8 out of 10 recruiters say: 'We make bad decisions'

We may pride ourselves on tracking down and recruiting top creative talent, but in reality most of our hiring decisions come down to little more than whims, hunches and confirmation bias, often resulting in us choosing those who resemble us most closely.

8 out of 10 recruiters say: 'We make bad decisions'

If you are participating in the pell-mell of the new-year jobs hustle, it might be that you consider yourself adept at identifying top creative talent. In reality, no matter how open-minded you believe yourself to be, you have almost certainly judged a job candidate on a whole range of qualities and demographic certainties within seconds of meeting them – and your preferences will be dictated by a series of ill-informed neurological responses.

Particularly at a senior level in adland, hiring is a chaotic business, and the results can be disappointingly homogenous. The industry has long bemoaned the "stale, pale, male" culture that characterises the upper echelons, with the latest IPA figures showing that the percentage of women in the C-cuite continues to hover around the 30% mark.

In addition, research from the Advertising Diversity Taskforce has revealed that just 8% of senior leaders are from a BAME background. And despite the clamouring of trailblazers, such as IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop, and efforts from diversity networks, including The 3% Movement, demographics remain stubbornly slow to shift.

It doesn’t help that hiring is hard work. According to a 2018 global survey from recruiter Robert Half, more than eight in 10 recruitment decision-makers across various fields admitted they had made bad recruitment decisions for their organisation. Part of this could be attributed to bad luck or, particularly in the UK, the scarcity of creative talent.

But the bigger picture is that, despite a recruitment industry that has developed into a multinational behemoth, the collective wisdom of generations of behavioural scientists and organisational psychologists and impressive technology, most of our hiring decisions come down to whims and hunches. As research has shown, the projected cost of a poor appointment can be between £30,000 and £130,000, depending on the seniority of the individual involved. It therefore hardly needs saying that this is almost always the wrong way to recruit. The question is whether we are ready to admit it.

Intuition is overrated

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, psychologist and author of The Talent Delusion, believes that both individuals and the broader industry are culpable. "Decision-makers really overrate their intuition, and, when it comes to people decisions, the majority believe a short-term interaction, whether it’s a video interview or even a CV, can predict whether someone will be a good fit in the organisation," he says.

"But the science is complex and academics historically have not bothered to make the science around hiring digestible or accessible to the broader workforce. As a result, you get the spreading of recruitment ideas that often don’t have a factual basis but are relatively easy to follow and replicate."

Perhaps the biggest reasons for the lack of diversity, then, is not bad luck or a lack of candidates, but pervasive bias at every stage of the recruitment process. The idea that bias underpins the overwhelming majority of hiring problems has at least reached the mainstream, but few of us understand the scale of the issue.

In a 20-minute meeting, for example, an individual transmits up to 700 non-verbal cues, which means the things we think are important often form only a small part of the picture.

"As soon as you meet a person, you peg them, unconsciously, on up to 150 different stereotypes," Dr Tara Swart, neuroscientist, leadership coach and author of The Source: Open your Mind, Change your Life, says. "The obvious ones are gender, age and race, but it will also encompass social class, wealth, political affiliation, accent, educational levels and physical attractiveness. If you’re a well-regulated person emotionally, you should be open to reversing those first impressions, but they are a staple of the way we interact."

Such impressions can become even more ingrained – but not necessarily more accurate – when someone is considering hiring a person that they already know. This is thanks to neurological tricks such as confirmation bias, which causes the brain to interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that affirms a pre-existing belief or hypothesis.

Bias is an uncomfortable topic. However, without it, we would be incapable of functioning. To prevent itself from collapsing like a black hole under the pressure of billions of stimuli every day, the brain is forced to undergo a rigorous and lightning-fast filtering process. The amygdala, a collection of neurons, frantically processes decisions about which cues and feelings to focus on. Thanks to the sheer volume of information, it doesn’t prioritise the most comprehensive interpretation of this data, but the fastest and most efficient. The hippocampus makes sense of it by pairing new information with subjective memories, steering us towards choosing one option over another, forming opinions that feel objective but are nothing of the sort.

This process has a tendency to manifest itself in unacceptable ways. A 2016 study on racial biases in the labour market found that when black and Asian candidates removed indications of their race from their CVs, they were invited for a greater number of job interviews, while a 2017 BBC investigation found that identical applications filed under the name "Adam" received three times the number of interviews as those using the name "Mohammed". With IPA figures showing minimal growth in the percentage of women in senior roles between 2017 and 2018, and the number of individuals from a BAME background working in agencies increasing by less than one percentage point, this uncomfortable reality can no longer be ignored.

"So much of the time when we talk about a ‘good hire’, we actually mean picking someone who you believe is like you," Swart says. "Most senior leaders still tend to be male and white in this country. The issue is that doesn’t necessarily make them a good hire; you pick people who you feel safe with, but once you get to the more complex points of personality, values and ways of working, they may not be the right choice after all."

Beware of bias

While bias can on occasion predict real-world outcomes (in one study, subjects were shown photos of company chief executives, and the amount of response activity in their amygdala was found to accurately correspond to the amount of profit each subject’s companies made) recruiters should always be aware of its unreliability.

"Intuition is brilliant in very specific situations; firefighting, making bread, driving – using it can serve you well if you are an expert in the area," Jonny Gifford, senior research adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says. "But assessing individuals for a given job is very difficult, and when there is so much potential for unwanted bias, you have to root it out as much as you can."

There is a clear business case for tackling bias in adland. If innovation and creativity form the heart of great advertising, organisations are shooting themselves in the foot by failing to draw from the widest available talent pool; not to mention how disingenuous it can feel when an agency is less diverse than the clients it is trying to serve.

"For decades, work hasn’t represented diverse communities or told their own authentic stories as it hasn’t been told from lived experiences. We are failing to write in narratives around powerful consumer audiences as ‘normal’," Ali Hanan, founder and chief executive of diversity and inclusion organisation Creative Equals, says.

"Muslims make up 7% of our society, but how many ads feature a woman in a headscarf as the hero character? Twenty per cent of the UK’s adult population are disabled. How many ads have you seen that feature disabled people as ‘normal’ as part of the scene because this is everyday normal? As a consequence, we’ve missed out on tapping into new audiences, fresh narratives, and an ocean of potential profits," she adds.


The reduction in the amount per year a man will earn for every 10kg of weight he puts on


The reduction in the amount per year a woman will earn for every 10kg of weight she puts on

34/35 vs 30/31

The point in the body mass index, for men and women respectively, at which bias cuts in


The increase in the amount per year a man will earn for every 6.3cm of height above average


The increase in the amount per year a woman will earn for every 6.3cm of height above average 

Data supplied to Campaign by Dr Pete Jones from Shire Professionals Chartered Psychologists (Source: UK sample, 119,000 people. Height, body mass index and socioeconomic status: mendelian randomisation study in UK Biobank)

On a cliff-edge

While agencies are showing willingness to diversify – such as Ogilvy’s pledge to appoint 20 women to senior creative roles by the end of 2020 – it can be equally harmful to consciously try to redress homogeneity by appointing the first minority candidate you can find to a senior position, particularly in times of change or crisis.

Such actions, while rooted in good intentions, can give way to the "glass cliff", a phenomenon where in times of crisis or downturn, women and minority ethnic candidates are more likely to be appointed by companies to more senior roles. They then bear the brunt of the blame when things go wrong.

Studies show that, in difficult times, minorities in senior roles end up being judged more harshly than their white male counterparts, receiving lower performance ratings, and eventually being replaced by white men if the organisational performance suffers under their tenure.

"Confirmation bias sees an organisation saying ‘we tried someone different, and that did not work,’ and you end up with a more ‘traditional’ choice being reintroduced," John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, explains.

How, then, can science be used effectively in sourcing diverse talent? Technology, inevitably, is viewed as part of the answer. Dozens of start-ups are jostling with existing suppliers to offer AI-enhanced selection tools, which use gamified psychometric tests or highly refined algorithms to balance diversity requirements with quantifiable data on individual performance.

In general, they can demonstrate qualified success in streamlining processes and reducing time to hire. Evidence of improved long-term performance when it comes to those hired is, inevitably, trickier. Moreover, technology is not infallible. Tech giant Amazon was forced to abandon one of its first AI recruitment platforms in October 2018, after it emerged the tool was favouring male candidates and penalising applications with the word "women" in the mix; its algorithms had developed measures of success from CVs that, in line with the tech sector, came from a mainly male application pool.

"One huge issue with algorithmic bias is that question – ‘who is coding the algorithms?’ The answer is primarily young men," Swart says. "If the coders or the people creating these recruitment platforms have biases, there’s a real risk the technology will intrinsically take on the biases people had in the first place. And unfortunately, when left unchecked, algorithms and AI will learn to pick up those biases over time."

Kate Glazebrook, behavioural psychologist and co-founder of blind-recruitment platform Applied, argues that recruitment should never be given over in its entirety to the robots. "A lot of technologies take existing data and use it to predict who should be interviewed or given a job, because to build those algorithms you must rely on existing data – which contains bias," she says. "It’s important that technology augments the way everyday people make decisions, rather than replacing it."

For Swart, who helps organisations in high-stress sectors make the right appointments, the most important quality in a good choice is the ability to persevere in the face of challenge and change.

"When you are confronted with two equally good CVs based on qualifications and experience, the single factor that will influence someone being successful and sustainable in that role is mental resilience," she says. "When the going gets tough, the results are bad and people aren’t getting on, you need someone who will still be able to perform."

Finding the right fit

Candidates hoping to work for her clients put through a rigorous neuroassessment process to gauge their suitability. They are given heart-rate monitors, undergo blood tests, keep food and drink diaries, and make notes as part of a detailed psychometric assessment. These profiles, Swart says, will measure their resilience, but also goal-directedness, strength in abstract thinking, sense of belonging and social stability.

"It’s about ensuring the right mutual fit. If a person, for example, needs to settle down and get a salaried job for personal reasons, but accepts an offer because it is the first one that comes along, that won’t be sustainable for them," she says. This recruitment processes is, inevitably, impractical for most appointments. But even if you can’t run blood tests on your applicants, there are other practical actions that can disrupt ingrained biases.

This begins, the experts agree, with a well-crafted job ad. The British Army’s much-maligned effort to attract younger, more diverse candidates made international headlines at the beginning of the year with a hiring call for "Snowflakes" and "Me me me millennials". But even without explicitly insulting the very people you are seeking to attract, a failure to use inclusive language and avoid gendered terms could kill interest from up to half your talent pool before you have even begun. It’s a broadly cited statistic that men tend to apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, whereas women apply only if they meet 100%. Indeed, software company Atlantissan reported an 80% increase in the global hiring of women in technical roles over a two-year period after it used an augmented platform to analyse the language in its job ads.

"Organisations have to think carefully about what they are trying to achieve with a hire: are they looking for the right qualities, have they worked out exactly what the job entails, or what might be suitable for them in the future?" Hackston asks. "Companies shouldn’t just be doing this once every 10, five or even two years, but all the time – because what was necessary for your organisation in the past may not be relevant now."

Even more vital is to ensure a diverse group of decision-makers is involved at every stage of the recruitment process. Almost all employees will have a tale of being overlooked by a manager, often for opaque reasons. And it happens to the best of us: look no further than the producer at RKO Radio Pictures, who inadvertently became the stuff of Hollywood legend when he wrote in a 1930s screen-test report: "Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little." His subject was Fred Astaire.

Research from Applied found the biggest rise in hiring accuracy occurs when three people are involved in recruitment decisions; driving down the chance of picking the wrong person from one in three to 15%. For the best odds, decision-makers should be selected from across the organisation and submit views on a candidate without conferring, to avoid falling into collective biases or groupthink.

"A producer at RKO Radio Pictures inadvertently became the stuff of Hollywood legend when he wrote: 'Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.' His subject was Fred Astaire" 

"You get the best range of responses by averaging individuals rather than weighting them differently, so we don’t give hiring managers any additional influence," Glazebrook says. "Of course, their perspective is hugely valuable, but the reasons you have other people is that they might spot things that the hiring manager will not."

When taking a step back from the clinical solutions to poor hiring, you could argue the overall structure of recruitment needs an holistic reinvention. The workforce is currently as non-linear and changeable as it has ever been, with portfolio careers, the rise of agency and gig economy work, and rapid developments in remote roles; all of which should be reflected in the way organisations take on new workers.

Then there is the undoubted power of looking at your existing workforce afresh. Is it really more desirable and efficient to return to the market when you need a new person, rather than examining the potential of your existing employees?

"Every company should look within their own organisation to identify diverse rising stars, then give them what they need to be successful. Creating succession plans is key," Hanan says.

The recruitment model of the future doesn’t come with easy answers – but one thing is certain: there’s no excuse for perpetuating the status quo.

Emily Burt is a staff writer at People Management