A head for hiring: The behavioural science of recruitment and selection

03 August 2015
Published: August 2015
We all agree that recruiting and selecting the right people is fundamental to any organisation's success. How best to do it, however, remains a challenge. Behavioural science has a lot to say about the way in which people make decisions in these types of setting. This report, written for the CIPD by the Behavioural Insights Team, outlines ways in which harnessing knowledge about how we actually behave can help those engaged in recruitment to improve outcomes for organisations.
The report examines existing evidence through a behavioural science lens to offer examples from the literature and practical tips for recruiters. It explores ways to attract candidates best suited to the job and the organisation's broader needs; the use of key selection and assessment tools, and the biases and errors of judgement that may occur when using these tools; and the experience of the candidate during the recruitment process, including the impact of stress and the knock-on effects of the candidate experience on the employer brand.
We all agree that recruiting and selecting the right people is fundamental to any organisation’s success. How best to do it, however, remains a challenging area. That’s no surprise: the employer and potential new hire enter the process with limited information on what to expect and have few opportunities to learn from their behaviour. In addition, the process is inherently high stakes, so stress levels may be high. Ultimately, any recruitment and selection process demands complex and speedy decision making from both sides.
Behavioural science has a lot to say about the way in which people make decisions in these types of settings. Our behaviour does not always fit a rational actor model but it is still systematic and predictable. This report outlines ways in which harnessing knowledge about how we actually behave can help recruiters – including external agents, recruiting managers and HR professionals – to improve outcomes for the organisations they represent.
This is an area that benefits from multidisciplinary research – occupational psychologists, economists, neuroscientists and organisational behaviour experts have all shed light on parts of the recruitment and selection process over the past decades. The goal of this report is to whittle down the existing evidence using a behavioural lens to practical, actionable insights, clarify where the evidence is strongest and suggest areas for future research.
We start by looking at ways to attract candidates best suited to the job and the organisation’s broader needs. While it is particularly difficult to determine who the ‘right’ applicant might be, there is growing evidence that how you conduct outreach efforts and how you utilise existing networks will determine who finds themselves in your applicant pool. Recent evidence from behavioural science also shows that even small changes to how you frame a job advert can have a disproportionate effect on who applies and, subsequently, how they perform on the job.
In the second section we consider the evidence behind the use of key selection and assessment tools as well as the biases and judgement errors that may occur on the assessor’s side when using these tools. There are simple tweaks that can be made to use the tools in a more effective way. For example, anonymising or jointly comparing CVs helps assessors to concentrate on the information that matters. Structured interviews are shown to be more effective than unstructured ones overall, although the difference may not be as stark for certain types of interviewers. The evidence on tests and questionnaires shows they can be powerful predictors of performance, but the content of those tests will determine their predictive validity, so they must be carefully matched with job requirements.
The third section focuses on the candidate’s experience during the recruitment process. Not only does the candidate experience affect our ability to decipher who is best, it also can have knock-on effects on an employer’s brand and their ability to attract talent in the future. The impact of stress and anxiety during interviews is well documented. Since the situation is likely to be inherently stressful for an employee, much of the literature suggests that additional stress should be avoided. Candidates from disadvantaged or minority groups may be particularly prone to experiencing pressure, due to negative stereotypes and the sense of being an outsider. The research here is clear: when someone’s identity as being from a disadvantaged or minority group is highlighted to them, this may negatively impact their performance in the assessment process. There are simple ways to relieve individuals from these pressures.
We end the report with a call for more research. This need not come from academia alone. Shifting away from a model based on intuition and vague notions of ‘fit’, recruiters can build a strong evidence base by building rigorous evaluation into their own practices. By constantly and consistently testing their own practices, organisations will not only learn what works best, they will make better hiring decisions.
Attracting candidates
1. Take a fresh look at person–organisation fit, considering both current and aspirational organisational culture.
2. Test the wording of your job adverts to see how it affects who applies.
3. Personalise your outreach efforts to encourage applicants.
4. Make it easy for people who show interest to apply directly.
5. Vary where and how you do outreach.
6. Push for transparency in outreach even when using networks for recruitment and selection.
7. Systematise your use of social media in recruitment.
8. Group and anonymise CVs when reviewing them.
9. Pre-commit to a set of interview questions that are directly related to performance on the job.
10. Focus interviews on collecting information, not making the decision.
11. Make sure tests are relevant to the job and fit for purpose.
12. Include people in hiring decisions who have not been involved in assessing candidates.
13. Stick to what the scores tell you for final decisions.
Recruitment strategy
14. Spread assessments and decisions across days, but keep all other conditions similar.
15. If discussing unconscious bias, emphasise the desired behaviour of assessors, rather than the problem.
16. Evaluate your assessment practices.
Candidate experience
17. Avoid creating stereotype threat in the assessment process.
18. Ask for feedback from rejected and accepted candidates.
Download the full report below