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Research report

August 2015

A head
for hiring:
The behavioural science of
recruitment and selection
The CIPD is the professional body for HR and people
development. The not-for-profit organisation champions
better work and working lives and has been setting the
benchmark for excellence in people and organisation
development for more than 100 years. It has 140,000
members across the world, provides thought leadership
through independent research on the world of work, and
offers professional training and accreditation for those
working in HR and learning and development.
A head for hiring: The behavioural
science of recruitment and selection
Research report

Acknowledgements 2

Foreword 3

Executive summary 4

Introduction 6

1 Attracting the people you need 7

2 Designing selection processes and preparing assessors 12

3 Improving the candidate experience 19

Conclusions 21

Glossary of terms/behavioural biases 24

References 26

1   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection


We would like to thank the authors of this report, Elizabeth Linos and
Joanne Reinhard of the Behavioural Insights Team. We also thank Dr Mark
Parkinson for providing extensive advice and feedback on the report.

About the Behavioural About Mark Parkinson

Insights Team Dr Mark Parkinson is an
The Behavioural Insights Team was occupational psychologist
set up in 2010 as the world’s first experienced in developing
government institution dedicated psychometric tests and profiling
to the application of behavioural teams and individuals. He has
sciences and is now a social designed or advised on assessment
purpose company, part owned by and development processes for
its employees, the Cabinet Office many organisations, including
and Nesta, the UK innovation Amnesty International, Gocompare,
charity. Waitrose and the United Nations.

2   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection


Bringing talented individuals Previously, the CIPD has published

into the organisation is one of research on applications of
the most important roles of behavioural science to learning and
managers and HR professionals. development, HR in general and,
So it is not surprising that the more recently, pay and reward. All
recruitment process has developed this research can be found at
into a sizeable industry, with cipd.co.uk/behaviouralscience
marketing and search firms and
occupational psychologists at the This report builds on this
forefront of this. At the leading important work stream by drawing
edge, techniques in attracting key insights from behavioural
employees into the organisation economics and cognitive and
and assessing candidates have occupational psychology for the
become impressively sophisticated. hiring process. It takes a broad
This can be seen in particular look at recruitment, from outreach
with highly engaging graduate activity and the creation of job
recruitment campaigns and in the adverts, through to making final
use of assessment centres. hiring decisions. In doing so, it
brings several key debates up to
But regardless of the level of date, discussing the best available
resources and techniques one evidence in this crucial and
has to work with, the recruitment continually evolving field.
process relies on human decisions,
of candidates as well as recruiters. It is easy to neglect best practice
And, as behavioural science in recruitment, not only because it
has continually highlighted, our is tempting to think we don’t have
decision-making is much more sufficient time, but also because
prone to sloppy thinking and bias we like to make decisions based
than we would like to believe. on what feels intuitively right.
This report sets out to challenge
Behavioural science gives us a assumptions that underlie this and
unique and valuable perspective help those involved in directing or
for people management. As we executing recruitment strategies to
have noted before, understanding take a more robust, evidence-based
human behaviour lies at the heart approach. Doing so will help ensure
of HR and we need to make sure you really are hiring the best.
that policies are designed and
executed in sync with how people’s Jonny Gifford, Research Adviser,
minds work. CIPD

3   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

Executive summary

We all agree that recruiting and We start by looking at ways to does the candidate experience
selecting the right people is attract candidates best suited to affect our ability to decipher who
fundamental to any organisation’s the job and the organisation’s is best, it also can have knock-on
success. How best to do it, broader needs. While it is effects on an employer’s brand and
however, remains a challenging particularly difficult to determine their ability to attract talent in the
area. That’s no surprise: the who the ‘right’ applicant might future. The impact of stress and
employer and potential new hire be, there is growing evidence anxiety during interviews is well
enter the process with limited that how you conduct outreach documented. Since the situation
information on what to expect and efforts and how you utilise existing is likely to be inherently stressful
have few opportunities to learn networks will determine who finds for an employee, much of the
from their behaviour. In addition, themselves in your applicant pool. literature suggests that additional
the process is inherently high Recent evidence from behavioural stress should be avoided.
stakes, so stress levels may be science also shows that even small Candidates from disadvantaged
high. Ultimately, any recruitment changes to how you frame a job or minority groups may be
and selection process demands advert can have a disproportionate particularly prone to experiencing
complex and speedy decision- effect on who applies and, pressure, due to negative
making from both sides. subsequently, how they perform on stereotypes and the sense of being
the job. an outsider. The research here is
Behavioural science has a lot clear: when someone’s identity
to say about the way in which In the second section we consider as being from a disadvantaged
people make decisions in the evidence behind the use of key or minority group is highlighted
these types of settings. Our selection and assessment tools as to them, this may negatively
behaviour does not always fit a well as the biases and judgement impact their performance in the
rational actor model but it is still errors that may occur on the assessment process. There are
systematic and predictable. This assessor’s side when using these simple ways to relieve individuals
report outlines ways in which tools. There are simple tweaks from these pressures.
harnessing knowledge about that can be made to use the
how we actually behave can help tools in a more effective way. For We end the report with a call
recruiters – including external example, anonymising or jointly for more research. This need
agents, recruiting managers and comparing CVs helps assessors not come from academia alone.
HR professionals – to improve to concentrate on the information Shifting away from a model based
outcomes for the organisations that matters. Structured interviews on intuition and vague notions of
they represent. are shown to be more effective ‘fit’, recruiters can build a strong
than unstructured ones overall, evidence base by building rigorous
This is an area that benefits although the difference may not evaluation into their own practices.
from multidisciplinary research be as stark for certain types of By constantly and consistently
– occupational psychologists, interviewers. The evidence on testing their own practices,
economists, neuroscientists and tests and questionnaires shows organisations will not only learn
organisational behaviour experts they can be powerful predictors what works best, they will make
have all shed light on parts of of performance, but the content better hiring decisions.
the recruitment and selection of those tests will determine their
process over the past decades. predictive validity, so they must
The goal of this report is to whittle be carefully matched with job
down the existing evidence using requirements.
a behavioural lens to practical,
actionable insights, clarify where The third section focuses on the
the evidence is strongest and candidate’s experience during
suggest areas for future research. the recruitment process. Not only

4   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

18 tips for better recruitment practice

Attracting candidates

1 Take a fresh look at person–organisation fit, considering both current

and aspirational organisational culture.

2 Test the wording of your job adverts to see how it affects who applies.

3 Personalise your outreach efforts to encourage applicants.

4 Make it easy for people who show interest to apply directly.

5 Vary where and how you do outreach.

6 Push for transparency in outreach even when using networks for

recruitment and selection.

7 Systematise your use of social media in recruitment.


8 Group and anonymise CVs when reviewing them.

9 Pre-commit to a set of interview questions that are directly related to

performance on the job.

10 Focus interviews on collecting information, not making the decision.

11 Make sure tests are relevant to the job and fit for purpose.


12 Include people in hiring decisions who have not been involved in

assessing candidates.

13 Stick to what the scores tell you for final decisions.

Recruitment strategy

14 Spread assessments and decisions across days, but keep all other
conditions similar.

15 If discussing unconscious bias, emphasise the desired behaviour of

assessors, rather than the problem.

16 Evaluate your assessment practices.

Candidate experience

17 Avoid creating stereotype threat in the assessment process.

18 Ask for feedback from rejected and accepted candidates.

5   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection


‘Steve Jobs ‘Our employees are everything.’

A quick web search shows that
• How do we attract the right
kinds of people?
described the thousands of companies include • How do we design the best
this sentence, or a variation to it, tools for selection and prepare
process of hiring in their mission statements. One assessors to use them?
top-notch engineer is worth ‘300 How can we improve the
top talent as “the times or more than the average,’

candidate experience?
most important claims Alan Eustace, a Google vice
president of engineering (Tam In each area, we focus on what we
job”. Yet, how to find and Delaney 2005). Steve Jobs know works from existing evidence
described the process of hiring top in behavioural science, occupational
the right employee talent as ‘the most important job’ psychology, cognitive psychology
(Jager and Ortiz 1998). Yet, how and organisational behaviour and
remains a contested to find the right employee remains also what behavioural science
question.’ a contested question. Compared
with other areas in organisational
has to say about future areas of
research. The evidence we present
management, relatively little is not meant to be a comprehensive
academic work has focused on literature review. Rather, we focus
how different firms approach and on the evidence that has clear
should approach hiring decisions practical implications for recruiters
(Oyer and Schaefer 2011). – including external agents, line
managers and HR personnel – and
Many see recruiting and selecting can be used to improve aspects
the right employees more as of the recruitment and selection
an art than a science. Yet a process in as straightforward a way
scientific approach has a lot to as possible.
say about how both assessors
and candidates think and make
decisions. Ultimately, this can
mark a major change in our ability
to systematically predict good
performance and how to measure
what works in a rigorous and
quantifiable manner.

Behavioural science, which lies

at the intersection of psychology
and economics, focuses on how
we actually behave, as opposed to
how a purely rational actor would.
We will argue in this report that by
acknowledging and understanding
the systematic biases in decision-
making of both candidates and
recruiters, we can design better
systems of recruitment and
selection. This report will ask three
broad questions:

6   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

1 Attracting the people you need

Who are the ‘right types’ of they will be (optimism bias), short- but also for long-term business
people? sighted when considering how needs such as innovation and
Person–organisation fit and much they will value a particular job organisational responsiveness to
person–job fit (see Box 1) or an aspect of a job (myopic bias market changes (Herring 2009).
are established predictors of or temporal discounting), stick to
performance (Goodman and the sectors or job roles that they Such bias need not be conscious.
Svyantek 1999), turnover (see are currently in (status quo bias), Affinity bias leads people to like
Verquer et al 2003 for a meta- consider their own characteristics those who are similar to them or
analysis of 21 studies) and other more heavily than the characteristics someone they know; the mere
employee outcomes (Boon et al of other people who may be exposure effect causes individuals
2011). Indeed, much of the theory applying for the job (egocentric to like things they have been
predicts that individuals should be bias), or overestimate how many exposed to; and status quo bias
attracted to specific organisations people work in an industry in total may cause employers to feel
based on fit (Schneider et al 1995, when estimating their probability of more comfortable to look for
Sekiguchi 2007). Yet there is some getting the job (base rate neglect). candidates who are similar to
evidence that, for various reasons, The sunk cost fallacy may lead candidates they have hired before.
this might not play out in practice them to choose certain career paths Equally, the endowment effect
(Billsberry 2007). because of foregone costs, such as may lead managers to value skills
college fees. Therefore, if companies and characteristics of current
When deciding where to apply, want to attract people who will fit, staff disproportionately: possibly
individuals may not be able to they need to leverage what really blinding them to the benefits of
accurately assess how well they will attracts people to a given job and other characteristics.
fit. There are large informational organisation.
asymmetries on both sides, and Further, while it may be easy to
candidates may be influenced However, another complication select for short-term fit, it may
by a range of factors, including arises in how employers define be more difficult to predict what
the perceived value of a job to or make assumptions about who characteristics a workforce needs
their career, predictions of how will fit. As we’ll explore at various to have in a few years’ time. The
successful they would be in getting points in this report, there is a solution is not to ignore fit, but
a job, cultural norms, previous danger that a focus on person– define it in a way that is meaningful
experiences, and other personal organisation fit undermines and beneficial to the organisation
beliefs and interests (Eccles 2005). diversity. Employers selecting longer term. There are subtle
only for people who seem similar ways to avoid misdefining fit, as
Insights from behavioural science to themselves or their colleagues we will explore throughout this
show a number of ways that can put people of a different race, report. Clarifying explicitly what
these judgements can be biased. gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic characteristics are most critical
For example, people may be status at a disadvantage. This has for your organisation’s culture is
overconfident in how successful implications not only for fairness the first step. This could include

Box 1: Who fits the job?

Person–organisation fit is usually described in terms of how well a person’s perceptions of the values held by a
company map on to the values that the person holds themselves (Cable and Judge 1996).

Person–job fit typically refers to the match between a person’s abilities and personality, and a job’s demands and
what it offers (Edwards 1991).

See glossary page 24 for further definitions of behavioural concepts.

7   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

aspirational values and behaviours characteristics when it comes to reputation will be one of the most
that are largely out of sync with the ‘fit’. Take on board the future vision important predictors of whether
organisation’s existing culture. Thus, of the organisation’s culture and someone applies for a job, variations
a second step could be to determine consider ‘anti-fit’: someone who in job adverts attract different types
whether there are positions where might meet all the requirements of candidates who go on to perform
anti-fit is actually desirable. Some needed to perform the job well differently on the job.
organisations approach the topic but may not fit with some aspects
even more boldly: for example, of the existing culture. Consider For example, one study found that
Google challenges its own selection that for some job roles, your specific types of words are more
criteria by occasionally hiring organisation may even need this likely to attract female or male
someone who ‘doesn’t fit’ (that is, ‘anti-fit’, and be willing to challenge candidates (see Box 2). Evidence
someone who didn’t meet some the status quo by looking for also shows that, on average, women
of the recruitment criteria) and people with unique skills or traits. apply for positions when they meet
measuring the impact (Bock 2015). 100% of the required qualifications
Improving job adverts on a job advert while men are likely
Practitioner tip The journey to attract the right to apply when they meet only 60%
1 – Take a fresh look at person– candidates starts with job adverts. of those qualifications, so the list
organisation fit It is easy to see job adverts as of what counts as ‘essential’ will
Write down a definition of a secondary and uninteresting dramatically affect who applies
organisation fit as well as person– component of the process, but (Mohr 2014). Even simply including
job fit, explicitly listing employee evidence suggests that getting the more information about how many
characteristics that the organisation job advert right is a key element of other people have applied for a
needs, and commit to only attracting the right kind of people. job can influence application rates
evaluating candidates on these Although an employer’s brand and (see Box 3).

Box 2: Gendered words in job adverts

In a study by Gaucher et al (2011), when a job advert included stereotypically masculine words, women were
less attracted to these jobs compared with when the same job advert was constructed to include stereotypically
feminine words. Moreover, both men and women assumed there would be more males in this job role when
the job advert included masculine words. To illustrate, when an advert for a retail sales manager position
was constructed to sound masculine, it included sentences such as, ‘We will challenge our employees to be
proud of their chosen career’ and ‘You’ll develop leadership skills and learn business principles.’ The feminine
worded version of the same job advert included sentences such as, ‘We nurture and support our employees,
expecting that they will become committed to their chosen career’ and ‘You will develop interpersonal skills and
understanding of business.’

Box 3: How many people have applied for this post?

A recent large field experiment demonstrated that showing the true number of people who have started an
online application in a LinkedIn job advert increased the total number of applications by 3 percentage points,
which could lead to thousands of additional applications per day (Gee 2015). In the study, underneath the
‘apply’ button, half of the LinkedIn users would see ‘162 people have clicked’, where the number is always
the true number of applicants, while the other half of users would not see this. Interestingly, the effect was
mainly driven by higher numbers of female applicants: there was no significant impact on the number of
male applicants. This could be explained by women’s tendency to be more risk- and ambiguity-averse than
men (Croson and Gneezy 2009), being more interested in a job when there is a signal that other people have
applied. It is also interesting to note that, when the true number of applicants was displayed, female applicants
were particularly more likely to apply to male-dominated jobs.

8   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

One dilemma that often emerges
when deciding how to attract the
So it’s worthwhile testing which
job advert wording is right for the
‘Digital innovation
right people is the perceived trade- positions you are advertising by has revolutionised
off between intrinsic motivation designing two or more variations
and extrinsic motivation. Here, the and measuring which one leads the way employers
evidence is mixed at best. Some to more interest (for example,
studies have found that attracting webpage views, click-through rates can reach out
higher-ability or more career-
ambitious people does not stand
or applications) or applications
from certain groups. Remember to
to potential
in the way of hiring pro-socially record what your top applicants applicants.’
motivated people – that is, people actually saw when they applied
who are highly motivated by the and, if possible, link to future
opportunity to make a social performance or retention metrics.
impact – but other studies show
that it can (see Box 4). Outreach activity
In order to reach the most
To understand this contrasting appropriate candidates, employers
evidence, we need to look at need to find creative ways to
the specific context of jobs and grab the attention of applicants,
job adverts. For jobs that are especially considering that,
associated with highly able people on average, the most capable
who have particular technical skills, candidates are in work. Indeed,
a job advert that highlights values using unusual outreach methods,
and mission may be particularly such as attention-grabbing
appealing, differentiating it from postcards, has been shown to
adverts for similar jobs that do not increase the total candidate pool
do this. For jobs that are already and the quality of the candidates in
seen as highly pro-social, however, that pool (Cromheecke et al 2013).
an advert that re-emphasises the
pro-social elements of the job may Digital innovation has
not be as impactful. revolutionised the way employers
can reach out to potential
Practitioner tip applicants. Adverts put up on
2 – Test your job adverts job vacancy websites can easily
Even small changes to wording on reach thousands of people. Social
a job advert can make a difference. networks such as LinkedIn allow

Box 4: Career tigers on a pro-social mission?

In a large recruitment round for health workers by the Government of Zambia, a randomised control trial was used
to vary the message on job adverts in different communities (Ashraf et al 2015). Making the career development
opportunities more salient attracted higher-ability people without crowding out pro-social motivation, compared
with adverts that highlighted the pro-social nature of the task. This has knock-on effects on performance. The
health workers recruited with the career-focused message visited 29% more households to do inspections and
provide counselling, a key indicator of performance. They also organised more community meetings and they
stayed in the job just as long as the health workers recruited with the pro-social messages.

In a similar vein, a study by Dal Bó et al (2013) found that including higher wages in job adverts not only attracted
more able applicants but also applicants with stronger pro-social motivation. However, another study (Deserranno
2014) showed that advertising higher expected earnings discouraged people with strong pro-social motivation
from applying for a health-worker position in Uganda. Here, the more pro-social people attracted by a version
of the job advert that signalled lower potential earnings were found to perform better and continue working for
longer, so the change in the advert had major implications.

9   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

Box 5: Personalising messages for potential candidates

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) ran a trial with Jobcentres in the UK that aimed to increase the rate that
unemployed people show up to recruitment events with large employers. Jobcentres were already sending
text messages to jobseekers informing them of the opportunity, but only about 10% of people showed up.
In the study, personalising the message with the names of the jobseeker and the job coach, and mentioning
that a job coach had pre-booked the jobseeker a place at the event, almost tripled the likelihood that a
person showed up to the event (to 27%) (Sanders and Kirkman 2014). In another setting BIT has found that
personalised emails from real employees can significantly increase the number of applications for a position.
This suggests that even small tweaks to outreach programmes that increase personalisation may significantly
improve the success rate of a recruitment drive.

employers to also contact potential more likely to also be set objectives will be the only open application
candidates, even those who are not linked to ensuring the organisation period this year.
actively looking for work. Though as a whole is hitting key targets. • Behavioural science tells us that
many companies report using This should encourage a more it is difficult to recall the length
social media for hiring purposes, strategic and concerted effort or the details of an interaction.
few have systematic processes to increase outreach to diverse Rather, your experience is shaped
in place for reaching out to populations and increase the pool by the most intense moment and
candidates (CIPD 2013). As a result, of talent being approached. the end of the interaction or the
there is limited rigorous evidence peak-end effect (Kahneman 2000,
on the impact of using these It is also worth considering how Kahneman et al 1997). Recruiters
channels for recruitment. outreach activity can be made may want to tailor their pitch
more effective. If one goal is to accordingly.
Some top companies regularly increase applications from specific • There is widespread evidence
search and reach out to individual groups, behavioural science can tell that people respond to social
candidates they think are suitable, us a lot about how to get people to norms – if they think others
for example, through an in-house show up to outreach initiatives and are behaving in a certain way,
search team whose job it is to to then apply to jobs (see Box 5). especially their peers, they are
actively approach the best people. more likely to do it themselves
About half of Google’s hires each Unfortunately, there is limited (Tajfel 1979). This suggests
year are found through such a rigorous evidence that directly that one way of encouraging
channel (Bock 2015). compares different types of potential recruits to take the
outreach efforts, but concepts next step and apply is to
One might worry that an in-house from behavioural science might emphasise that others like them
search function is limited in the be particularly relevant here. For have already done so.
same way that employee referral example:
programmes are, the scope of Practitioner tips
existing networks largely defining • Encouraging someone to 3 – Personalise your outreach efforts
who is approached. But the apply because they will lose Don’t underestimate the power
incentives of an in-house search an opportunity if they don’t, of personalisation. If someone
firm are likely to be more aligned rather than gain one if they has been contacted in the past
with the organisation’s long- do, may work well because of or if you can find their contact
term goals than the incentives loss aversion – the fact that information through social media, a
of an individual employee who is we weigh losses about twice as personalised email or text message
referring someone. Whereas the much as we weigh equivalent encouraging them to apply can be
value of an individual employee’s gains. One way to do that is to highly valued, especially when it
referral may simply be assessed frame recruitment opportunities comes from an identifiable person,
on whether the contact secures with a sense of urgency – instead of a generic company
a job, an in-house search team is clarifying, for example, that this contact address.

10   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
4 – Make it easy for people who broadly, if job referral practices open job posting for all internal
show interest to apply directly are different in different groups, candidates (Keller 2015).
Small changes in how easy it is the process might work really well
to apply can have large effects for attracting a certain type of Social networking sites are
on people’s willingness to make candidate, but does not necessarily starting to be used as a source of
the initial effort. On a website, for widen the applicant pool to top predictive hiring information. More
example, one or two clicks from candidates from a more diverse than a simple outreach vehicle,
the home page should get people background. Indeed, up to 38% understanding how applicants and
to the actual application. Arduous of the difference in employment employees are interconnected allows
forms can discourage even the between black and white youth can recruiters to better utilise existing
most motivated applicants. be attributed to differences in the networks to predict performance
effectiveness of job referrals from and likelihood of applying for a job.
5 – Vary where and how you do social networks (Holzer 1986). Some research is starting to look
outreach at how social networking sites (for
With the explicit aim of attracting Aside from issues of diversity, we example Facebook) can be used as
a more diverse group, don’t just may still want to know how job a hiring tool. There is some evidence
focus on the outreach efforts that referral programmes work for the that you can accurately rate high-
get you the highest number of bottom line. Here, the evidence and low-performers based on
applicants. Diversify your outreach is mostly positive (see Shinnar their social networking profiles
channels and track where you et al 2004, Breaugh and Starke (Kluemper and Rosen 2009).
find the people who end up 2000). Some studies find positive However, as with unstructured
being successful, both during the economic returns for firms that interviews, recruiters can fall prone
assessment process and on the job. invest in their employees’ social to confirmation bias (Nickerson
capital (Fernandez et al 2000) and 1998) when doing online searching:
Using networks cost–benefit estimates suggest looking mostly for information
In addition to organised outreach that employee referral programmes that confirms initial impressions
activity, information about a are cost-effective (Morehart 2001). of a candidate and which may
vacancy or potential recruit When studying the effect of job be irrelevant to their on-the-job
spreads via networks. Classic referral programmes on employee performance. Similarly, the halo
research on the ‘strength of turnover, some studies find no effect may lead recruiters to base
weak ties’ (Granovetter 1973) difference in turnover of referrals their judgements too heavily on a
suggests that information about versus non-referrals (Neckerman salient piece of information on an
new jobs is typically shared with and Fernandez 2003). Others online profile.
individuals with whom you have find improved tenure for referrals
weak ties – acquaintances – rather (Kirnan et al 1989) and higher job Practitioner tips
than close friends. More recent satisfaction (Breaugh 1981). 6 – Push for transparency
research confirms this relationship: even when using networks for
weak ties matter for employment Some of the most recent research recruitment and selection
outcomes while strong ties do suggests that although referred When hiring staff internally, make
not (Brady 2013, Marmaros and applicants have similar skills to non- sure the message about the
Sacerdote 2002). referred applicants, they are more vacancy is publicly visible and
likely to be hired and subsequently transparent to all employees.
This has significant implications be more productive while working,
for whether a recruiter can get top earn higher wages and be less likely 7 – Systematise your use of social
candidates and whether the tools to quit (Burks et al 2013). Yet, it is media in recruitment
for recruitment create an unequal important to consider exactly how In order to not get side-tracked
playing field. For example, if a candidate is referred. For internal when using social media, commit
employees’ networks are ethnically recruitment processes, when to an online search strategy up
homogeneous, an outreach candidates are hired through an ad front, as recommended by the CIPD
programme that depends on those hoc reference by a line manager, (2015). Outline which searches
networks may be systematically their on-the-job performance you will do and follow the same
missing out on candidates from is lower on average than when process for all candidates. Log your
certain ethnic groups. More candidates are nominated via an findings systematically.

11   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
 esigning selection processes and
preparing assessors

‘There is a Once suitable candidates have been

attracted to a position, it is the role
from them but not after receiving
positive evaluations (Sinclair and
multitude of of recruiters, including external
agents, line managers and HR staff,
Kunda 2000). In a similar way,
science professors evaluated
evidence that shows to select the best ones. Behavioural female student applicants as
science tells us that people have less competent and less hireable
that we hire people hardwired systematic biases in than male students with identical
like ourselves.’ how they evaluate candidates.
As mentioned in Section 1, all too
application materials (Moss-Racusin
et al 2012).
often, the emphasis on ‘fit’ from
managers slips into an emphasis Given our propensity for bias,
on people who are similar in non- the question then becomes: what
relevant ways to existing employees are the best selection tools – or
or the decision-makers. Concerns combination of tools – to help to
about dissimilarity are often more help overcome biases and get the
salient to employers than concerns best outcome? While selection
about productivity or skill. This tools can be used for a multitude of
has obvious consequences for the different purposes, the main goal
ability of a selection committee to of any assessment process should
improve diversity in recruitment. be to tease out key predictors of
performance in an appropriate and
There is a multitude of evidence cost-effective manner.
that shows that we hire people
like ourselves: employers seek Below, we outline strengths and
candidates who are similar to weaknesses of some of the most
themselves in terms of leisure frequently used tools, considering
activities, experiences and self- the potential behavioural pitfalls
presentation styles (Rivera 2012). they may exemplify. More
Most recently, the UK Government’s importantly, we outline the growing
Social Mobility and Child Poverty literature on what to do to de-bias
Commission has highlighted the these tools and draw together
deleterious effects of ‘poshness the different bundles of data
tests’ (for example, looking at accent and insight to make final hiring
and school attended) in recruitment decisions.
to elite firms on social mobility and
diversity (Ashley et al 2015). Reviewing CVs and
application forms
Evidence on gender bias is also There is a lot of evidence that bias
clear. Managers – both male and may creep into assessments of
female – continue to favour men CVs, on the part of the assessor.
over equally qualified women in Research from the US shows
hiring, compensation, performance that identical CVs get more call-
evaluation and promotion backs when the name on the CV
decisions (Koch et al 2015). In field is traditionally white (for example
experiments, students evaluating Emily or Greg) compared with
teachers viewed females as less traditionally black (for example
competent than males after Lakisha or Jamal) (Bertrand
receiving negative evaluations and Mullainathan 2003). This

12   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
phenomenon has been replicated
in a host of different contexts and
In other contexts where blind
selection is possible, it seems to
‘Job interviews have
audit studies, with bias against always work best. For example, been criticised as
immigrant applicants (Oreopoulos when a screen was used to
2009) and even men in entry-level conceal candidates from the panel having very low
jobs that are female-dominated during preliminary auditions for
(Booth and Leigh 2010). orchestras, female musicians were predictive power.’
more likely to advance to the next
What to do about it round by 11 percentage points
While there is no silver bullet (Goldin and Rouse 1997). During
for eliminating all bias, certain the final round, ‘blind’ auditions
experiments have shown promise. increased the likelihood of female
In a lab study, joint evaluation musicians being selected by 30%.
of candidates – seeing more
than one CV at a time, side by Practitioner tip
side – decreased gender biases 8 – Group and anonymise CVs
and increased the likelihood that Rather than scoring each CV you
participants assessed individuals receive individually, compare CVs
based on their performance and and application forms in groups.
potential, rather than gender When possible, take out names
stereotypes (Bohnet et al 2012). and any identifiable information
(including address) before scoring
Anonymous CVs show mixed CVs or application forms.
evidence: in one field experiment
in France, sending anonymous Interviews
CVs increased the call-back rate Common views on the value and
for women but not for immigrants utility of interviews seem to change
(Behaghel et al 2011). This research periodically. Job interviews have
is still at its infancy, but it seems been criticised as having very low
at least plausible that managers predictive power because they
shouldn’t ask for information on easily sway assessors based on
the CV that can bias the assessor irrelevant information (Pingitore
but provide no predictive value on et al 1994), have low incremental
performance, such as a person’s validity beyond cognitive tests
photograph. (Campion et al 1988) and they
allow assessors to feel confident

Box 6: Sense-making in unstructured interviews

In a set of three studies (Dana et al 2013), researchers tried to understand why people might value unstructured
interviews, despite evidence that they tend to have low predictive validity. They ran studies with students to
predict the future GPA (grade point average) of other students, using both relevant information (previous GPA
and performance, for example) and an unstructured interview. In one group, interviewees answered questions
based on a random response system – essentially providing nonsensical answers or ‘random noise’. One might
have expected that this extra irrelevant information would have been discarded or ignored in comparison with
the relevant information. However, the relevant information was weighted less heavily in the assessment process
once this random noise was introduced, leading to worse predictions of performance overall. Interestingly, even
when they received these nonsensical answers, assessors were just as confident about their evaluation of the
interviewee’s performance as they were when interviewees answered normally. This can be seen as evidence of
sense-making – our tendency to identify patterns or detect trends even when they are non-existent.

13   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
about their decision, even if what is drop as early as the fourth can increase their value by taking
said during the interview doesn’t all candidate (Frieder et al 2015). In on board some of this evidence.
make sense (see Box 6). However, the remainder of the interview The majority of studies suggest
research also suggests that much assessors may fall prone to that structured interviews predict
of the weakness of interviews can confirmation bias. Colloquial job performance better than
be accounted for by the type of examples of this include ‘selective unstructured interviews (Macan
interview being used – for example, hearing’ or ‘selective memory’, 2009). A key reason for this is
a structured versus an unstructured whereby people profess to only that interviewers open themselves
interview – rather than the broader hear or remember the information up to various forms of bias when
category of interviews (see Judge which confirms their prior they ask questions that come to
et al 2000). beliefs or opinions on a subject. mind in the interview. This may
This suggests that the order of include asking different questions
Irrespective of debates on the applicants can have a significant to different participants in order
evidence, the interview remains impact on whether they are hired. to unconsciously re-affirm initial
popular as a selection tool and it impressions (confirmation bias), or
is hard to see it being otherwise. It Another particular complication remembering only the most salient
is a very convenient way to select for interviews is that candidates part of the interview and the very
candidates and can be used in differ in their expressed attitudes end of the interview (peak-end
particular to gauge skills that may and behaviours. Social desirability effects). In contrast, there is some
be pertinent to the job, such as bias describes a tendency to evidence that bias is reduced when
being able to explain clearly, and respond in a way that is perceived interviews are more structured.
listen well. If we accept that it is to be socially desirable, instead of For example, lab participants who
here to stay, the question then giving a response that accurately watched a videotaped interview
becomes: how can we mitigate reflects an individual’s true feelings displayed a reduction in bias
these weaknesses to make the (Snyder 1987). For example, when against pregnant women when
employment interview as robust faced with a high-stakes decision, interview questions were structured
and useful as possible? it’s natural for people to follow (Bragger et al 2002).
established social norms and adopt
From a behavioural perspective, the decision strategies used by There are two potential challenges.
problems associated with others (Sunstein 1996). Thus, how First, managers still do not use
interviews are perhaps job candidates differ is heavily structured interviews as much, citing
unsurprising. One factor at play is influenced by how acutely they reasons ranging from time required
the high cognitive load (that is, the perceive social norms, or what they to design, to a need for flexibility
‘strain’ put on our brain) involved in feel the ‘right’ answer is. to explain their reluctance (Lievens
making good judgements in such and De Paepe 2004). There may
settings. As a result, interviewers Such tactics can be effective. A be some truth to this criticism for
may make decisions hastily, not large meta-analysis shows that a subset of interviewers – a recent
taking the full range of data candidates who use tactics to meta analysis suggests that the
available to them into account. present themselves in a better difference between structured and
light get scored more highly unstructured interviews may not be
Indeed, some studies even suggest during the interview, particularly as large as previously thought for
that the real decision has been when the interview is unstructured those interviewers who are highly
made in the first four minutes of an (Barrick et al 2009). These tactics skilled and experienced (Oh et al
interview (Ambady and Rosenthal correlated more strongly with 2013). Second, even structured
1992, Barrick et al 2012). More interview ratings than with actual interviews may be behaviourally
recent studies show that the time (later) job performance. biased: there is a strong correlation
it takes to make a decision in an between initial impressions on a job
interview depends on contextual Because of this, robust design, interview (based on demographic
factors such as whether the even within interviews, is essential or other general characteristics) and
interview is structured (decisions when trying to identify the right how structured questions are marked
take longer), or which applicant types of people for a job. afterwards (Barrick et al 2012).
an interviewer is considering.
Decision time increases for the What to do about it A further dilemma is what to ask in
first few candidates an assessor If an interview is to be an important an interview. A controversial point
is interviewing, but begins to part of the process, recruiters is brain-teasers – questions that

14   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
are typically unrelated to the job
and require on-the-spot problem-
focused on the specifics of the
job in hand. This could be done
‘Perhaps the most
solving, such as ‘How would you through a combination of questions promising growth
weigh a jet plane without using that ask about what people have
scales?’ There is a lack of evidence done in previous positions and of “tests” lies in
on how well brain-teasers predict questions on how they would
how candidates will perform in a handle specific situations, but must work sample tests:
job (Bock 2015). What’s more, they
may leave negative impressions
be kept relevant to the job.
actually asking
on candidates. For example,
candidates in interviews have
10 – Focus on collecting information,
not making the decision
people to try out the
been shown to react much more To help avoid instinctive or hasty real work.’
negatively to brain-teasers than judgements, begin to re-frame the
to questions on their behaviour. job interview as a data-gathering
In a study by Wright et al (2012), exercise, rather than a decision-
brain-teasers were perceived as making session. Insights from the
less fair by candidates and found interview should be fed into the
to be less predictive of on-the-job decision along with data from
performance. other selection methods (see Final
hiring decisions below).
Far more promising are questions
that are directly related to the Using tests
job at hand. There are, of course, The use of tests has become
different ways of phrasing an important part of selection
questions that directly relate to the processes. Evidence suggests
job. Here, the evidence is mixed. that standardised tests or tests of
While some studies show stronger cognitive ability are often the most
predictive power of experience- promising in terms of predicting
based questions (‘tell me about job performance (Schmidt and
a time when you…’) (for example Hunter 1998). A meta-analysis by
Pulakos and Schmitt 1995), other Bertua et al (2005) suggests that
studies show strong validity of this is especially so for occupations
situational questions (‘what would that require complex thinking.
you do if…’) (for example McDaniel
et al 2001). Evidence on how well personality
questionnaires predict job
Practitioner tips performance is more mixed (Murphy
9 – Pre-commit to a set of interview and Dzieweczynski 2005, Martin
questions that are directly related to 2014). Some studies, for example,
performance on the job are highly critical of the use of
Structure the interview with a personality tests in recruitment and
suite of questions that are clearly selection processes (Thompson and

Box 7: The Big Five personality traits

Many psychologists agree the core dimensions of personality can be summarised by the Big Five personality traits,
which are:

extraversion agreeableness openness

conscientiousness neuroticism

15   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
McHugh 2009), arguing that they purpose. This can be verified to mind most easily. For example,
are used to create a false sense of over time by linking applicants’ they may be able to call to mind
systematic decision-making. Meta- assessment performance to their more recent events more easily,
analyses of ‘Big Five’ measures actual on-the-job performance. This and therefore overweight the
(see Box 7), on the other hand, will help employers fine-tune their performance of a candidate on
show validity on specific job criteria understanding of what’s needed for the last of a series of tests, or
(Hogan and Holland 2003), and different roles. may undervalue the performance
other studies have shown that they of the first candidate in a series
are stable over time (Cobb-Clark and Final hiring decisions: of interviews.
Schurer 2012). Another meta-analysis synthesising the data
finds that these personality traits Ultimately, the final decision comes What to do about it
are predictive of job performance down to an individual or group Here, the academic community
(Ones et al 2007). There is even synthesising bundles of data from has found a consensus. One of
some evidence that the Big Five can a variety of sources. Bias at this the fathers of behavioural science
be reduced to just two key meta- point can entirely undermine an suggests using up to six metrics
traits: broad stability and plasticity otherwise rigorous process. There and – most importantly – not
(DeYoung 2006). More evaluation is little point collecting robust data letting intuition override what the
in workplace contexts is needed to to predict individuals’ performance metrics say: ‘Firmly resolve that
understand how personality tests if the actual hiring decision does you will hire the candidate whose
can be used to improve recruitment not give due weight to the insight final score is the highest, even if
outcomes, but as with all aspects gathered. there is another one whom you like
of assessment, they should not better – try to resist your wish to
constitute a fishing exercise, but Final decision-makers are invent broken legs to change the
should be used in direct relation to susceptible to a host of biases: ranking’ (Kahneman 2011). Indeed,
the person specification. in a lab study, commitment to
• Status quo bias: It feels less risky hiring criteria prior to disclosure of
Perhaps the most promising to hire someone that is similar to the applicant’s gender eliminated
growth of ‘tests’ lies in work the people you’ve hired before. discrimination, suggesting that bias
sample tests: actually asking You feel you know what you get. in the construction of hiring criteria
people to try out the real work. • Self-serving bias: Once you’ve plays a causal role in discrimination
The most commonly cited meta- chosen someone, you justify (Uhlmann and Cohen 2005).
analysis here shows strong that choice, as the new hire will
predictive validity of work sample look better that way. This can Conversely, a recent study suggests
tests (Schmidt and Hunter 1998), lead to post-hoc rationalisation, that using job-testing technologies
although recent updates to those for example explaining away or – such as an online test used to
figures by Frank Schmidt (n.d.) ignoring test findings that don’t predict performance in a low-skilled
suggest that work samples are less fit with your view. service sector – is beneficial but
predictive than previously thought. • Groupthink: Pressure to conform only when managers are not able to
Taking this one step further, some to a group decision influences overrule the test outcome (Hoffman
companies swear by ‘tryouts’ or your decision. et al 2015). In this study, the job-
using real work day ‘auditions’ as • Out-group homogeneity: This testing technology was an online test
a better predictor than interviews is a tendency to overlook the designed to predict performance
(Mullenweg 2014). This type of differences between people for a job in the low-skilled service
test will surely need further study with whom they do not share a sector. Using the technology and
before we can determine its utility. common identity. then overriding its suggestions led to
• Representativeness heuristic: worse outcomes than not having the
Practitioner tip It’s inevitable that decision- technology at all – put simply, job-
11 – Make sure tests are relevant to makers infer competence of a testing technology is a good way to
the job candidate by looking at a limited reduce hiring discretion.
Since the evidence in this area amount of information.
is mixed, employers should • Availability heuristic: The Practitioner tips
ensure the tests, personality representativeness heuristic 12 – Include people in hiring
questionnaires, work samples becomes particularly problematic decisions who have not been
or tryouts they use in their if recruiters also make decisions involved in assessing candidates
assessment process are fit for based on information that comes Including neutral colleagues who

16   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
Box 8: CVs with gravitas

In a 2010 study by Ackerman et al, when people reviewed CVs that were placed on a heavy clipboard, they rated
the candidate as better overall and thought they displayed more interest in the position, compared with when the
CV was placed on a light clipboard (an effect labelled attribute substitution). It did not affect ratings on how well
the candidate would get along with co-workers. Also, with heavy clipboards the raters were more confident that
their ratings were accurate.

have not tested or interviewed

candidates in final hiring decisions
(Schroeder and Epley 2015). Even
the weight of a clipboard on which
‘ ... the time of day
will help you be more objective, a CV is presented may influence in which decisions
as they will be less swayed by ratings (see Box 8). Similarly, an
particular aspects of the selection experiment by Williams and Bargh are made matters.’
process. This will mean you are (2008) showed that interviewers
better placed to take a balanced experiencing physical warmth
overview of the different sources (in this study, by holding a warm
of assessment data. drink) prior to assessing someone
were more likely to judge them to
13 – Stick to what the scores tell you be generous and caring.
It is important not to reduce the
predictive power of tests and other What to do about it
scored assessments by introducing The evidence on how to reduce
partial opinions or post-hoc bias by preparing assessors for
rationalisation. As far as possible, de-biased assessment processes
base decisions on the scores is mixed. Certainly, exposure to
from all the types of assessment individuals who break stereotypical
used, not giving those involved in moulds seems to improve
interviewing the opportunity to outcomes. Women who were
override these scores. exposed to female leaders in social
contexts were less likely to express
Preparing your assessors automatic stereotypical beliefs
Selection tools, of course, do not about women (Dasgupta and
operate in a vacuum. Tools are Asgari 2004).
only as good as the people who
are called to use them. Preparing Yet the most commonly used tool
assessors appropriately, therefore, – anti-bias training – seems weaker
is just as important in reducing than its prevalence would imply.
behavioural biases in recruitment Some randomised control trials do
and selection as selecting the right show positive outcomes for gender-
tools themselves. related anti-bias training, although
many of the outcomes measured
For example, the time of day in are self-reported (Carnes et al
which decisions are made matters. 2015), which means the results may
Studies of judges suggest that even be subject to social desirability
highly trained individuals make bias. Other studies find positive
systematically different decisions at results only when the training phase
different times in the day (Danziger was disassociated from the task or
et al 2011) because of decision when the participants’ cognitive
fatigue. Ratings of applicants by capacity was limited (Kawakami et
assessors can also be influenced al 2005), suggesting there may be
by whether an applicant’s pitch is unconscious resistance to anti-bias
read out or only seen in writing training.

17   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
Box 9: Ensuring that talking about bias doesn’t backfire

In this study, working professionals were asked to evaluate a candidate by reading a job interview transcript. In
the transcript, the professionals could read how the candidate negotiated for more compensation, a behaviour
that could be seen as stereotypical of males. If the candidate was a woman, the professionals rated her as slightly
less warm and were less willing to work with her, compared with when the candidate was a man. Talking about
bias backfired: the effect became stronger when the professionals were told that stereotypical judgements were
common and that they should try to avoid them, compared with the professionals who didn’t receive a message
on stereotypical judgements. However, the good news is that this negative effect could be reversed by simply
telling the professionals that the ‘vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypical preconceptions’.

More importantly, talking about rethinking how assessors interact be brought in for face-to-face
bias can backfire: working with selection tools may be a interviews. If some CVs are printed,
professionals who were told that more bold approach. For example, they should all be printed. Taking
stereotyping is prevalent were if interviews are used as a data- time to deliberately standardise the
less willing to work with someone gathering exercise, where the conditions in which candidates are
who didn’t fit with stereotypical decision-maker or manager is not assessed is key to fair judgement.
norms (Duguid and Thomas-Hunt the same person as the interviewer,
2015). However, there are ways to the tendency of the interviewer to 15 – If discussing unconscious bias,
reverse the negative stereotyping. remember parts of the interview emphasise the desired behaviour
In one study, simply clarifying that that confirm a pre-existing hunch of assessors, rather than the
the norm was a bad one and that (confirmation bias) may be lessened. problem
most people try to overcome it It is possible to do something As the study above shows,
was shown to reduce people’s bias about this. For example, Google has discussing bias can often backfire
(Box 9). Given that the evidence made a rule that managers cannot by creating a negative social norm.
on training more broadly suggests interview for their own team (Bock If unconscious bias becomes a part
that as little as 10–20% transfers 2015). This loss of control is not of the official training of assessors,
to the job anyway, the use of anti- popular with many managers but clarifying which behaviour is
bias training as a key component signifies a commitment to reducing expected and that it will be
of assessor preparation requires bias and hiring the best possible monitored is key to improving
deeper thinking. talent across the firm. outcomes.

So where does this leave us? We Practitioner tips 16 – Evaluate your assessment
need more evidence on what 14 – Spread assessments and practices
actually works in improving decisions across days, but keep all To ensure your organisation’s
outcomes, but current evidence other conditions similar (time of overall recruitment and selection
suggests that small tweaks to the day, how you see CVs, the room, procedure is the best it can be,
process should mitigate some of and so on) evaluate what the impact of small
the risks associated with bias in the The risk of making poor decisions tweaks is. For example, do you hire
assessment process. For example, because of decision fatigue and high people who end up working with
many organisations will anonymise cognitive load is particularly relevant you for longer when you exclude
CVs before the assessor sees them. when selection of candidates one selection criterion? For those
Others may consider limiting the happens in a condensed timeframe. who want to go one step further:
time spent on assessment in a However, ideally, it would be fairer if consider testing what happens
given day to avoid decision fatigue. recruiters limit the number of hours when you hire someone who didn’t
Others may streamline as much of in a day that they spend assessing meet the assessment threshold
the process as possible to avoid candidates. All other conditions so that you can learn what the
cognitive overload. that might affect decisions should usefulness of that threshold is.
be kept constant – if some people
Each of these tweaks addresses one are interviewed over the phone
type of known bias, but ultimately, or by video call, others shouldn’t

18   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
3 Improving the candidate experience

There are multiple reasons why

organisations should worry about
One important question to
consider is how stressful
‘ ... a poor candidate
the candidate experience when it environments affect performance. experience can have
comes to recruitment and selection. Most studies find an inverted
First, candidate experience may U-shaped relationship between a negative knock-on
influence the ability of the selection stress and performance, such as
committee to decipher who the performance on memory tasks
effect on the strength
top candidates are. For example, if
certain types of candidates respond
(Lupien et al 2005). Others argue
that applying for a new job is
of an employer’s
differently to stressful recruitment stressful enough and that any brand.’
environments, but are equally likely additional deliberately created
to perform well on the job, creating stress is bound to lead to negative
this type of environment will outcomes (Hills 2014).
systematically weed out potentially
great applicants. One might argue that, if stress
reduced everyone’s performance in
Second, the candidate experience is a similar way, a stressful selection
the first impression that a potential process might still elicit the top
hire has of their colleagues and the candidates effectively. However,
organisation’s culture. This will set there is evidence that this is not
expectations about how colleagues the case. Members of stereotyped
interact and is an important groups often perform worse
opportunity to share key company on tests (a naturally stressful
values early (see Box 10). situation) when their identity as
part of that group is highlighted or
Third, people not only talk, but they are primed to think about it;
there are budding online platforms a phenomenon that psychologists
that allow candidates to share their call stereotype threat.
experiences. Thus, a poor candidate
experience can have a negative Classic studies by Steele and
knock-on effect on the strength of Aronson (1995) show the
an employer’s brand, something relevance of stereotype threat
that is inextricably linked to future to test performance of African-
recruitment prospects. Americans. Research building on

Box 10: Interviewers as ambassadors for the organisation

A study by Carless and Imber (2007) demonstrated that, as well as influencing candidates’ levels of anxiety (with
implications for interview performance), the personal characteristics of job interviewers – such as friendliness, job
knowledge, general competence and humour – had significant impacts on how attracted candidates were to the
organisation and their job choice intentions. This is explained in part by signalling theory, which states that, due
to a lack of more robust information, people make judgements about an organisation based on the behaviour of
those they meet. As a potential hire decides whether an organisation is a good fit for them, it is important that
they have an accurate sense of what working there would feel like.

19   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
Box 11: Influencing performance through priming

An example of the power of candidate experience comes from a study on Asian-American women’s performance
in a maths test (Shih et al 1999). In the study, subjects who were asked a gender question before the maths
questions performed worse, and those who were instead asked an ethnicity question performed better. This
suggests that test scores were affected by whether subjects were primed to the stereotype of Asian people
(usually considered good at maths) or women (usually considered worse at maths).

this has shown that stereotypes powerful before walking into an Practitioner tips
can enhance as well as impair interview has significant positive 17 – Avoid creating stereotype
performance (see Box 11).’ effects on performance during both threat in the assessment process
written and verbal components of Avoid situations or forms that
The same applies to performance an interview (Lammers et al 2013). highlight people’s identity of a
tests used in assessment of job Also, changing how someone views stereotyped group (gender, ethnic
candidates, although recent stress from a sign of weakness identity, and so on). Only ask
evidence suggests that such to something that fuels their people demographic information
biases can be overcome or at least motivation to perform well has a at the very end of the full
reduced. long-lasting, positive impact on recruitment and selection process,
performance (Jamieson et al 2010, to ensure that it doesn’t negatively
Understanding that feelings Schmader et al 2008). affect applicants.
of stress and anxiety can be a
symptom of stereotype threat can This evidence confirms that those 18 – Ask for feedback from
help reduce the gap in performance involved in selection should not rejected and accepted candidates
between men and women (Johns et purposefully create stressful Just as it is important to provide
al 2005). Further, exercises that ask environments to test how people feedback to accepted and rejected
applicants to think about the value will perform under duress, as it candidates on their performance,
that they might get for themselves, is neither a useful nor fair way of it is also very useful to receive
and their community, by joining seeing how people will perform on feedback from both accepted and
a specific workforce reduce the the job. Resilience, grit or ‘hardiness’ rejected candidates about the
performance gap between whites may be tested through specifically process. Good topics to consider
and non-whites (BIT n.d.). designed exercises without creating are: their impression of the
generally stressful environments company throughout the process,
More broadly, a recent study (Kobasa 1979). Moreover, their expectations versus the reality
showed that striking a ‘power organisations need to consider if of what was assessed, as well as
pose’ before a social evaluation they are inadvertently contributing their perspective on fairness and
that was meant to simulate a job to stereotype threat, for example utility of each task.
interview process may enhance by asking people to fill in their
performance (Cuddy et al 2012). demographic information at the top
Similarly, priming someone to feel of an application form or test.

20   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

Making robust hiring

decision-making’ (Klein 2011)
suggests that certain types
‘ ... recognising
Much of this report has focused on of professions – for example, the ways in which
how recruiters (and all of us) are firefighters or ICU nurses – may
open to bias and liable to influence particularly benefit from quick our opinions
hiring decisions in ways that may intuitive responses. System 1
not predict the performance of thinking, as it is often referred to in
and thinking
recruits as well as they could.
Because these biases are often
the behavioural literature, may be
useful in situations where you need
systematically bias
subconscious, it is extremely to quickly evaluate whether you are results is the first
difficult for us to control them by safe (see Box 12).
dint of effort. In most cases, being step to improving
an expert also doesn’t solve the The problem is that System 1
problem – we are all hardwired to thinking is susceptible to irrelevant hiring decisions.’
behave in ways that don’t fit with a factors, such as how warm one
standard rational actor model, even feels (see Section 2), over-relying
when we are trained to recognise on one bit of information (‘we
behavioural biases. This message have the same hobby!’) or being
is challenging, and very tempting influenced by the candidate
to ignore, because it calls into you interviewed earlier. In these
question our natural ability to judge situations, a small contextual detail
character or spot talent. But this can have a disproportionate and
makes it no less important. unjustified effect on your overall
judgement of the candidate.
Some may argue that making
a rapid-fire decision need not Further, it is difficult for recruiters
necessarily be a problem. If to make predictions based on
people’s intuition is often correct, previous experience. Unlike
does it matter if the decision is situations where there is one key
made quickly? There is evidence assessed variable (for example, ‘is
that in some contexts, intuitive this a safe situation?’), selection
decisions work just as well as decisions may need to balance
analytical ones when people are a host of different variables,
drawing on deep-seated expertise including: trustworthiness,
(Dane et al 2012). Indeed, the motivation, skills, sociability and
theory of ‘recognition primed so on. Recruitment is also an

Box 12: Thinking, fast and slow (Kahneman 2011)

System 1 is a mode of thinking that is fast, intuitive and emotional and includes heuristics or mental short-cuts.
For example, it’s what happens when we try to solve: 2 + 2.

System 2 is a mode of thinking that is more slow, conscious and effortful. It is triggered when making infrequent
or important decisions. For example, it’s what happens when we try to solve: 371 x 13.

21   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
‘When it comes environment where, typically, it is a job interview, and involving
hard to measure the counterfactual colleagues who have not assessed
to making final – what would have happened candidates in taking a balanced
had you hired someone who your overview of all the relevant data to
decisions, the intuition would have rejected? make the final decision. This will
more data- Intuition can be incredibly
help ensure that hunches based
on personal interactions do not
driven recruiting valuable in some situations, and override the predictive power of
cannot be stripped out of the well-designed assessments.
managers can be, recruitment process entirely.
Nonetheless, recognising the ways Ultimately, however, recruitment
the better.’ in which our opinions and thinking is a two-way process. Assessors
systematically bias results is the and hiring managers need to tease
first step to improving hiring out which candidate is best for
decisions. them. But candidates also need
to consider whether the job and
The overall approach to the company is right for them.
incorporating behavioural insights The recruitment process can go a
in recruitment and selection long way in determining whether
processes is twofold. Firstly, the candidate experience is a
recruiters and hiring managers positive one, and whether it will
should clarify in advance the type lead to a high calibre of recruits in
of applicant that is right for them, the future. The evidence suggests
and explicitly test their outreach moving away from high-stress
efforts and job advert material to environments – not only do they
ensure that they are capturing a disproportionately disadvantage
wide net of candidates and the minorities and other vulnerable
right types of motivation in their groups, they also may signal a
applicants. negative work environment.

Secondly, all forms of assessment The need for more research

should follow structured processes The literature cited above shows
and hiring decisions should be promise: every year, the approach
based firmly on the aggregated to recruitment and selection
scores or data, rather than gut becomes more evidence-based
feeling. The current weight of and more in line with what we
evidence suggests that, in general, know about individual behaviour
structured interviews are preferable and decision-making. Yet, we are
to unstructured interviews. still at the beginning of applying
Assessors of CVs and tests should behavioural insights to recruitment
be as blind as possible to the and selection.
characteristics of the applicant
(gender, age, name, and so on) and For example, we still need a
should read through tests and CVs better understanding of how to
in identical circumstances, such attract individuals with specific
as the same time of day, or in the motivations, as well as more data
same format (for example paper on which intrinsic and extrinsic
versus online). sources of motivation predict long-
term performance and retention.
Certainly when it comes to making There is also limited evidence
final decisions, the more data- about who, in an organisation,
driven recruiting managers can should be involved in recruiting,
be, the better. For this reason, we what their involvement should be,
recommend making a conscious and how recruiter characteristics
effort not to make a decision within affect selection processes. More

22   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
Box 13: HR analytics

HR analytics (also known as HR metrics or people analytics) is a practice whereby people-related datasets are
analysed thoroughly to generate new insights. This usually involves merging different datasets (such as staffing,
benefits, staff survey responses and performance metrics) to tease out what may encourage, for example,
retention in different groups of employees or what may help some employees perform better. Although the
number of organisations with dedicated HR analytics teams is rapidly growing, a key challenge remains to use
high-quality data such as accurate performance metrics (CIPD 2011).

research should help clarify be a separate or even burdensome

what the appropriate balance of additional task for HR managers
decision-making is between staff – it is arguably central to the very
(junior and senior), external agents purpose of the HR function.
and specialised HR teams.
Ultimately, while the focus of
What we do know is that context this report ends on the day of
matters immensely: the type of selection, the journey to improve an
industry matters, the perceptions organisation through its employees
and expectations that both only starts at recruitment. For all
candidates and assessors bring to the rhetoric on a ‘war for talent’,
the process may impact results, and evidence shows that talent is not
the broader environment may alter fixed (Pfeffer and Sutton 2006).
opportunity costs on both sides. Performance on the job, and
thus organisational performance,
As such, there is no substitute depends not only on selecting the
for consistently and rigorously best candidates, but on the systems
evaluating what works for the that an organisation puts in place to
organisation. For example, truly support and develop its staff.
knowing the implications of
different approaches in advertising Thus, while recruitment is
jobs requires evaluation on a case- a complex area, potentially
by-case basis, linking different riddled with bias and with few
approaches to later outcomes, opportunities to quickly see the
such as employee performance, impact of poor decisions, it is one
satisfaction and retention. With component of a much broader
robust data, this can serve as puzzle. A closer engagement with
a feedback loop that allows the behavioural science literature
organisations to improve the can not only help organisations
validity of recruitment methods. hire the people they really need,
but can also guide other areas of
This may sound like a tall order, decision-making, taking us towards
but the past decade has shown a more behaviourally astute HR.
that even the most rigorous
of evaluation methodologies –
randomised control trials – can
be implemented at a low cost in
recruitment and selection. Leading
employers are constantly tweaking
their processes based on what the
data tells them about their people
over time (a practice known as HR
analytics, see Box 13). This need not

23   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
Glossary of terms/behavioural biases

Affinity bias – the tendency to like Egocentric bias – the tendency to

people who are similar to us or consider one’s own characteristics
remind us of someone we like. more heavily than the
characteristics of other people.
Attribute substitution – occurs
when someone has to make a Endowment effect – people tend to
complex judgement and uses an value objects they own more than
easy-to-interpret attribute to make equivalent objects they do not own.
the decision. This may, for example,
lead someone to believe that Groupthink – occurs among groups
people behave in situations such of people where dissent and
as interviews in the same way they deliberation is side-lined in favour
do in ‘real life’ – causing them to of harmony and conformity; where
misinterpret signs of anxiety. individuals suppress their own
opinions to not upset the perceived
Availability heuristic – when trying group consensus.
to decide how likely certain events
are, they are heavily influenced Halo effect – describes how
by the ease with which these judgements about some aspects of
events come to mind (Tversky and an object may influence how other
Kahneman 1973). aspects of an object are judged
(Nisbett and Wilson 1977).
Base rate neglect – people are
more influenced by individual Loss aversion – people demand
examples than general far more to give up an object they
information, so tend to ignore already possess than they would
statistical information that pay to acquire it. More generally, it
describes the set from which a shows how we are psychologically
specific case is drawn. wired to prefer avoiding losses
rather than acquiring similar gains
Cognitive load – the ‘strain’ put (Kahneman and Tversky 1979).
on someone’s brain: for example
by trying to remember a long Myopic bias – individuals tend to
sequence of random numbers. be focused on the present and
immediate future rather than the
Confirmation bias – the tendency near or far future.
to search for, or interpret,
information that confirms one’s Optimism bias – the belief that
preconceptions (Nickerson 1998). ‘good things will happen to me,
bad things to others’.
Decision fatigue – decision-making
depletes cognitive resources (that Out-group homogeneity – the
is, ‘mental energy’) so after each perception that everyone from a
decision we have a little less left for different group than our own (for
the next decision. example, in their ethnicity or social
class) is similar.

24   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection
Peak-end effect – a classic finding Sunk cost fallacy – people stick
from behavioural economics is that with projects they should not
judgements of experiences are because they have already invested
disproportionately influenced by non-recoverable costs. This is a
the peak moment and ending of form of commitment bias, where
that experience (Kahneman 2000). individuals make bad decisions in
the present to justify decisions they
Self-serving bias – the tendency have made in the past (Staw 1976).
to believe that success is linked to
people’s own characteristics but System 1 – a mode of thinking that
failure is linked to external factors. is fast, intuitive and emotional. For
example, it’s what happens when
Signalling theory – examines we try to solve: 2 + 2.
communication between
individuals, focusing especially on System 2 – a mode of thinking
the way communication influences that is more slow, conscious and
judgements: communicating or effortful. It is triggered when
withholding a piece of information making infrequent or important
can convey a signal to the receiver decisions. For example, it’s what
of that information. happens when we try to solve:
371 x 13.
Social desirability bias – the
tendency to give a perceived Temporal discounting – our
socially desirable response to a tendency to prioritise the short
question, instead of a response term over the long term.
that accurately reflects an
individual’s true feelings.

Social norms – the common values,

behaviours and expectations of a
particular group.

Status quo bias – the tendency

to stick to the status quo course
of action or avoid making a
decision entirely (Samuelson and
Zeckhauser 1988). Diverting from
the status quo seems riskier than
sticking to the current situation.

Stereotype threat – a phenomenon

where members of a stereotyped
group often perform worse on
tests (a naturally stressful situation)
when their identity as part of that
group is highlighted or they are
primed to think about it.

25   A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

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