Hiring is the single riskiest responsibility for most managers. Like the Kobayashi Maru, hiring appears to be a no-win scenario – the perfect storm of problematic job responsibilities:

  • Hiring involves making a public commitment to a strategic business goal. The manager must define the strategic business outcomes expected from the hire, in exchange for spending precious money from the salary budget. But as physicist Niels Bohr wryly observed, “It is exceedingly difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.”
  • Hiring requires that you determine what actually drives business impact. As if defining desired business outcomes wasn’t difficult enough, it is harder still to define the knowledge, skills, and abilities that actually drive business impact. (To see how few managers understand what drives impact, simply look at the laundry list of desired experience, skills, and credentials found in most job descriptions.)
  • Hiring requires that you determine the profile of person best qualified to do the work. No manager is a job market expert, so how reasonable is it to expect that managers will be able to identify and assess the ideal career profiles of people who will be successful in the job? Among the thousands of things that could be learned about another person, how will the manager prioritize which factors are most relevant?
  • Hiring requires that you accurately assess skills. It’s profoundly difficult to accurately assess another human being, especially someone you barely know. In an interview, how is the manager to determine whether a polished answer is a good answer or a smooth cover story? To be successful, managers must determine the difference between someone who is good at interviewing and someone who is good at working. (Because if a person is not good at working, they have to be great at interviewing.)

It can be hard enough worrying about being duped by an idiot, a sociopath, or a con artist, but don’t forget that managers must also studiously not ask questions that might lead to a lawsuit. And to make matters worse, how will managers get past their own unconscious biases? (This problem even continues long after the hiring decision. Studies have shown that performance reviews often reveal more about the rater than the ratee.)

  • Hiring decisions are held to an absurd standard of success. If anything goes wrong, it’s the manager’s fault (just like when you set up your grandparents’ new computer). And something can go wrong every step of the way. Maybe the job ads didn’t attract enough on-target candidates. Maybe the budget is too low to afford the most qualified people. Maybe the interview process dragged out, candidates dropped out, and the one finalist declined the job offer. Maybe the candidate accepted the job offer, but did not work out for any number of reasons.

Ultimately the reasons don’t matter. All anyone notices is a big empty desk and money drained from your budget on a failed hire, like that dusty unused computer sitting on Grandpa’s desk.

And when hiring does actually work out, it’s not even labeled a success. In most organizations, hiring is treated like a distraction from the actual work that’s going on.

No wonder managers avoid it, or at least try to spread the risk around a bit. Where’s the upside?

How Managers Duck Risk

In the face of seemingly insurmountable risk, hiring managers try to lower their discomfort by mitigating their own personal risk. But these tactics don’t reduce the organization’s hiring risk; they only spread it around, sometimes just making things worse.

That’s because most risk management strategies are only painkillers, not cures. Here are the most common strategies managers use to reduce their hiring discomfort:

  • Rather than creating a job description based upon their strategic business needs, most managers borrow a template and hope it covers everything. (Instead, here are some thoughts on how to write a good job description.)
  • Rather than making the decision on their own, some managers involve a large number of colleagues. If everyone agrees on a hiring decision, then no single person takes the blame for a failure, right? The problem is that this tactic actually increases the chance of failure. Having too many people involved results in a slow-moving hiring process. Interview scheduling takes longer, agreement is harder to reach, and good candidates drop out. (Here is how to decide who to include in the hiring process.)
  • Using pre-employment personality testing. Managers love to use these tests as a means of mitigating the risk of evaluating people. The test also provides a useful scapegoat – if someone doesn’t work out, it’s much easier to blame the test.
  • Not deciding. Dragging out the process hoping for the “perfect candidate” to arrive.

None of these tactics actually mitigate risk. Quite the opposite. In the eyes of the candidate, all they do is reflect badly on your company. They obscure your actual decision-making and remove responsibility. They are risk-ducking, not risk-reducing.

What Actually Reduces Hiring Risk

There are three keys to hiring with certainty: choice, competition, and market research.

  • Choice: You are far more likely to make a great hiring decision when you have a choice of final candidates at the end of the search process. If you only have one qualified finalist, you can only make the decision to hire or not hire. But when you have two or more great finalists, then you have a choice. Instead of asking, “Would I rather hire or not hire this person?” you can ask, “Which one of these great people would fit in best here?”
  • Competition: A great hiring decision requires rigorous competition between well qualified candidates. So whenever possible, we recommend six well-qualified candidates for a rigorous interview process – because when you start with fewer people, you rarely end up with more than one truly qualified finalist. Without realizing it, managers tend to adjust their hiring standards up or down depending on the size of the candidate pool. When not enough candidates are interviewed, managers tend to subtly lower their expectations so they do not rule out everyone.
  • Market Research: Instead of organizing the recruiting effort as a stubborn hunt for unicorns – the mythical perfect candidate – think of your recruiting as market research. When you organize job market knowledge into a useful framework by which hiring managers can make a decision, hiring unpredictability falls away and the path forward becomes clear. But when you launch your recruiting process with a mental image of your perfect candidate, and ignore everyone who doesn’t fit your mental picture, you will often be disappointed. This all-too-common recruiting approach is the root cause of many hiring failures. Yet despite repeated frustrations, most people have never considered any other approach.

Choice, competition, and market research bring rigor and clarity to your hiring process. As Sun Yat-sen once said, “To understand is hard. Once one understands, action is easy.”

This post originally appeared in The HR Examiner.