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Facing the fear in the hiring process

By Evert Akkerman


We tend to underestimate the role of fear in business decisions, including those on recruitment and selection. Fear is a powerful driver of human behaviour: fear of making the wrong decision, fear of losing face, fear of losing a job and fear of not being liked.

Every business owner, executive and manager will agree that having the right people in the right places is crucial for an organization’s success. However, as soon as you pry a bit below the surface of “corporate speak” and good intentions, you’ll find that values stated are not always values lived. We often see people miscast in roles and given up on, left to marinate in their misery.

When companies operate under a culture of fear, the right people don’t get hired or promoted. Instead, those who come in and come up are buddies, teammates and allies of those already there – people executives don’t need to be afraid of. They’ve all known each other for years and trust has been established. They pass the puck around, in the secure knowledge that the puck will come back to them. The result is that people who have no business being in the business get hired. Such flawed decisions, of course, need to be rationalized.

Some organizations have an HR department and/or a communications department where paid representatives spin fantastic tales. For internal consumption, they explain why candidate X was chosen over candidate Y, listing everything except the real reason. Of course, we know why: coming clean would embarrass people and hurt the company brand. You can’t very well put out an announcement that candidate X was chosen because he is the nephew of the goalie of the CEO’s recreational hockey team.

An HR consultant recently mentioned an example from her practice. Several candidates were being considered for a management role, and she had diligently looked for the required skills and probed for the right behaviours. Towards the end of the process, one of the candidates mentioned that she was a fundraiser for a charity that the CEO supported, and that was it. He decided, based on that common ground, that she would be a perfect fit for the role. Once onboarded, the candidate failed to connect with her team and did substantial damage before being invited to leave.

We all know examples of the business owner’s cousin having been brought in to process invoices and run the payroll, and then “doing HR” on the side. It is not very likely that the owner, when the business grows to 40 people, will suggest bringing in a trained, “real” HR professional, for fear that the cousin would get upset.

Despite all the talk about being guided by strong values, striving for diversity and hiring and promoting based on ability, hiring decisions are often influenced by the fact that someone on the inside knows one of the candidates, turning the candidate into a known quantity, which makes that candidate a safer bet. Making the connection takes away our fear of the unknown. We switch from fear to recognition. We are on familiar territory, and we stop carefully testing the ice ahead of us. It’s human nature to impute all kinds of positive associations when we like people.

Changing human nature will not be possible, but HR has a definite role in emphasizing the importance of proper process and pushing back when bias enters the arena. Our role as HR practitioners is to acknowledge the fear and remind those in positions of authority that every decision around hiring, promoting and firing sends a signal, internally and externally, about the types of people that define the organization and, ultimately, determine its success.

Evert Akkerman is an award-winning HR professional and founder of XNL HR.



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