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In Hiring, Context Is Everything

In Hiring, Context Is Everything Credit: Hiring image via Shutterstock

When deciding between several job candidates, hiring managers often make the wrong choice because they fail to look at the whole picture, new research shows.

The University of California, Berkeley study revealed that employment managers tend to ignore the context of an applicant's past performance, which ends up costing them in the long run.

"We would like to believe that the people who are making judgments that affect our lives — where we get hired or what school we are admitted to — have the wisdom to understand who we are, what we are capable of, what shortcomings aren't our fault," said Don Moore, an assistant professor at UC and the study's author. "But our research shows people evaluating us have a great deal of trouble considering situational factors or context."

[Six Steps to Avoiding a 'Mis-Hire']

Moore said too often those in charge of hiring decisions only look at a candidate's past performance in comparison to other candidates and never factor in the environment in which they were performing.

Moore said an example is if two candidates are applying for a senior management position at Los Angeles International Airport. He said if the candidates have comparable experience, those in charge of hiring will look at how they performed in their past job, including the percentage of flights that left on time from the applicant's airport.

However, Moore said hiring managers too often hire the candidate from the airport that has the better departure rate, instead of factoring in other issues that could have negatively affected those rates for the other applicants, such as weather and the number of available runways.

Moore describes this behavior as an example of "correspondence bias," a social psychology term that describes when people have the tendency to draw inferences about a person's disposition while ignoring the surrounding circumstances.

In addition to studying hiring decisions by human resource managers, the researchers also studied graduate school admissions decisions and found similar results. For example, applicants with higher GPAs from schools known for easier grading systems beat out applicants with lower GPAs from universities with stricter grading policies.

"Our results suggested that alumni from institutions with lenient grading had a leg up in admission to grad school, and the reason for that is the admissions decision makers mistakenly attributed their high grades to high abilities," Moore said.

The study found that while the decision makers said they wanted to consider situational influences on performance, when given the opportunity, they failed to do so. Moore, however, remains hopeful that changing that behavior is possible on both an individual and collective level.

"If you are a hiring manager, ask for more information about other people in the applicant's department and how the person you are considering is better or worse than others in the same situation," he said.

The study, which was recently published in the PLOS One journal, was co-authored by Samuel Swift, a Berkeley-Haas post-doctoral fellow; Zachariah Sharek, director of strategy and innovation at CivicScience; and Francesco Gino, associate professor at Harvard Business School.

Follow Chad Brooks on Twitter @cbrooks76 or BusinessNewsDaily @BNDarticles. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.