Recently, while enjoying a family outing in cottage country, our mid-day attention turned to finding a family restaurant. After quickly glancing at a few largely indistinguishable storefront menus a collective indecisiveness took hold. Almost reflexively we started to scan the town’s main strip for a clue to guide us, perhaps a restaurant bustling with other family diners like ourselves. These people were likely in the know and had made a rational decision about where best to eat. When we found such an establishment we headed in that direction.
Unwittingly, our lunchtime scramble had demonstrated the self-fulfilling effects of popularity. Facing a surplus of restaurant choices, and a limited appetite for due diligence, we substituted popularity for a more objective assessment of quality, price and value. But in a town filled with wandering, lost tourists, one clearly did not necessarily equate to the other.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the employment arena. Graduates of prestigious schools tend to be rated higher than those who attended other institutions while employees of well-regarded organizations bath in the glow of their employers’ reputations. The assumption in both instances is that these successful, prestigious institutions only associate with the best and brightest and thus their employees/graduates can be assumed to be of a higher caliber.
Unfortunately, the same phenomenon works in reverse. The longer an executive is unemployed, the more likely it is that potential employers will view his/her unemployment as a red flag, much like a house that has been on the market longer than the perceived norm. Organizations begin to question whether the broader market knows something about this candidate that they don’t know. Such logic feeds onto itself, and companies begin to shy away from these executives, leading to ever-worsening job prospects. Candidates often attempt to counter this bias by tinkering with dates on their resumes or re-framing periods of unemployment to read ‘consulting’. Ageism works in much the same way as many executives of a certain vintage can attest.
While following the pack may be a relatively low-risk short-cut to finding a palatable family restaurant it is a more dangerous strategy in selection where many variables interact to inform an outcome. In those instances, good decisions demand homework, focus and rigour. Unfortunately, rather than hone our concentration, complexity more often than not strains it and before long we look to lighten the cognitive load. We resort to tricks, biases and short-cuts. In the case of hiring, who ‘appears’ best suited for a job replaces who ‘is’ best suited and the decisions of others become evidentiary. Hearsay, bias and gut feel rule the roost, to the detriment of all.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.