Take 5: Tips for Widening—and Improving—Your Candidate Pool
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Careers Sep 7, 2018

Take 5: Tips for Widening—and Improving—Your Candidate Pool

Common biases can cause companies to overlook a wealth of top talent.

Michael Meier

Whether you’re looking for a part-time cashier or a head of marketing, good help is hard to find. But what if you are not searching in the most effective way?

Kel­logg fac­ul­ty have researched meth­ods to widen the tal­ent pool, whether by uncov­er­ing your own hir­ing bias­es or by turn­ing your sights to often-over­looked candidates. 

1. Be Aware of Biases

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Many hir­ing man­agers like to think they oper­ate in a mer­i­toc­ra­cy. But sep­a­rate research from Kel­logg researchers Lau­ren Rivera, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions, and Pao­la Sapien­za, pro­fes­sor of finance, sug­gests that’s far from true.

For her research, Rivera inter­viewed 120 hir­ing deci­sion mak­ers and was also giv­en per­mis­sion to observe almost every com­po­nent of the hir­ing process as an HR staffer her­self. She found that appli­cants’ socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds play an out­sized role in hir­ing deci­sions at elite pro­fes­sion­al-ser­vices firms. 

Those from the most priv­i­leged stra­ta of soci­ety are much more like­ly to receive job offers — not because the firms inten­tion­al­ly want to hire the most afflu­ent can­di­dates, but rather because they look for can­di­dates whose resumes reveal accom­plish­ments, activ­i­ties, and oth­er desir­able assets that require a great deal of time and finan­cial invest­ment from appli­cants and their par­ents. Hir­ing man­agers also tend to look for a sense of per­son­al con­nec­tion with an appli­cant — with upper-class inter­view­ers gen­er­al­ly pre­fer­ring can­di­dates with sim­i­lar pedi­grees, whether they real­ize it or not.

Mean­while, results from a study con­duct­ed by Sapien­za and col­leagues sug­gest that gen­der bias also creeps into the hir­ing process, with employ­ers ini­tial­ly assum­ing that women are less com­pe­tent at basic math­e­mat­i­cal tasks than men, even when they are not. The study also found that women (but not men) tend to under­state their abil­i­ties, and that employ­ers believe these under­state­ments, mak­ing them less like­ly to hire female can­di­dates for jobs involv­ing math. 

In oth­er words, even when we set out to hire on the basis of mer­it, hid­den bias­es can get in the way. Being aware of those can help us not only act more fair­ly, but also make the best busi­ness decisions. 

2. Think Small Specialist

Whom are you more like­ly to hire: a jack- or jill-of-all-trades, or an employ­ee who spe­cial­izes in one par­tic­u­lar skill set? 

Prob­a­bly the for­mer, accord­ing to the late Kei­th Murnighan, who was a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. In a series of stud­ies, he and a coau­thor found evi­dence of a bias towards gen­er­al­ists over spe­cial­ists. But is that the wis­est way to go when mak­ing hir­ing decisions? 

To find out, the researchers first looked at three-point shoot­ers in the NBA. By sink­ing long-dis­tance shots, three-point shoot­ers can change the entire course of a game, yet these play­ers rarely get the same respect as their gen­er­al­ist team­mates. And such dis­count­ing trans­lates from the court to the cubi­cle. In anoth­er study, the researchers found that par­tic­i­pants pos­ing as hir­ing man­agers tend­ed to ignore bet­ter qual­i­fied spe­cial­ists in favor of gen­er­al­ists with more over­all experience. 

Why the bias toward gen­er­al­ists? Murnighan said that because hir­ing man­agers tend to look for one employ­ee at a time — rather than hire an entire team all at once — it’s hard for them to see exact­ly which spe­cial­ists they need. In addi­tion, going with a spe­cial­ist is seen as a high-risk (albeit high-return) strategy. 

To avoid miss­ing out on the val­ue spe­cial­ists can pro­vide, Munighan sug­gest­ed that man­agers think of them­selves as orches­tra con­duc­tors — look­ing at the entire team from afar, able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the vio­lin­ists from the cel­lists from the flautists, and know­ing exact­ly how many of each are need­ed and when. 

Look at the inter­ac­tions from a dis­tance and say, What is it that I need to change? What do I know that I’m too close to the process to real­ly see?’” Murnighan said. 

3. Look to Local Talent

Bell’s Brew­ery of Kala­ma­zoo and Com­stock, Michi­gan, began life in 1983 as a small-time home­brew sup­ply store found­ed by the father of the cur­rent CEO, Lau­ra Bell. Thir­ty-five years lat­er, it’s the sev­enth-largest craft beer pro­duc­er in the nation. How has the com­pa­ny achieved such impres­sive growth while main­tain­ing its local” identity?

In part, by focus­ing on hir­ing local tal­ent, Bell tells Michael Mazzeo, a pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy at and an expert on growth in mid­sized com­pa­nies: All of our sales reps — and we have almost 100 now — are Bell’s employ­ees who live in our sales ter­ri­to­ries. They work direct­ly with our dis­trib­u­tors. They call on accounts. They real­ly know the area,” she says in this 2017 interview. 

That means that the reps are able to build sol­id rela­tion­ships with their accounts. We want to build trust that the prod­uct is going to move, that we’re going to be a brand that they can rely on,” she says. Even with accounts that are many miles away, we say, Hey, we rec­og­nize that we’re 300 miles away, but we have peo­ple that live in this com­mu­ni­ty that work for Bell’s. We have peo­ple that buy Bell’s and sup­port our prod­uct that live in this com­mu­ni­ty, and so we also want to be a part of it.’” 

The moral of the sto­ry: firms whose suc­cess depends on estab­lish­ing them­selves as a local” brand should con­sid­er the impor­tance of think­ing — and hir­ing — locally. 

4. Val­ue Veterans

Less than 0.5 per­cent of Amer­i­cans serve in the mil­i­tary — mean­ing that many firms are unaware of the skills and expe­ri­ences vet­er­ans acquire dur­ing their years of service. 

And that’s a shame, because vet­er­ans rep­re­sent a skilled and loy­al tal­ent pool, says Col. Dan Friend, who was a U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fel­low at Kel­logg. For­get every­thing you’ve seen in movies about scream­ing drill sergeants and emp­ty-mind­ed recruits; the mil­i­tary actu­al­ly fos­ters col­lab­o­ra­tion, adapt­abil­i­ty, lead­er­ship, self­less­ness, and many oth­er qual­i­ties that make vet­er­ans invalu­able in the busi­ness world. 

To cite just one exam­ple: By their ear­ly 20s, many ser­vice mem­bers are respon­si­ble for assem­bling and train­ing teams, over­see­ing the well-being of sub­or­di­nates, and main­tain­ing mil­lions of dol­lars of equip­ment. All the while they’re learn­ing how to make deci­sions, plan, orga­nize, exe­cute, and pro­vide clear guid­ance to their sub­or­di­nates at an age much ear­li­er than most of their peers on the out­side,” Friend says. 

His expe­ri­ence (accu­mu­lat­ed over more than 26 years of ser­vice) is con­sis­tent with the find­ings of Kel­logg finance pro­fes­sors Efraim Ben­m­elech and Car­o­la Fry­d­man. In a study of chief exec­u­tives from more than 2,000 U.S. firms, the pair found that firms run by CEOs with mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence per­formed bet­ter under pres­sure than those run by oth­er CEOs. They found, too, that CEOs with a mil­i­tary back­ground were up to 70 per­cent less like­ly to engage in cor­po­rate fraud com­pared to their civil­ian-only peers. 

5. Con­sid­er the Ex-Offender

Get­ting a job dras­ti­cal­ly increas­es an ex-offender’s chances of stay­ing out of jail. Yet many employ­ers are reluc­tant to hire peo­ple with crim­i­nal records, assum­ing that they pos­sess few­er skills, are more like­ly to behave uneth­i­cal­ly in the work­place, or both. 

Yet, research from Nico­la Per­si­co, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, shows that ex-offend­ers who do get hired are no more like­ly to be fired than non-offend­ers — and are about 13 per­cent less like­ly to quit, result­ing in low­er turnover costs for the com­pa­nies that hire them. 

Per­si­co, along with for­mer Kel­logg col­league Dylan Minor and Deb­o­rah Weiss at North­west­ern University’s Pritzk­er School of Law, exam­ined data on about a quar­ter of a mil­lion appli­cants for sales and cus­tomer ser­vice jobs in the U.S.

The data did reveal one down­side to hir­ing ex-offend­ers: those placed in sales posi­tions had a 28 per­cent high­er chance of ter­mi­na­tion for mis­con­duct. I would think twice before hir­ing some­one with a record in that set­ting,” Minor says. 

Still, employ­ers may wish to con­sid­er giv­ing peo­ple with crim­i­nal records a chance at employ­ment. Not only can doing so save mon­ey on turnover costs, but from a soci­etal lev­el, it also can help keep ex-offend­ers from going to jail again. As Minor says: If these peo­ple don’t get a job, the chances are that they’re going right back.”

Featured Faculty

Lauren Rivera

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg, courtesy)

Paola Sapienza

Donald C. Clark/HSBC Chair in Consumer Finance, Professor of Finance, and Zell Center Faculty Fellow

J. Keith Murnighan

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations from 1996-2016

Michael J. Mazzeo

Associate Professor of Strategy, Faculty Director of the Chicago Campus

Efraim Benmelech

Harold L. Stuart Professor of Finance and Director of the Guthrie Center for Real Estate Research

Carola Frydman

Professor of Finance

Nicola Persico

Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences, Director of the Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics & Management

About the Writer

Anne Ford is a writer in Evanston, Illinois.

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