Do We Have a “Last-mile Problem” in the Hiring Process?

interviewIn telecommunications/technology, the processes last used to connect the end customer to a network is called the “last-mile problem”; it’s considered a problem because this last link has proven to be disproportionately difficult and expensive to solve.

I believe a very similar problem existed in hiring before the tech folks needed to come up with the name. I also believe the problem continues to negatively impact hiring decisions in 2013.

I first observed this challenge in 1969 as an ambitious student determined to become a CEO at an early age. I decided the way to tilt the playing field in my favor was to first find out how top executives were actually chosen. I solicited the assistance of my psych professor who agreed to help devise a survey of the Fortune 500 on how they choose their top executives. We listed all of the selection methodologies in use at the time, ranging from the least to most predictive of success when choosing such candidates.

To everyone’s astonishment we got more than 20 percent response. My professors were now happily giving me a hand in analyzing the results. But after all the Chi Square and other tests were completed, the only significant finding was that a substantial majority of respondents were relying on the interview (the least predictive method) to make this important decision. The most predictive method at the time, the “peer assessment,” was barely visible in the results. And even more discouraging from my perspective, the decision maker’s criteria were heavily weighted toward choosing those they perceived to be like themselves.

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I decided then and there that in addition to working smart and hard, I needed to adopt the techniques designed to create this perception. The very methods that successful sales professionals had been using since time began.

In the 44 years following that first glimpse into decision making at the top, I have remained a student of the subject. Among the most useful things I discovered was an interesting explanation for our preference for choosing people like our selves. Anthropologists believe our ancestors needed to quickly distinguish friends from foes in order to survive in a dangerous environment. Because of this, behavioral scientists suggest we are “hard-wired” to unconsciously favor those we perceive to be like ourselves. Which again, explains why successful sales people spend so much time finding common interests before making their pitch. There is also psychological research demonstrating the importance of non-verbal synchrony in creating trust.

Today scientists and hiring professionals in our industry have perfected very effective instruments for predicting future success of new-hires at every level. The most recent offerings include computer-generated algorithms and self-adjusting machine intelligence tools (IBM’s Watson and others) that are beginning to help us identify the best candidates.

Nevertheless, my anecdotal observation in a variety of industries is that when it comes to selecting key personnel, the last-mile problem persists. Regardless of the more predictive tools being used to narrow the field, the last-mile in the hiring process continues to heavily depend on the interview — and from my observation we are continuing to choose those we perceive to be like ourselves. If this is the case, it is a disservice to the candidate and employer alike.

As a humanist, I am not suggesting that hiring decisions should be made solely on the basis of a profile or algorithm. Rather, I am suggesting we ask ourselves: Is unconscious human bias creating a last-mile problem in our hiring processes? And if so, how we can correct it?

MORE: Getting the Candidate You Hired

Wil Beach
Wil Beach is managing director, HRO at De Bellas & Co. He can be reached at wbeach (at) debellashro (dot) com.

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