Hire slow, not fast

Many recruiters and start-up founders have heard the slogan "Hire fast, fire fast." This exceptionally harmful suggestion can be attributed to Mark Suster who in 2011 published an article called "Startup Mantra: Hire Fast, Fire Fast."

Tõnis Arro

It has been repeated hundreds of times in social media posts and articles talking about hiring, especially in early-stage companies. The myth of the manager who "recognises the right person in seconds" is widely known in the corporate world as well. It's also one of the main reasons why so many hiring decisions go wrong - up to 40%, according to some sources.

Still, the statement is true in one sense - if you hire fast, you have to fire fast. But of course, you shouldn't make hiring decisions quickly, as some people still realise. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is a rare minority. I find it useful to compare the hiring to the decision to marry - the decision should not be made after a few minutes of conversation!

Interestingly, a few months after the famous blog post, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking, fast and slow" was published.

The bestselling book devotes several chapters to a thorough analysis of hiring practices and proves convincingly, relying on data, that hiring decisions should be made slowly, based on data, not on intuition.

No-one would dispute that hiring decisions are the most important management decisions. Likewise, almost everybody agrees that hiring decisions are the worst decisions in terms of decision-making quality and certainly the only ones where virtually no data is used.

So why is this "hire fast..." thing well grained in management folklore, but Kahneman's research on the subject is mostly ignored?

One reason is apparent - the book (600 pages!) is a difficult thing to handle; a short blog post is much easier to grasp. Many people who repeat this mantra seem to have not even read the original post, which made much more sense than the numerous superficial iterations of the slogan.

Suster has tons of good thoughts on hiring, but his main statement in the blog post is misleading, to put it mildly.

"I don't think that recruiting is any different than any other decision process in a company. You're never really going to know how somebody is going to perform in the role, how good of a cultural fit he or she is going to be and how motivated they're going to become until they're on the inside."

This is a harmful half-truth. Being not able to be sure is true about almost anything. Would you know for sure if an organ transplant will be accepted as part of the new body after a surgical operation? You wouldn't know for sure, but still, there are ways to gather data that can be used to predict this fit.

Similarly, there are ways to get information about cultural fit with the team the new employee is going to work in, their ability to perform and the nature of motivation - all these things can be measured, and the data can be used in making quality decisions.

"Not knowing exactly" is far from "not knowing at all" and miles from "no need to find out". And it does not mean at all that you have to spend days or even hours to obtain this information if you use the right tools.

Kahneman's hiring philosophy

In his book, Kahneman goes deep into hiring, and in short, his position can be summarised as follows:

  • Analyse the requirements of the role and define a small set of measurable qualities. Usually, ~six is sufficient, but no more than ten is ever needed. They have to be measurable and independent of each other.
  • Define the indicators (e.g. interview questions to evaluate these characteristics).
  • Evaluators have to score candidates independently to avoid group-think, gut feelings, and HiPPO's opinion influence it.
  • Compare candidate ratings and hire the one with the highest score.

It really is that simple. And yes, one proper interview is enough. Sure, you can have multiple interviews, but doing that can lead to worse hiring decisions.

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