When Deciding Is Hard: The Modern Recruiter’s Paradox of Choice

When Deciding Is Hard: The Modern Recruiter’s Paradox of Choice

1200 900 Paul Breloff
When Barry Schwartz first wrote and spoke about “the paradox of choice” in the early 2000s, he was grappling with the cute problems of an analog world, like how to sort through the varieties of jeans at a Gap, or how to choose among the bottles of olive oil at a supermarket. I wonder what he makes of our modern digital cornucopia of options and decisions, of all the choices beamed directly to our computer screens available for one-touch purchase. If he thought he had it tough then…

What is the paradox of choice?

Quick reminder: Schwartz’s idea is that, paradoxically, more choice is often worse for us, not better. It seems counter-intuitive — we like to be in control, we like it our way, right away, so the more options the better, right? Wrong.

Research continues to show that beyond some minimum threshold of optionality, more choice leads to trouble in three ways: (1) Too much choice leads to paralysis, not liberation, as we try in vain to sort through options and make the “best” decision; (2) Too much choice leaves us less satisfied with our decision (when we can actually make one) because we’re confronted with a bewildering array of opportunity costs in the paths-not-taken; (3) Too much choice sometimes even leads us to make objectively worse decisions, because our brains grasp onto faulty heuristics to guide us through the data and variables.

The reality is, deciding is hard! Deciding requires cognitive effort, of which we have limited reserves. Ask Barack Obama, who as President of the United States was charged with making hundreds of critical decisions every day, and wisely found ways to reduce non-essential decision-making to a bare minimum. As he told Michael Lewis, he limited sartorial hemming and hawing to preserve energy: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits…I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

How does this effect recruiting?

So, imagine the double-edged sword of the modern recruitment marketplace. Job boards and social media have succeeded in aggregating jobs and job-seekers so that candidates are inundated with hundreds of what-might-have-beens and the-grass-might-be-greeners. And now, employers can often generate candidate pools into the thousands. The thousands! For a split second, this could sound like a recruiter’s utopia — and then the reality of stacks and stacks of CVs sinks in and we’re reminded of the scientific reality that this will almost certainly lead to a sense of paralysis, dissatisfaction, and poor decision-making.

Sure, you say, reviewing a thousand resumes would suck and might lead to a creeping dissatisfaction with whomever one ends up choosing. But does this proliferation of options actually lead to worse decisions?

More decisions = worse decisions

I’d argue yes, in most cases. When a recruiter or hiring manager is confronted with a thousand resumes, she or he must figure out a quick way to make sense of the pile, a strategy to quickly screen. Unfortunately, the most common strategy to triage a stack of resumes is to look for markers of familiarity, a thought process that sounds like, “Do I recognize the school names, do I recognize the company names, does this person seem like ‘us’?” Unfortunately, biases of this sort (which are often operating implicitly, not consciously) lead us to enshrine pedigree over ability and entrenches like-hiring-like, rather than diversity.

What can you do to simplify hiring choices?

At Shortlist, we’re hoping that our automated approach to screening big candidate pools will remove a large part of the bias creep and decision fatigue that hiring managers face. Here are a few simple steps to reduce the number of choices you face on a daily basis, and improve your satisfaction with those decisions:

1. Establish upfront screening filters

For most positions, there are certain factors that are necessary to function in the role — things like speaking a local language, having a certain salary range or being willing to relocate. By pinpointing and filtering for these basic must-haves, you significantly cut down on your number of options to consider for a role, and save yourself the time of getting to know a candidate who ultimately couldn’t accept an offer or succeed on the job. We use an automated chatbot that asks candidates questions regarding basic fit (location, salary range, etc.). If they don’t fit the must-haves, we don’t advance them through to the next round.

2. Use competency-based assessments to identify top performers

Whenever possible, test applicants with competency-based assessments or case studies instead of relying on CVs and unstructured interviews to make hiring decisions. Generating data points on performance will help you objectively rank a long list of candidates and ease the stress of making choices.

3. Present decision-makers with essential information only

Whether you’re a recruiter sharing a list of candidates with a client, or a talent acquisition head who needs the hiring manager to make a decision, chances are at some point in the recruiting process you will be sharing information on candidates with others. Think about how much information you need to share on each candidate to help them make smart decisions without the stress. At Shortlist, rather than include every one of the hundreds of data points we collect on candidates, we share the important stuff while holding enough back to create a subtle sense of “magic” when the candidate who shows up for an interview is just right.

This article originally ran on People Matters.