, fit, and competence for the position or organization.  More often than not, however, these questions have relatively little to do with predicting success on the job (e.g.  “If you were a sandwich, would you be the meat or the bread?”) and seldom include any type of scoring model that the interviewer could defend or even explain.  The decisions made using such a philosophy are unlikely to fairly and accurately assess candidates and will leave an organization without a way to defend against a claim of unfair hiring practice.

The Satisfaction of “Going with Your Gut”

Two flawed beliefs and their associated facets have been identified that seem to drive hiring professionals’ preference for instinct over objective measures: People believe that near perfect precision is possible when predicting success. This is operationalized by:
  • Belief that right person + right fit = certain success
  • Validated tools (such as paper and pencil tests) include measures of validity and thus a measure of success and failure.  Subjective measures do not and are often perceived as more accurate.
People believe in the Myth of Expertise; intuitive judgment is perfected through time and practice.
  • Decision makers may understand the accuracy of objective measures, but believe that their situation is unique and that these measures are not relevant.
  • Decision makers overestimate their ability to make judgments of others.
  • Use of objective tools may give the impression of incompetence of the decision maker by others (e.g. “if you really know what you are doing, you don’t need tests”).
The truth of the matter is that experience provides an opportunity for skill improvement, but  does   not   necessarily   improve   accuracy. Prior research has indicated that raters who use subjective measures rely on few pieces of information, lack insight into how they make their decisions, become more confident when irrelevant information is presented, and show poor inter-rater agreement.

Implications for Practice

Organizations must be aware that any tools, or for that matter selection criterion must be relevant, fair, and legally justifiable to accurately and defensibly select the best candidates.  The use of intuition and subjectivity alone hamper this process and has been shown to actually reduce the validity of paper and pencil and computer based tools.  Practices which ensure the most accurate selection include:
  • Accurate measures of critical KSAOs through job analysis.
  • Selection of tools validated to measurement of job related facets.
  • Use of structured, behavior based interviewing.
  • Education and training in selection criterion for those responsible for the hiring process.
  • Communication of how subjective interviews can negatively impact the legal defensibility of selection systems.
Organizations need to understand that the feelings of empowerment and mastery that come from allowing hiring decision makers to “go with their gut” comes at the cost of accuracy, fairness and legal defensibility.  Efforts by organizations to replace “horse sense” with science should include communicating the greater value of expertise in selection issues over the value of good intuition.

Interpretation by:

Mark Baker

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Highhouse, S. (2008). Stubborn reliance on intuition and subjective judgment in employee selection. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 1(3), 333-342.