Cognitive biases in recruitment and people management

Michalina ChmielewskaMichalina Chmielewska
5 min read
Cognitive biases in recruitment and people management
RecruitingCognitive Bias
Cognitive biases in recruitment and people management
Imagine the following recruitment scenario: you are interviewing two prospects for a position on your team. Both candidates have the same skill set and fit the company culture, but one of their careers started out almost exactly the same way as yours.

They also happen to love cycling and have spent their most recent holidays in your beloved Italy. You are going to choose this one, right?

You may have succumbed to a phenomenon termed by psychologists as cognitive bias. We, as people, do it every day without even noticing. However, when it comes to recruitment and people management, it’s necessary to be at least conscious of what’s happening. It will make the decision-making process more reasonable.

Some effects you should know

The case described above is called similarity bias. It means that you will score someone higher because they are similar to you in some ways. At interviews, recruiters often start with a short story about the company and tell you who they are looking for or who their ideal candidate is, but at the same time, they can give the candidate many tips for the “about me” part. If the candidate really wants this job, they will likely tell you things they feel are in common with your description and skip the ones you might dislike. However, there is a solution. Simply reverse the order! Leave talking about the company until after the candidate has shared their story, needs and experience.

One of the best-known biases is the halo effect — meaning you are more likely to think positively or negatively about someone based on first impressions and focused on one specific trait. That can often happen when a new employee joins the team. An embarrassing joke during the first meeting, making simple mistakes at the beginning or having a little too much to drink at the company party. Oh well! They seem totally incompetent, ignorant, and couldn’t possibly be a good workmate! Or, take into account the other scenario. They bring cake to the office, have a charismatic and calming voice, or do a great job on their first task. Your brain immediately tells you that a bright future awaits you. Be mindful of this. The halo effect, alongside the serial position effect, can highly influence your perception and be a barrier to seeing the broader perspective of the whole personality and competencies. Stress or former bad habits may be the cause of a negative first impression in a new job.

Another notable topic is the effect of the sunk cost fallacy. It comes from economic psychology but is also observable in the recruitment sector. People tend to stick with their decisions because it has cost a lot, even when there is no chance of improvement. Companies will continue to pay for someone who, frankly speaking, isn’t up to the job, instead of firing them because the recruitment process was expensive or they have already invested too much time and energy. Months and months go by with the same problem. It is sometimes better to lose now so as to succeed later.

All of this can be correlated with loss aversion. We are afraid of committing to decisions without a 100% guarantee of success. We get stuck at a point that is not entirely satisfying and could be better under other conditions. We often hear “but it’s stable,” “it’s a solid situation” or “it’s better than nothing” when it comes to changing jobs, or when promoting someone we are not fully sure of because of a lack of experience. Of course, something can go wrong, but, you know, no risk, no reward :)

Another of the most well-known biases is fundamental attribution error, which says that we have a tendency to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Although, when it comes to judging ourselves, it’s the complete opposite. For example, there is a problem in the team because one colleague is not as engaged in the project as the others and suddenly requests a holiday before the deadline. The first thoughts of the rest of the team members might be “How could they?! That shows unprofessional behavior and selfishness”. Perhaps no one noticed that the onboarding to this project was too weak, they may have never met their colleagues in person, didn’t know about the deadline, or didn’t realize the importance of it, and so on. Some advice to protect yourself from falling into that trap is to always think about how it would be to stand in their shoes. It’s about getting perspective. Only then can we be much more understanding and have a complete view of the circumstances.

Stay aware

Our brain is constantly trying to shorten our thought processes, and that’s totally normal — it saves energy and time. As mentioned at the beginning, we cannot always control how we think, but we can at least try to understand the process. Such mechanisms save time, although there is a potential cost associated with it — the high cost of making a recruitment/HR mistake. This risk is worth taking into consideration. Greater awareness of cognitive biases serves to improve one’s professional and personal development along with our competencies.

Gaining a broader view of the situation can bring more success, help to solve problems less emotionally, and in the end, manage people better.

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