In my last blog post, I shared management professor Stephanie Creary’s perspective that we don’t often hire from within because of the perceived risks. I recently read The Ostrich Paradox by professors Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther, co-directors of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. Their book explores why we underprepare for natural disasters, but I’ve been reflecting on how hiring the wrong person can be a disaster of another kind.

Meyer and Kunreuther describe six systematic biases that reflect flaws in how we perceive risks and I’ve thought about how they apply to hiring:

  1. Myopia
    There is a tendency to make hiring decisions to satisfy short-term needs rather than long-term objectives. How many times have you hired someone quickly to meet a looming project deadline? Or because you are so short-handed that you make decisions based on the moment? I once had a colleague who made his hiring decision based on who could start the soonest. As you might expect, that didn’t work out well.
  2. Amnesia
    We forget the lessons we have already learned. The next time you have an open position, take some time to reflect back on other hires you’ve made, both successful and not. What did you learn and how can you make sure you don’t repeat those mistakes?
  3. Optimism
    We underestimate that any disaster in the future will result in similar losses as those in the past. This bias addresses the fact that during the hiring process we are all showing our best selves. How can we get past the positive first impressions to truly evaluate a candidate?
  4. Inertia
    We maintain the status quo. This one applies more broadly to our way of doing business. When was the last time you changed your hiring practices?
  5. Simplification
    We selectively attend to only a subset of relevant factors when making a decision. Ask yourself the question for inertia again.  Finding the right person with the set of skills and experiences you need that fits culturally is not usually a simple decision.
  6. Herding
    We base our actions on what we see others doing. This one applies two ways.  First, it’s the inertia and simplification bias again—no one else has changed their hiring practices, so why should I? Second, we have candidates go through multiple rounds and meet lots of people, which often creates the herding bias. Even if you are the hiring manager if all the colleagues you asked to interview support the candidate what will you do?

I don’t mean to suggest that a bad hire is on the same scale as the disasters examined by the Risk Center and The Ostrich Paradox. But as a hiring manager, these biases resonate for me as I consider strategies for successful team building and who my next employee might be.


Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.