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The dark side of recruitment

Madan Pillutla’s research pinpoints intriguing motives behind apparently transparent hiring decisions

By Madan Pillutla and Kathy Brewis 07 February 2017

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So you need a new team member. You advertise the position, listing the various skills and experience the person must bring to the role. At the interview, you try to determine how good a fit the candidates are. And then you hire the person who you believe will do the best job… or do you?

Madan Pillutla, London Business School Term Chair Professor of Organisational Behaviour, says the truth about hiring decisions is far more complex than we imagine. The interview process is notoriously unreliable as a predictor of success, but why?

Previous research has largely focused on how stereotypes we hold can lead us to discriminate for or against people. Now Professor Pillutla and his colleagues have identified another mechanism that muddies the waters of recruitment – a subtle bias that people are blissfully unaware of and that even the fairest, most well-intentioned person is prone to.

“People don’t discriminate blindly. They look to see what’s in it for them, for their own self-interest.”

It turns out that when you are grilling your interview candidate about their previous roles, interests and abilities, what you’re actually doing – alongside assessing if they can do the job – is working out if they will be a help or a hindrance to your own chances of career success.

“If you perceive that they are competing for the same scarce resources as you, if they turn out to be very good at the central dimensions on which this job is being measured, it might hurt your chance of getting a promotion,” says Professor Pillutla. In that instance, he claims, you’re less likely to hire that individual. 

“Most people would be aghast by this idea! If you said, ‘You rejected this person because they are potential competition for you’ they would deny it. This is because people are not privy to their own motivations. It’s rare that someone will say, ‘This person’s going to steal my job.’ It’s more likely they’ll say, ‘They look okay but there are a few problems with…’ The very fact that they’re looking for problems could indicate hidden competitive motives.”

Will the new hire help me get ahead?


Professor Pillutla and his colleagues had examined what he calls the “production competition dilemma” in the past, when he carried out an experiment based on the television game show The Weakest Link. In this context, competitors require competent people to stay in the game in order to jointly build up a pot of money – but towards the end, there’s a behavioural shift where participants view competent people as a threat. 

“There’s a certain amount of strategising going on – often a strong person gets eliminated at that stage. The others know that in the final round only one person is going to get the money: do they want to compete with this person for it? They don’t, so they eliminate them beforehand. And it’s the same in organisations.”

Professor Pillutla’s latest research, carried out with Sun Young Lee of UCL, Marko Pitesa of the University of Maryland and Stefan Thau of INSEAD, examined how stereotypes affect decisions. He says: “The literature in the past has always said we tend to hire people who are similar to ourselves. What we’re saying is: that’s true, but it depends on whether the other person is hindering or facilitating our own goals.”

One widely held stereotype is that Asian men are great at maths. “Supposing there’s a job that requires maths skills and I need this person to do cooperate with me, going forwards. In that instance, bringing in the best person for the job will be based on my stereotype: an Asian man is going to be good at maths, let’s bring him in. Now, if I'm an Asian man, it may seem as if I’ve hired him because he’s like me. But the truth is, I’ve hired him because I think he will be helpful to me.

“Then we flipped the interdependence: if the new hire does a job well it will hurt my chances of progress. In that case, I might think, 'I don’t want another Asian man. I’ll hire the white man because he'll be less good at maths.' So in one instance I've preferred an Asian man as a co-worker and in another I've preferred a non-Asian man. It’s based on stereotypes but what’s also kicked in is my assessment of my self-interest.” 

“But I’m a nice person”


Other stereotypes also feature – younger people are perceived as more creative than older people, for example. And it isn’t restricted to interview situations, it turns out. It comes into play in all sorts of social interactions. 

Even nice people reveal in studies that they like someone more when the other person is useful to them. This isn’t something they’re aware of at a conscious level. Don’t think of it as nastiness, says Professor Pillutla; it’s just how we’ve evolved.

“It’s the way humans are programmed. If I convince myself I like hanging out with the people who can help me achieve my goals, that’s how the goal gets achieved. If your most salient goal is losing weight, you like people who go exercising with you.”

Professor Pillutla admits he was stunned when he first came across this phenomenon. “It seems manipulative, transactional, instrumental. But these tendencies are in us.” And it could have a negative effect both on the individual and on the organisation when the best person for the job doesn’t get hired.

What can be done to counteract this unconscious element in hiring decisions? Past research has suggested methods for people to avoid stereotyping and treat people as individuals rather than as a category. Professor Pillutla suggests adding to these recommendations by accounting for biases arising from individual motives.

Firstly, individuals could think consciously about the nature of future interdependencies and how this might be affecting their decision. “For leaders it’s about being aware of their own motives. They can then correct for these motives when evaluating individuals.” 

Tone down the competitive vibe


Secondly, at an organisational level, companies would benefit from lessening the competitive culture. “Foster cooperative interdependencies and people will want to pick the best people. If your success is my success and we see our fate as interwoven, then I will try to bring in the best person rather than fearing they might make me look bad in comparison.

"Organisations should create incentive regimes that are not so sharp that they only reward one person or the other – and incentives that don’t strongly enforce competition between people.”

He also suggests that the person who hires the new member of staff has some responsibility for that person’s performance. “It would be beneficial to have a document trail detailing who recruited whom and a systematic look at people’s decisions: have they been making decisions that are right for the organisation? 

“If the hiring decisions people make ultimately reflect back on them, it’s in their interests to hire the most talented applicant – even if there’s a risk that they might ultimately outshine them.”

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