For better hiring results, don’t evaluate candidates individually, compare them.

There is a saying that comparison is the thief of joy. And while this is good to remember when your boss shows you photos of her new Muskoka getaway, it is not necessarily useful for executive hiring.

Executive search processes are often multi-staged affairs wherein one person conducts the first round of screening and then presents a final candidate for the rest of the team to interview. We always caution against this strategy and instead advise that a better decision is likely if three or more candidates go through to the next round. There is now Nobel-prize level support for this recommendation.

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize laureate in economic science. We have written about him in the past (Click here to read the full article). His latest book, ‘Noise’, which he co-wrote with Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein, is an outstanding treatise on the contributing factors to good and bad judgments/decision making across a wide range of disciplines. Over the next few posts, we will summarize some of their insights as applied to hiring.

While their premise requires much, much more discussion than a short post can do justice to, they essentially show how often judgements (in areas such as criminal sentencing, child custody, medicine, forecasting, bail decisions, hiring etc) are subject to high levels of ‘noise’ (variability). They distinguish carefully between bias and noise and focus on judgments where the true answers are unknown, sometimes even unknowable. Efficacy and consistency of decision-making decreases as noise increases.

Consider the level of noise in the hiring of executives. Requirements are determined with varying degrees of rigour. Organizations then develop a rating protocol to assess candidates against the criteria that are extrapolated from those requirements. Some companies keep selection criteria short and concise while others have 25 or even 30 dimensions against which every candidate is rated. Many companies then assign weights (ie. degrees of importance to success in the job) to each criteria with some attributes/experience deemed to have a weight or value 3 or 5 times that of others. Companies then use another scale of 1-3 or 1-5 or even 1-10 in rating candidates from ‘does not meet the criteria’ through to some version of ‘exceeds the criteria’.  And then companies, and the individuals involved in the selection process, use a wide range of formal to informal interviewing and assessment techniques to evaluate candidates. Time consuming rigour is rarely preferred to time saving shortcuts. This is textbook noise where at every level the differences between rating of 3 or 2, or a 4 versus a 6 will vary depending on the rater. The more criteria, the broader the scales, the greater the variability.

One simple recommendation that Kahneman and co. make is to avoid rating each candidate individually. Instead, they suggest comparing the candidates to each other. In other words given the inherent variability in such hiring processes there is significantly more ‘precision’ in the evaluation of candidates if they are compared from say best to worst against each other than if they are evaluated individually.   In their words, ‘explicit comparisons between objects of judgment support much finer discriminations than do ratings of objects evaluated one at a time’ .

We will explain more in our next post….

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.

Contact Robert by email at or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777