Balancing Subjectivity and Objectivity

In business, the Human Resource function often proves to be the exception to many rules that apply to other areas of organization activities like finance and operations.  The application of science, technology, engineering, and math in these latter two areas and others is an expectation of both the workforce and leaders.  When it comes to human resources, however; especially in the area of hiring; the application of objective standards can be viewed as impersonal and lacking empathy.  With hiring decisions, there is often a temptation to use subjective observations rather than objective information collection.  The suggestion to those predominantly outside of HR circles that decisions based primarily on the subjective are risky may receive highly emotional responses in opposition.  It is not forbidden to make hiring decisions for subjective reasons, but employers must be able to state reasonable and specific facts for doing so (Clark, 2000).

Opposition to the application of science and mathematics to human behavior is by no means new.  To name just a few, Freud’s work in psychoanalysis met with skepticism when introduced.  Mark Twain is known to have popularized the phrase, “There are three types of lies, lies, da**ed lies, and then there are statistics,” indicating his disdain, and that of many then and now, for the discipline.  The idea of reducing human behavior to statistical patterns to be assessed against behavioral theories using inferential statistics feels wrong to many.  Such feelings may be due to the impression that the processes and theories involved do not allow for potential variances in behavior.  This impression is incorrect, but many do not understand, and as a result, may push back hard against attempts to apply such methods wholesale.  Such a reaction is not unreasonable.  Like any tools, in the wrong hands, they can be applied incorrectly, to the detriment of others.  After all, some qualifications like creativity or friendliness are inherently subjective.

This observation applies to both ends of the objectivity/subjectivity spectrum.  Absolutism is folly in either direction.  For example, the head of a research department at a large organization revealed that the talent search algorithms that the HR department was utilizing to fill open research positions, had up to that point, rejected all applicants based on the job qualifications submitted by the department head.  The HR department rejected the request to review the applications and resumes manually even though the department head was personally familiar with the skillsets of several applicants known to have applied for the role.  In this case, one might logically conclude that this is an example of overreliance on an objective method and blind objectivity in a hiring decision where the application of human subjectivity might be appropriate.

To the other extreme, a post on social media described a scenario where a hiring manager made an offer of employment to a candidate despite his arriving 30 minutes late for the interview.  The candidate explained that he would have been on time but that there had been an accident on the way which delayed him.  He claimed to have left his vehicle and ran the rest of the way to the interview.  Based on the candidate’s statement, resume, and a rain-dampened suit to corroborate his claim, (it had been raining that day), the manager determined that he was the superior candidate due to his effort to overcome the adversity of the situation and still arrive.  In this case, one can logically conclude that there was an overreliance on limited subjective information to make a hiring decision when the addition of more objective methods such as a multi-rater structured interview process, and skills or personality assessments to validate (or invalidate) the hiring manager’s perceptions would have likely been prudent.

This fact takes us back to the original thought that when it comes to human resources; especially the areas of talent acquisition; there may be a reluctance, (at least among many non-HR practitioners), to apply objective standards stringently.  Such reluctance is evident even though payroll costs including salary, bonuses, and commissions; along with the costs of employee benefits, advertising for open positions, screening applicants, interviewing employment candidates, and training new employees, combine for the largest expenses that businesses incur (McQuerry, n.d.).

Most people enjoy a fairy tale ending.  Getting hired on the spot without having to endure the “red tape” of the full hiring process because adversity made one late, would certainly qualify in this regard.  In truth, however, being hired is only the beginning of the employment story, not the end.  If hiring managers execute decisions poorly or irresponsibly, and the candidate does not live up to expectations, the subjective criterion used to make the final decision may offend others.  The potential fallout, both internally and externally, for disregarding a current, objective process in this manner can be quite negative.  A company should be prepared to explain why those subjective criteria were used to select the best candidate or risk litigation (California Employment Law, 2016).

Whenever possible, a hiring process that combines both the objective and subjective, and falls somewhere between the extremes of the spectrum is likely to be more acceptable, appropriate, and lead to desirable outcomes on a more consistent basis.

References

California Employment Law. (2016, March). Feel free to use subjective factors when hiring, but be prepared to explain. California Employment Law, p. 2. Retrieved from theHRSpecialist.com.

Clark, M. M. (2000). Subjectivity considered valid in hiring decisions. HR Magazine, 45(12), p. 1.

McQuerry, L. (n.d.). Top 5 Business Expenses | Your Business. Retrieved from AZ Central: https://yourbusiness.azcentral.com/top-5-business-expenses-11388.html