Last reviewed 7 January 2019

Gudrun Limbrick looks at a recent survey that has found that “gut feeling” is still the most common reason for hiring one person rather than another, despite all the tools available to help with recruitment and considers whether this represents a real problem or the best way of finding a suitable team member.

Recruitment is one of the most expensive processes a company goes through. It is also one of the most risky. While premises and stock can be checked for their physical properties and guarantees of quality written up, people are much less easy to assess with any degree of certainty and there are certainly no guarantees of how any individual will perform. Add to this that any individual recruited has to slot into a pre-existing team, which brings a whole range of different unknowns as the interactions between the team members are dependent on myriad intangible and unknown human qualities.

For decades, we have been attempting to take people out of the recruitment equation as far as may be possible. Steps, such as asking all candidates to complete an application form, answer the same standardised questions at interviews and undertake psychometric testing are all attempts to push personality to the back and bring forth scoreable, standard, work-related attributes from the potential new recruit. These steps also have the effect, when done properly, of lessening the impact of the personalities of the recruiters. Only asking standardised questions, and increasing the importance of test results, limits the extent to which the interviewers’ own personalities affect the recruitment process.

Relying on gut feeling

While there is a general consensus that recruitment processes have improved in recent years, with greater equality and standardisation being brought to the process, recent research suggests that it may be too soon for recruiters to give themselves too much of a pat on the back. Recruitment website, Indeed UK, asked 1000 UK recruiters about what influenced their recruitment decisions; 28% — more than one in four — said that their recruitment decisions were primarily down to “gut feeling”. Another 23% said that relevant experience was the main driver in their decisions, while only 8% said their decisions were based mainly on qualifications.

With fewer than 10% of recruiters putting the most weight onto qualifications held by the candidates, we can only hope that this is largely down to a low number of the posts in question actually warranting relevant qualifications, rather than an absolute dismissal of the importance of qualifications that people spend so much time and money achieving. Looking at the accomplishment of relevant qualifications is, of course, one of the ways in which we judge people by their absolute suitability for a role rather than their personalities.

We are only human

Sometimes through the written word, but definitely when we meet face to face, we ooze little signs from which other people may make judgments about who we are and what we can do. These signs can be the way we look, the manner in which we are dressed, how we hold ourselves, what we say and the tone in which we say it, how often we smile or frown, how confident we seem and that ever-intangible factor — how much charisma we have. Some factors an individual can control — such as how often we smile, how we hold ourselves or how we are dressed — but others are simply part of who we are and there is little we can do to change them.

The thing about human beings is that we are genetically wired to pick up on these signs and signals and interpret them in the best way for us. It is exactly these signs and signals which enable us to pick a partner, or decide who is a friend and who is a foe. So important are these abilities to make judgments about other people that we cannot switch it off. As soon as we see someone, we make our initial judgments about their worth in our lives and we continue to add to, or perhaps modify, this judgment as we continue to interact. As recruiters, we are picking up these signs whether or not we want to. It can be impossible to separate these very human, gut feelings from the recruitment score pads on the desk in front of us.

An added factor in picking up signals which can add to a recruiter’s “gut feeling” is social media. More and more, recruiters are going to social media to see what they can learn about potential new recruits. However, it is arguable that photographs on Instagram, or comments on Facebook are simply adding to the ”gut feeling” fodder rather than giving any scoreable, standardisable information that is genuinely pertinent to recruitment. Research by TotalJobs, the job search website, found that 74% of employers are using social media to research candidates as part of the recruitment process.

Changing the focus

The elimination of gut feeling from the recruitment process is not easy. It would be naïve to think that it could be eradicated altogether. However, reducing the importance of the interview is a key step towards it. An application with standardised questions is a good starting point, followed by having only standardised questions in any interview, with perhaps testing (asking them to produce a sample piece of work or give a presentation) taking the focus away from discussions. Asking questions about carrying out tasks, rather than asking people to discuss their own attributes, can help further. This enables gut feeling to take a step back in importance with more easily comparable scenarios coming to the fore.

There are, of course, some feelings which, if they are allowed to play a part in a recruitment process, will take it outside of what it legal. Some “gut feelings” can lead recruiters to avoid recruiting particular groups of people. If ever those feelings turn out to be based on age, gender, disability, religion or race, this has to be eradicated from the recruitment process immediately as it could lead to illegal discrimination under the Equality Act.

Being realistic

Aside from these very serious issues, it could be argued that gut feeling is actually a valuable part of the recruitment process. We employ people to play a role in a team and interact with other human beings positively in a way that is going to be effective for the company. To an extent, it could be argued that this is very dependent on people getting on, in a very human way, and that they need to be similar in order to do this. This, however, is a very intangible concept and possibly hard to prove.

The key factor in effective recruitment is being realistic. Acknowledging that gut feeling is going to play a part in the recruitment process means that it can be taken into consideration. Similarly, acknowledging the importance of creating a cohesive team will determine the extent to which the personality (of both the candidates and the pre-existing team members) will actually be taken on board as a factor of significance.

Without this level of realism about the recruitment process, there can be a failure to focus on what is actually the most important factor in seeking the ideal candidate (such as previous experience, knowledge about the tasks in hand and so forth) and instead the recruiter is in danger of fooling themselves that they are being scientific when they are actually just picking people who are most like them, or the most charismatic.