Anyone who works in a profession long enough develops a “sixth sense” about when something is going to work and when it is not. Recruiting is no different, and talent acquisition professionals often think they can tell, from a quick interaction with a candidate or a scan of a resume, whether someone will be a good fit for their organization.
But just because you have the ability to make these quick decisions, does it mean that you should? This article will explore the concept of thin-slicing and how it applies to the hiring process, particularly in today’s climate where diversity, equity, and inclusion are an increasing focus.
The term “thin-slicing” was first used in the psychology field in the 1990s and popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” The concept is that the judgment you make about someone in the first few minutes — or even seconds — of an interaction is just as good as the impression you’ll make after spending more time with them.
Psychologists say that the power to thin slice is inherent to all humans and it’s why first impressions are so important in many aspects of our lives. Thin slicing fueled the rise of speed dating and speed networking and became even more prevalent on social media, where you can judge someone based solely on their online profile.
Gladwell argues that the quick decisions resulting from thin slicing are just as good, if not better, than decisions made after longer periods of deliberation with more information. He says we can all be more efficient and make better decisions if we can feel more confident about trusting our gut and not letting distractions get in the way.
Some amount of thin-slicing is inevitable in the hiring process. If every applicant was carefully vetted using all available pieces of information, no one would ever get hired for any position. As Gladwell argues in “Blink,” it's his position that those first instincts are correct most of the time, especially when they come from someone who has knowledge and experience in a particular area.
Thin-slicing is most often used in the early stages of the hiring process when candidate pools are large and there are a lot of applications to go through. It’s the principle behind artificial intelligence in hiring that sorts candidates based on keywords in their resume or cover letter — a computer can thin slice in ways that humans can’t.
As the search progresses, thin slicing enters the picture during interviews. Everyone makes an initial judgment about someone upon meeting them for the first time. The question is how much to use that gut reaction in relation to everything else you learn about a candidate during the interview.
As Gladwell notes, some people are better at thin-slicing than others, which is one of many reasons why it’s important to have multiple perspectives represented during the hiring process. Combining input from several people can cancel out any first impressions or initial reactions that are off base.
Thin-slicing relies on implicit biases to make quick decisions. Unfortunately, those biases can work against women, people of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people, and others from marginalized or under-represented groups. Even something as small as a name can trigger impressions about someone’s personality that may or may not be true.
An over-reliance on thin-slicing can lead to the perpetuation of the status quo because we’re all biased toward the familiar in some way. This is why it’s so important to be conscious about bringing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens to every part of the hiring process.
Take the time to reflect on, and perhaps challenge, the decisions that come as a result of relying too much on thin-slicing. Who do you risk leaving behind? How do your impulses compare to your organization’s company culture and DEI values?
It’s important to answer those questions before the review process begins and take time to check in along the way to make sure you haven’t fallen back into relying on biases or old ways of thinking.
As you can see, thin-slicing offers both promise and peril in the hiring process. Gladwell and others show that it can have real benefits and clearly increases efficiency in some aspects of the search. However, it can also lead to a perpetuation of the status quo at the expense of under-represented communities.
Given this apparent contradiction, what’s a human resources professional to do? Now that you know a little about what thin-slicing is and how it plays out in hiring, you can be more aware of when you and others on your team are doing it and take steps to address it or change course if needed.
As the old saying goes, “knowledge equals power,” and that’s definitely the case here. Armed with information about thin-slicing, you can determine how to make it work for your organization to reap the promise it brings without getting caught up in its peril.
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