Asides,  Books

Job selection and the paradox of choice

Too much coffee

<Image by Ted Percival>

I read Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice recently (after Erik Duval recommended it). The title kind of tells you all you need to know, but his basic argument is that, contrary to what we might think, greater choice isn't always a good thing. As we get more and more choice, we become either paralysed by the possibility of making the wrong choice, or we revert to standard, old practice, ignoring the choice we have.

This came to mind recently when both selecting people for a job interview and talking to someone else who was trying to shortlist. The 'problem' is that in times of financial hardship you get a lot of applicants for every job. In order then to shortlist and also to meet regulations on fair selection, you need to apply a score to the job criteria. With so many applicants, you are effectively looking for reasons to reject, not to include. For example if you have 100 applicants for a post, you can only interview 6 maybe in a day. That's a 94% rejection rate you need to get to in order to progress. 

So, what happens is that you reject people who don't get a perfect score on every criteria. This may mean you get an excellent candidate. But compare what would happen if you only had 20 applicants, say. There you might reject half of them as not having the right skills, but the remaining 10 you would whittle down by looking for who was possible to include. This means you may include people who look interesting, for example, but who haven't quite got the appropriate experience or not exactly the right skills.

The danger of the paradox of choice in job selection is that it essentially narrows your field. You inevitably end of selecting people who are like existing members of staff, because they will most readily meet the criteria. In the long term this may be harmful to the diversity within an organisation. You don't even get to interview people who might be interesting, and offer some alternative views. It might also be harmful for a society going through an economic crisis, because people find it difficult to switch between careers as their experience will not be as readily matched to the criteria.

I know that people can make a case for equivalent experience, but the combination of dealing with an excess of applicants, fair selection criteria and the paradox of choice, almost inevitably leads to the end result of employers getting a narrower range of candidates, not a wider one.  

I'm not sure anything can be done about this, I'm not blaming anyone, rather highlighting how this combination of effects may conspire against the long term goals of an organisation.


  • Cristina Costa

    that’s so true. and in the end it become a tick box exercise to both applicants and employers. How do I model my application to meet the criteria I am going to be scored on…
    So long creativity, personality, diversity, initiative… it becomes about complying … that’s a way of controlling people too!

  • Scott Leslie

    Though perhaps what you are pointing to is the need for a different application process altogether – maybe in addition to simply having people submit resumes, ask them also to submit _fill in the blank_ that demonstrates how they fulfill some other quality that isn’t reflected well on their resume or that is the quality that you are currently missing on your team. Just thinking out loud…

  • Martin

    @Cristina – you are right, the whole fair selection thing, although well intentioned, becomes a game that people know how to play, and in some sense ends up advantaging those who know how to play it.
    @Nick – have you seen The Social Network where Zuckerberg recruits coders in an all night binge? I thought that was still their recruitment policy.
    @Scott – yes that would be great, but you can see what would happen – HR would argue that unless we make the criteria on which we’re judging the [fill in the blank] explicit, then it isn’t fair, so the [fill in the blank] becomes just another element to game. We try this to an extent in the actual interviews by getting people to give a presentation. I’ve wondered how much I’m allowed to take into account someone’s online presence. For instance, if I haven’t listed it as a criteria, could I appoint one person over another because person A had a great blog and person B didn’t? Probably not.

  • Rebecca

    I think there could definitely be a digital scholarship element to this – especially if you are looking for someone with expertise in this area. You could ask for candidates to provide a URL to some pre-existing online site or material which shows how they meet the person spec, and use this material to come up with interviewable candidates from your shortlist. Or specify that, when shortlisting, you’re going to take into account candidates’ most-viewed presentation on Slideshare. Or ask them to include blogs in their publications list.

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