Why using your “gut” for hiring decisions can make you sick

Why using your “gut” for hiring decisions can make you sick

You’ve probably come across a person who is convinced that they can make a great hiring decision based on “gut feel.” They can tell, just from a casual conversation or a quick interview, whether or not someone can do the job. There’s an intangible feeling, almost a sixth sense, telling them what to do.

Maybe you are that person. We were surprised to see in a recent survey we conducted of nearly 600 HR professionals from around the globe, that 32% of them felt that going with their gut provided them with the best hiring outcomes.

Those gut decisions could be setting them up for a case of indigestion. Here’s why.


To understand the pitfalls of hiring based on gut feelings or instinct, I think it helps to understand what’s actually happening.

In his 2006 book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argued that we should trust our instincts because that feeling is actually our subconscious mind processing information the conscious mind may not even be aware of and informing our decisions. That opinion has gained a lot of support in recent years and it sounds logical.

Daniel Bor, a cognitive neuro-scientist at the University of Sussex, suggested Gladwell got it wrong, though. In a 2012 article in Wired magazine, Bor argues that trusting our gut favors “short-term selfish goals at the expense of more enlightened choices, with global warming a case in point. Evolution has gifted us the most exquisite and complex information-processing machine in the known universe. But the true power of the human brain is only revealed when we cast a skeptical eye over our automatic choices and invest effort in consciously, deliberately understanding the optimum solution.”

He also suggests that once we accept a decision from the subconscious mind, we put our conscious mind to work to make this, potentially poor, decision a reality.

Hiring by gut

Let’s look at this last point in a hiring situation. What we call first-impression bias, that feeling you get when you first meet someone, is something we all experience. We can’t avoid it. The primitive part of our brain wants to immediately assess a situation to determine risk; it’s an evolutionary fight or flight leftover.

What the untrained interviewer – or even the experienced interviewer who has too much confidence in their gut – then does is spend the rest of the interaction trying to confirm that bias. Putting too much emphasis on responses that confirm and not enough on responses that refute what their gut is telling them. Likely not even realizing they’re doing it.

So, how do you avoid getting sucked into this trap?

The first step is understanding what information you are making this gut decision based on. At The McQuaig Institute, we split out the information available to assess a candidate into three levels.

Level one is what the candidate appears to be able to do, and this includes appearance, mannerisms, expressiveness, presence, etc. Level two is what the candidate can do, and this is basically their resume, all the facts and figures. The last level is what the candidate will do once you hire them. This includes their attitudes and beliefs, level of self-motivation, capability to learn and temperament.

We go deeper into the three levels here. For our purposes in this post, it’s important to realize that our first impressions are based on level one and we typically look to justify that gut decision using level two information. We very rarely look to level three, but that is where you’ll really be able to discern how a candidate will perform on the job. And it can’t be done subconsciously. You have to work to get that information. Our recommended way to get at this information is found here.

To avoid your gut feeling turning into a stomach ache, the key is to be aware of your bias. Know that it will be there and use the tools and data at your disposal to gather the information you need to make an informed decision:

  •          Structured behavioral interviewing processes
  •          Proper probing methods
  •          Pre-employment testing
  •          Proper screening processes
  •          Interview training for hiring managers
  •          Reference Checking

Is your gut always wrong?

No. Sometimes intuition is a powerful tool in the hiring process. Let’s say you have a candidate who looks great on paper and has great presence in an interview, but something is just not sitting right with you. Listen to that voice and use it to probe for what’s causing it. Use techniques and available information to objectively evaluate and analyze. But be careful not to just accept the information that confirms your bias.

How do you make hiring decisions? By gut or by data? Which do you think is more accurate?


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