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Speed recruiting: The first five minutes

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John Maxted, managing director at specialist HR search and selection consultancy Digby Morgan reports on why intuition has its part to play in the interview process afterall.


How many times have HR professionals been told by the line manager that it isn’t necessary to conduct an hours interview – afterall you can tell if a candidate is right in the first five minutes, can’t you? For years HR has been trying to convince line managers that they are wrong and a thorough interview is necessary.

Well, there’s an increasingly vocal school of thought that says that maybe they’re not so wrong after all. There is a persuasive amount of research showing that the gut feel or intuitive hunch about a candidate may be as predictable of success as the long interview.

Consider the times when intuition has guided you. I freely confess that whilst we employ extremely rigorous selection criteria when recruiting on behalf of clients, when it comes to recruiting for my own firm it is often my intuition that I rely on. I can recall many situations when intuition has told me it was the right move to hire a particular candidate even though they didn’t have the best experience and career history.

I can also recount occasions when I’ve been persuaded to take a candidate against my intuitive judgement and they didn’t work out. Some might say that this is just the halo effect or self-fulfilling expectations coming into play and that may well have something to contribute.

However, the fact remains that intuition is a powerful force – especially in recruitment situations – and new research would suggest that what is actually happening is that we are tapping into an ancient ability to sum up people in the first few minutes – or even seconds – of meeting them.

Experimental psychologists at Harvard University set out to examine the non-verbal aspects of good teaching and made a short videotape of teachers in the first few minutes of their lecture. They then had outside observers look at the tapes with the sound off and rate the effectiveness of the teachers by their expressions and physical cues.

The observers, presented with a ten second silent video clip, had no difficulty rating the teachers on a fifteen-item checklist of personality traits. In fact, when the clips were cut further to just five seconds, the ratings were the same. They were even the same when just two seconds of videotape were shown.

This sounds unbelievable but consider your own experience. When we make a snap judgement on meeting someone, it is just that! And, we are able to articulate just what it is we have decided as a result of the meeting.

The psychologist’s next step was to compare those snap judgements of teacher effectiveness with evaluations made, after a full term of classes, by students of the same teachers. The correlation between the two was astoundingly high. A person watching a two-second silent video clip of a teacher he has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who sits in the teacher’s class for a whole term.

Of even more interest to HR professionals is a comparable experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of Toledo. They selected two people to act as interviewers and trained them in the proper procedures and techniques of giving an effective job interview.

They then had them carry out interviews and evaluated the candidates on a number of criteria. Originally, the intention of the study was to find out whether applicants who had been coached in certain non-verbal behaviours designed to ingratiate themselves with their interviewers – like mimicking the interviewer’s physical gestures or posture – would get better ratings than applicants who behaved naturally.

As it turns out, they didn’t. But then another student decided that she wanted to use the interview videotapes and the evaluations that had been collected to test the adage that ‘the handshake is everything.’

She shot fifteen seconds of film showing the applicant as they initially met the interviewer. Then she got a series of strangers to rate the applicants based on the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used. Once more, against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers.

On nine out of the eleven traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers predicted the outcome of the interview. The correlations were very high.

Interestingly, in an adaptation of the experiment, it was found that when the assessors were asked to ‘think hard’ about the ratings of candidates, this substantially affected the accuracy of their views. This does not bode well for our insistence that interviewers provide a clear rationale for their ratings!

The leaders of the experiments believe that this power of first impressions is a particular kind of pre-rational ability for making searching judgments about others and that this ability probably stems from the oldest part of our brain that has served this function since ancient times. The ability to make these split second judgements has been part of our survival strategy

Here at Digby Morgan we have been working very closely with Jan Hills, a consultant. Jan runs her own business working with companies to transform their HR function and is a leading practitioner and proponent of this concept.

With her knowledge of the above scenario, and the experience of failing to persuade line managers to give up their reliance on intuition, Jan decided to make some fairly controversial adaptations to training she was conducting for a client.

She had recently developed a success profile for the client that showed the beliefs of the most successful employees. She had evidence that focusing on an employee’s beliefs, especially in key areas of customer service and teamwork, was predictive of success on the job.

As she was conducting this recruitment in China, she also knew the likelihood of finding candidates with the right experience was limited. So, she decided to tap into the manager’s intuition and to use this to select the best candidate alongside the beliefs from the success profile.

Firstly, she conducted a couple of fun test exercises and got managers to look at a number of pictures asking them to convey what they deduced about the people from the images.

They were amazingly accurate down to spotting the one person who was a criminal and was not to be trusted. She then got them to predict whether their partner was thinking of someone they liked or disliked. Again they were able to predict accurately. They were usually unaware how they were making the distinction.

Indeed, they became less accurate if they tried too hard and attempted to consciously analyse the facial expressions of their partner. In reality they were reading minute changes in facial muscles although they weren’t aware, however, of how they were making this distinction. This is an example of implicit learning whereby they are not consciously aware of the changes their brain has noticed.

Having convinced the managers that she believed – and they recognised – some of their intuitive skills, Jan then helped them unbundle the signals they received when their intuition was at work. In particular, she trained them to identify when the signal they were getting about a candidate was positive and when it was negative.

With these signals firmly identified Jan then gave them a format, very like a structured interview to use with candidates. The trick was that if they received a positive intuitive signal about a candidate they were to use the format to seek counter examples.

In other words, they should do everything they could to prove their intuitive reaction wrong. The reverse process was used if the intuitive signals were negative. She also ensured that candidates were interviewed by more than one manager and results compared. In the training Jan used real candidates whom the managers had never met so that the intuitive insight was valid. The managers loved the training and became ‘hooked’ on testing their intuition.

Back at the coalface the client’s results were impressive. Managers were much more willing to go through the whole assessment procedure and took great pride in verifying their intuition. The quality of candidates employed, as measured by post employment assessment and probation evaluations, has also increased markedly as have the client’s measures of customer service.

And, back here at Digby Morgan, we are working with Jan Hills to train our consultants in similar methods. In addition to offering clients our usual rigorous assessment methodology, we can develop and exploit our consultant’s intuition to ensure it is enhancing and not biasing recommendations to clients.

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