An image of a man losing a job to a robot.Let’s say you have two excellent candidates for a role who are pretty much tied on all assessment criteria. Imagine Candidate A made $200,000 in sales last year and Candidate B made $400,000 in the same period. Which candidate would you choose? I am guessing that most of you would figure that candidate B was the best sales person and would give Candidate B the cigar on that basis. Right? Case closed.

Not at all. Case open, case still very open. To simply choose candidate B in this circumstance without probing down into the relative context that Candidates A and B were operating in would be premature, and is known as an attribution error, which studies show that experienced recruiters are guilty of making. It could be that Candidate A (with lower sales) was operating in a much more competitive territory than Candidate B, which means in real terms, their performance could have been equal to if not better than Candidate B.

It’s easy to think that you wouldn’t be susceptible to this kind of error, but these attribution errors are much more common and persistent than you might think. Francesca Gina conducted four experiments in a detailed research thesis and found that hiring managers were “collectively choosing to select candidates who demonstrated their merit in favorable situations rather than selecting the best candidates.” In short, lower performers in easier contexts were being selected for roles rather than higher performers in harder contexts.

If you are still following me, what this means is that hiring managers need to put a much greater emphasis on contextual interviewing and assessment during hiring. This well help to ensure that candidate performance is viewed in real terms in the context of how hard or easy the environment is.

So, how does contextual interviewing and assessment work? It requires probing and researching the context that each candidate was operating in a way that makes it easier to compare candidate’s performance. For example, if you were looking at four sales manager candidates from similar sized companies and industries with very different sales figures, how could you ascertain the context? Well, you would be interested in finding out the following, based on their resume, general research and interview probing:

  • How many other competitors’ products were operating in that territory?
  • How many sales people did each team member have?
  • What was the experience level of those sales people?
  • What was the average cost of sales?
  • What was the value and nature of the marketing support available?
  • What kind of external training and coaching budget was available?
  • How structured was the sales process?
  • What was the ratio of new business to renewals?
  • What were the customer satisfaction levels?
  • How strong a brand did the company have? Was the brand instantly recognizable?

By asking these kinds of questions, you can establish the exact context that each person was operating in and understand how good or bad a performer they really were given the ease or difficulty of their working environment relative to each other and your business.

And, by introducing a contextual interviewing aspect to your selection processes, you can understand each candidate’s performance in real terms and make a meaningful comparison of candidates and more reliably rank them from good to bad.



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