Psychological studies have shown that people attribute all sorts of unearned characteristics to people who are tall, attractive, or overweight. This should cause concern to leaders making hiring decisions. We are easily deceived, and we easily deceive ourselves.

The example of Saul is instructive. When the ancient Israelites decided (unwisely) that they needed to have a king, they liked the idea of Saul. He was a handsome man, a head taller than most of his fellows. Clearly, the bias toward height and looks is not a recent development.

But supposing you are able to get past these appearance biases, how does one screen for “stature” when looking at resumes? Is there a resume version of our built-in bias toward height?

Such a bias can manifest itself in a variety of ways:

• Positional bias: This person may be an egotistical jerk, but it says that they ran this company or that agency or the other non-profit, one that I’ve heard of. So they must be awesome, right?

• Fit bias: This candidate has done the exact thing we’re looking for, so they must be a perfect fit for this position, right?

• Award Bias: This person won the Golden Circle Quality Award (whatever that is) in their last position, so they must be a high achiever, right?

• Reference Bias: This person lists Billy Graham as a reference, so you know without even calling Dr. Graham that they are a world-class leader, right?

It should be fairly easy to see how these biases infect our evaluation of candidates for positions in our organizations. The fact of the matter is that a resume is a weak tool for screening applicants, but it is not feasible or practical to interview every candidate for a position, especially in a small firm where managers are stretched already.

1 Samuel 16:7 says that “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” How we wish God could be our HR director! But how does one “look on the heart” of a potential hiree without God’s omniscience? Here are some practical suggestions:

• Look on the outward appearance. What? I thought that’s what we’re not supposed to do. Well, not height or attractiveness, but dress, grooming, and comportment. These are not surefire clues to a good hire, but they are clues.

• Check references. Candidates will of course give you references who are likely to say good things, but you can ask a reference probing questions that you might not want to ask the candidate. Be aware, though, that corporate references are likely to give only employment dates.

• Listen for stories. Ask the candidate to tell you a story of something that went wrong and how they addressed it. If they are prepared, the candidate will probably have a story ready to go. Listen for clues to blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, or helplessness.

• Ask (carefully) about outside interests. “What do you like to do in your free time?” Answers can provide a (small) window into a candidate’s interests, hobbies, and community life. Be aware that answers to this, like any question, can be canned: “Oh, when I’m not helping at the homeless shelter, I like to quilt jackets for rescue dogs.”

There are also some hiring don’ts as you seek to “look on the heart,” as well. Avoiding questions like these may help you avoid a lawsuit at some point:

• Unless you are a specifically religious organization with doctrinal standards that are job-related, don’t ask about a person’s faith, even if you have reason to suspect that they are a believer.

• Don’t ask about a person’s marital or family status, unless they bring it up (i.e., “I need to pick my kids up at day care—is that OK?”). Even then, don’t pry.

• Don’t ask political questions unless the position is political itself. You can’t (legally) discern a person’s heart by asking their opinion of Obamacare.

I’m a big believer in hiring for attitudes more than aptitudes. Most work-related skills can be taught, assuming a minimally relevant background. What I look for is eagerness to engage, enthusiasm for the organization, a team orientation, and a level of humility that is in some ways the opposite of a sterling resume. So far, I’ve been happier with the results of those hires.

 

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