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Insights from the Psychology of Hiring

A few insights for job seekers from the other side of the hiring desk.

The following was originally posted to the Psychology Today blog Neuronarrative.

I want to combine two worlds in this post to produce something that I hope will be useful. Outside of writing for science and technology pubs, I've also been a marketing and communications manager at a few organizations over the last couple decades, roles that have included recruiting, interviewing and hiring staff.

I'd venture to guess that I've evaluated a couple thousand resumes and interviewed several hundred people in the last 18 or so years. I've recruited new grads on college campuses, mid-career professionals, and 30 year industry veterans. This range of experience has given me a few valuable insights into the hiring process, and since I'm also a psych wonk, I've naturally filtered my experience through the lens of psychology research. With the economy slowly healing, and jobs gradually opening, it seems like a good time to write about the psychology of hiring.

From start to finish, hiring is a confidence game

When you're seeking employment with an organization, try to place yourself on the other side of the desk and think about what your greatest concerns would be when evaluating candidates. One of the first that will likely come to mind is risk of making a bad hire. Every hiring manager I know feels the anxiety of risk when evaluating job candidates, because if they make a bad hiring decision it will reflect directly on them. Not to mention, if the hiring manager is also the staff manager (in other words, you'll be working for that person) they will have to face a daily reminder that they put the wrong person in the job and will probably have to let them go sooner than later.

We know that risk aversion is an in-built human tendency (and a strong one for most of us), and we know that compounding factors-like those a hiring manager must face-amplify risk aversion, in some cases to the point of decision paralysis. As a job candidate, your first job is to lessen the hiring manager's risk aversion by providing reasons, both spoken and unspoken, why hiring you really isn't such a risky proposition. When you achieve that goal, you'll then and only then be able to move into the phase of helping make the hiring manager's argument for bringing you on board.

If I'm the hiring manager, the best way you can mitigate my risk aversion is by showing me how comfortably confident you are: that you have the skills, experience, interpersonal acumen and other traits required to handle a difficult position in my organization. Said another way, best available evidence so far indicates that you're targeting the right job. To not provide you an opportunity to compete for this position would be pure, shortsighted stupidity on my part.

I'll be evaluating you at this level in your cover letter and resume, in how you conduct yourself on a phone interview, and how you handle yourself during the in-person interview (if you are selected for one). This may sound picky, but I'll even evaluate your voicemail greeting (I've found that people often overlook voicemail, but if you are seriously trying to get a job I'm expecting that you're going to present yourself well across the board. Your voicemail greeting is a proxy for you and it contains information, from the tone of your voice to what you chose to record on your behalf).

Remember, hiring managers are humans with quite legitimate reasons to fear risk. We're going to look in every nook to find something that might endanger us. If you give me a reason to doubt that you're at least potentially a low-risk hire, don't expect me to ignore it. At this stage we're co-evaluating and no one owes any favors.

A word of caution:please don't confuse confidence with cockiness. A seasoned hiring manager can tell the difference in a nanosecond. If you come across as cocky, my assumption is that you are hiding deficiencies behind a confidence facade, and I won't choose to interview you beyond a phone screen. In my experience, cocky job candidates are the biggest risk of all - even bigger than inexperienced ones, because they are almost always wrong for the job they're seeking. Confident candidates, on the other hand, know their level, and they're strategic about which positions they target. They understand that it's better to make a strong showing for a job they can do well than talk themselves into a job they really can't do, and will likely be fired from after too much strife on everyone's part.

What I know about interviews, and what you should know I know

Every year, studies from researchers in university business programs-from Harvard to Stanford-are published ranking the predictors of job performance. The worst predictor year after year? Interviews. How well someone interviews correlates remarkably poorly with success on the job. The reason has less to do with job candidates and more to do with the poor interviewing skills of hiring managers. Interviewers often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get a "sense" of the other person, and to get there they ask several vague, interviewish questions (So, what do you want to be doing in five years?). A shrewd job seeker knows how to bat those softballs out of the park. After an hour of squishy questions and chatter, the candidate has no problem coming across as "it."

But what we know is that those sorts of interviews aren't really geared towards evaluating potential job performance, but rather towards determining if the candidate is similar to the interviewer. This is sometimes called the "affinity effect." If you're an all-star in interviews, you're probably great at making me think you think like I do, and if you convince me of that, then I feel more at ease about the decision because I assume that your thinking and mine are already aligned. Bad assumption. The research argues otherwise.

What I should be doing in the interview is finding out if your past performance evidences potential for solid future performance. Just a few well-placed questions will drive to the answer. The only relatively reliable indicator of job performance is what you've already done. During the course of this discussion, I am also going to evaluate you at an interpersonal level (because let's face it, no one wants to hire someone they don't like; personality is a factor in the equation, and I'll speak to it in a moment). But if I allow your personality skills to overshadow shallow past performance, I'm not doing my job and we'll both be sorry eventually.

Admittedly, and unfortunately, this puts entry-level candidates at a disadvantage. But if you're targeting a position at the right level, your performance in other areas (how well you did in school, organizations you joined, commendations you received from instructors) will supplement the hiring manager's decision. My suggestion to you is to come prepared. Hiring managers want to see evidence of what you've done, and if you've just graduated it's in your best interest to assemble a portfolio of accomplishments to put on the table. When I've interviewed entry-level candidates who just graduated from college, I always ask if they can provide samples of work they are proud of. Even if they don't bring these to the interview, I've sometimes asked that they email samples to me afterwards. The point is, show me. Taking the initiative to prepare a portfolio ahead of time says volumes all by itself.

Be happy, even while you worry

A few words on personality: don't ever let your nerves or insecurity stymie your sense of humor. If you can display comfortable confidence, which includes a strong sense of humor, you'll edge out candidates that for whatever reason can't manage a smile or occasional laughter amidst the questions. Here's one big reason why: people evaluating candidates for high pressure jobs know that some people handle pressure well while others crack (we've all seen examples of both). If you're wound tight in the interview, guess which category the hiring manager is putting you in as the minutes tick by. If you show that you can gracefully handle difficult questions and do so with a comfortable smile and can even insert a funny quip here and there, you're scoring major credibility points.

Granted, we're all liable to get an especially hard ass interviewer now and again who lacks a sense of humor and probably won't value it from a candidate - but for my time and money, that's probably not a place you'll want to work anyway. If that person is high up enough to make hiring decisions, you're getting a peek into what the organizational culture is like. Run don't walk.

The fact that there really aren't "perfect candidates" won't stop hiring managers from looking for one

We all know that no one is "perfect" for any job (or anything else, for that matter). The best prepared candidate for any job will come up short in some way under scrutiny. But, again, try to put yourself on the other side of the desk and imagine that you have 15 candidates to evaluate for one job. Let's say that 10 of them are bad fits from the start, so you're left with five in the general neighborhood of what you're looking for. How are you going to parse the differences between them? There's really only one way to start the process, and that's with a benchmark of, for lack of a better word, "perfect fit."

It's the same with any accomplishment (and make no mistake, making a good hire is also a big accomplishment for a hiring manager). Someone sets the bar of success at a high enough level that reaching it is worth the effort, and truly is an accomplishment. The five candidates left in our scenario are all looking at the same bar, and it is set quite high. It should be, because being chosen to fill a job is no light matter. As the candidate, you're about to make a commitment that could very well last years. None of the five are perfect for the job, we know that upfront, but it's the hiring manager's role to determine which one is closest to perfect. If I'm making the hiring decision, I treat my role as a researcher seeking the best solution for my problem (job opening). Someone among the five is the best match, and it is in everyone's best interest for me to figure out who.

Personally, I've faced a few hiring decisions in which two candidates are equally "perfect" and it comes down to minor differences. In the end, even those differences may be too insignificant, and a hiring manager may have to simply go with their gut. If you're the one candidate not chosen under those conditions, it's a tough outcome to swallow. I've been there. But take some comfort knowing that if you came that close, it's simply a matter of when, not if, you'll secure a good position somewhere else. I hope this post has offered a few suggestions that help you nail it.

David DiSalvo is a science, technology and culture writer for Scientific American Mind, Mental Floss and other publications, and the writer behind the blog, Neuronarrative, which reaches 100,000 readers in more than 200 countries every month. He has appeared on CNN’s Headline News, and his work is referenced in news outlets worldwide. David is also an award-winning public outreach and education specialist with nearly 18 years of experience communicating complex technical messages with palatable prose. He has served as a consulting research analyst and communications specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other public and private organizations in the U.S. and abroad, spanning from Boston to Beijing.He is feverishly working on his first non-fiction book, tentatively titled, What Makes Your Brain Happy, and Why You Should Do the Opposite (Prometheus Books, 2011). He lives in Florida with his wife and three children.