Why Unqualified Candidates Get Hired Anyway

Why do businesses evaluate candidates solely on past job performance, failing to consider the job's difficulty? Why do university admissions officers focus on high GPAs, discounting influence of easy grading standards? Francesca Gino and colleagues investigate the phenomenon of the "fundamental attribution error."
by Anna Secino

People make snap judgments all the time. That woman in the sharp business suit must be intelligent and successful; the driver who just cut me off is a rude jerk.

These instant assessments, when we attribute a person's behavior to innate characteristics rather than external circumstances, happen so frequently that psychologists have a name for them: "fundamental attribution errors." Unable to know every aspect of a stranger's backstory, yet still needing to make a primal designation between friend and foe, we watch for surface cues: expensive pants—friend; aggressive driving—foe.

A new research paper demonstrates that the fundamental attribution error is so deeply rooted in our decision making that not even highly trained people-evaluators, such as hiring managers and school admissions officers, can defeat its effects.

“One of the consequences is that you end up admitting people who should not be admitted, and rejecting people who should not be rejected.”

Inflated Applicants: Attribution Errors in Performance Evaluation by Professionals paints a picture of businesses repeatedly promoting or hiring less-qualified managers who benefit simply by being associated with a high-growth group, or universities who weaken their academic achievements by admitting students who have earned high GPAs in high school without considering the ease of the schools' curricula. The research, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, was conducted by Samuel A. Swift and Don A. Moore, University of California at Berkeley; Zachariah S. Sharek, Carnegie Mellon University; and Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School.

"Across all our studies, the results suggest that experts take high performance as evidence of high ability and do not sufficiently discount it by the ease with which that performance was achieved," the paper reports.

Most research in this area has focused on defining the fundamental attribution error rather than actually observing its practical effects. The researchers decided to investigate whether business executives and admissions officers—people whose jobs require unclouded judgment—are as susceptible to the error as the rest of us. If this were the case, their research could be the crucial first step towards helping businesses and universities make smarter recruitment choices.

"Nobody before us really looked at the consequences for important decisions like selection and admissions," says Gino, an associate professor in the Negotiations, Organizations & Markets unit at HBS. "And you can imagine that one of the consequences is that you end up admitting people who should not be admitted, and rejecting people who should not be rejected."

The results are enough to spook anyone who has ever sent off a résumé or college application: not only were the studies' subjects unable to counteract this correspondence bias, they remained susceptible to it even when warned explicitly of its dangers.

Making The Grade

Excited to begin a study with such distinctly practical footing, the researchers devised a set of experiments to measure executives' and admissions officers' resistance to this phenomenon.

Hiring managers often fail to consider external circumstances when evaluating job candidates.The first study asked professional university admissions officers to evaluate nine fictional applicants, whose high schools were reportedly uniform in quality and selectivity. Only one major point of variance existed between the schools: grading standards, which ranged from lenient to harsh. Predictably, students from "lenient" schools had higher GPAs than students from "harsh" schools—and, just as predictably, those fictional applicants got accepted at much higher rates than their peers.

"We see that admissions officers tend to pick a candidate who performed well on easy tasks rather than a candidate who performed less well at difficult tasks," says Gino, noting that even seasoned professionals discount information about the candidate's situation, attributing behavior to innate ability.

Similar results can be seen for the second study, in which the researchers asked business executives to evaluate twelve fictional candidates for promotion. In this scenario, certain candidates had performed well at an easier job (managing a relatively calm airport), while others had performed less well at a harder job (managing an unruly airport).

As with the admissions officers, the executives consistently favored employees whose performance had benefitted from the easier situation—which, while fortuitous for those lucky employees, can be disastrous on a companywide scale. When executives promote employees based primarily on their performance in a specific environment, a drop in that employee's success can be expected once they begin working under different conditions, Gino explains.

Having determined that executives and admissions officers are equally likely to commit these logical fallacies, the researchers turned their attention towards ruling out alternative explanations, and verifying these results outside of the lab. The third study in the series asked subjects to look at people's scores in a game, and guess how well they would do in the subsequent round.

"We wanted to see if we could eliminate the bias by providing people with full information," Gino says.

But even when subjects were told that these scores were subjective, and that some games had been easier than others, the participants consistently betted on the players with the highest scores—and were consistently disappointed when their choices went on to lose the second game.

Failing The Test

The implications of this judgment (or lack thereof) are clearly reflected in the real admissions records of graduate business schools, which tend not to consider situational influences in their evaluation of applicants, and are more likely to accept students from schools with lenient grading norms. Applicants with a GPA that is one standard deviation above the mean, 0.17 points, are 31 percent more likely to be accepted than denied or waitlisted, the authors report in the paper. Furthermore, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 58 percent of employers won't even consider candidates with a GPA of 3.0 or lower.

These practices endanger not only the quality of the universities but the futures of the students themselves, according to the researchers.

Gino reports being surprised at how difficult it was to counteract the fundamental attribution error, and, particularly, how strongly its effects could be seen in these records.

"We thought that experts might not be as likely to engage in this type of error, and we also thought that in situations where we were very, very clear about [varying external circumstances], that there would be less susceptibility to the bias," she says. "Instead, we found that expertise doesn't help, and having the information right in front of your eyes is not as helpful."

Yet hope is not lost. Having identified the pervasive, often harmful effects of this universal error, the researchers' next steps will work toward formulating new methods of personal evaluation, which may help universities and businesses safeguard against misguided recruitment efforts.

In the meantime, staying mindful of the fundamental attribution error can, if only in hindsight, provide a humbling reminder of the limits to human perception, and perhaps—with enough reinforcement—teach us not to make the same mistake twice.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. Anna Secino, an intern at HBS, is a junior at Smith College.
    • Sridhara N Sastry
    • Head - Operations, Grasim Industries Limited
    Very aptly said. The recency effect is so strong even in the minds of very Senior Management team members. I can at least remember two occasions where we lost a very high potential candidates- just because they said a no to an illogical ideas by the bosses
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    It is a fact that hiring is done routinely and mechanically- emphasis on externals prevail and the recruiters do not use even their commonsense to separate good from bad. The problem is that they would have to do lot of explaining if for example they preferred one with lower academic results due to various other reasons which might be very valid otherwise. This leads to short cuts and managements need to devise systems for avoiding those.
    The other problem is that you need to fill vacancies quickly and do not therefore reject those who come before you first unless the basics are not met. Naturally, you select without further introspections which may lead to delays. We do not advocate this approach at all. After all, long-term interests of the organisation are more important.
    • Sahir sabir
    • United Nation
    Well, this practise is so common every where in the world espically in the non-devolpoe nation , like Pakistan . When I had accomplished master , there was and still the tendency to appear for any test you should have GPA 3.5 or above ,this is not the fair judgment or practiced employer made it. According to my personally experience this think should have completely eliminate it from the whole world not only in few institution , because , there are two types of student as I had seen in my student life , one who's run after to get higher marks or GPA by doing anything , and second, they do not bother about to get high GPA's or grades , they just wants to learn methods, teqnuiques and practice .
    • Adam Hartung
    • Managing Partner, Spark Partners
    Excellent article. We see frequently people who are attributed with business skill and acumen simply because they have a lofty title - even if they have few experiences justifying the conclusion they have skills. Far too often a person who "manages their career" by simply looking for easy next steps and title improvements moves up faster than a person accomplishing real results. The attribution bias starts to become self-fulfilling, as HR people say "look how fast Joe is moving up" rather than understanding real contribution.

    Attributing acumen to title is rife throughout business, but nowhere more than CEO. CEOs are given wide berth to offer opinions on countless topics, even if their organizations have produced little return for shareholders, grown revenues, grown employment or built a healthy vendor ecosystem. Just because they are/were the CEO of some corporation recruiters, media journalists and politicians behave as if their thoughts are deep insights.
    • Leeza Patel-Malinowski
    • Credit Manager, Entertainment/Gaming
    I particularly am convinced it is because "unqualified" Top Executives do not want their subordinates to over rule them or be their competition.
    • Art Roobenstine
    • retired
    The third study wasn't adequately explained. If early game scores weren't good predictors of later game scores, what other information was available to form better guesses? Offhand, maybe a combination like (early score, degree of difficulty) might offer a better basis for prediction.
    • Signe Spencer
    • senior consultant, Hay Group
    This is one of the key issues that David McClelland addressed with the Behavioral Event Interview, which looks specifically at what the candidates themselves did, said, thought and felt in the course of critical work events- and evaluates those behavior patterns (competencies) against those seen in similar interviews with outstanding performers in the target role. It works quite well.
    • Sridhar Raj
    • Assistant Professor, Institute of Public Enterprise
    I agree with the author that the individuals make snap judgments. That happens not only at the time of admissions and promotions, but also during our personal relationships as well. A good piece of research. As a faculty teaching Organizational Behavior to the management students, I also make them aware of such innumerable situations within and outside organizations.
    • Phillip Gelman
    • Consultant, MoneyInTheTill.com
    There appears to be an unwritten commandment that the best new sales manager or head of department is someone who has failed in his last several positions. Perhaps failure teaches what one should not do.
    • Jeff Spears
    • CEO, Sanctuary Wealth Services
    I am guilty of the attribution bias of putting too much emphasis on a recommendation of someone I know. Very interested to read your research on how to avoid this bias in the future.
    • Murray
    • CFO, UOL
    It is correct to choose based on scores because it is impossible to gauge what the difference in difficulty was. Therefore difficulty gets ignored or discounted. Game theory predicts we go after what we know - the sure thing.
    As for the airports scenario - some people are good at whatever they do, others mess up whatever the circumstances. There might be a dip in performance in the beginning, perhaps longer term performance may be a better indicator.
    • Reaksmey P
    • Blogger, www.growintoyourself.com
    I'm glad that research is being done on this topic to objectively share this phenomenon. I think one solution for the individual who knows that this happens is by taking it in their own hands. Meaning, if I were a candidate who would not be the first pick, I would make my case either on paper, phone, resume, etc. as to why I should be considered. It's addressing their concerns on the front end.
    • Ed Stillman
    • Executive Coach & Group Chair, Vistage International
    We are all going 70 miles per hour yet we need to identify the A directors, managers, and employees and invite them to part of your hiring process. Engage your applicant by explaining your culture and values. Today my CEO members are focused on a cultural fit first. my sense is smart people want to be around smart people yet when you let your B and C managers handle the talent acquisition you are going to get average results at best from those new employees. Why, because B and C performers are not going to hire A performers for fear of losing their job.

    Hire thinking alignment and the best, most competent talent your dollar can afford!
    • Arlene B. Isaacs
    • Professionalism/Leadership Consultant, Arlene B. Isaacs & Associates
    GPA is only one measurement. Professionalism has numerous components. The ability to inter-act respectfully and productively with people of diverse generations and cultural backgrounds is NOT taught in schools and colleges. It is assumed that "social skills" are taught at home. I have had clients from Harvard Law, Columbia Law, CFO's and.... I teach inner-city youth "How to Get your Foot In The Door And NOT In Your Mouth" through my non-profit, RESPECTFUL COMMUNICATIONS. The objective is to distinguish yourself from the competition, to be an ASSET not an ass. You acquire crucial allies by understanding ACKNOWLEDGEMENT thereby making it "Easy and Pleasurable for Other People to help YOU Succeed".
    • David Carnevale
    • VP of Marketing, Tachyon Networks
    Pure performance measurements also lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Decades ago at the "Harvard of the West" I led a group of students that caused the Business School to cease giving numerical grades. We were able to do this because a decades long study by the school of its alumni showed no correlation between grades and success.

    During my 2nd year, I had an interview with a Partner from The Boston Consulting Group.

    Repeatedly the interviewer tried to get me to state my GPA. Finally, I asked him why that was so important? After all there were 30,000+ applicants for only 300 places at that time. All of those admitted were already in a top 1%. His answer was, "We only hire from the top 5% at Stanford, Harvard, etc. and we find that important for success at our firm."

    I responded, "You do understand that, if you only hire from the top 5%; by definition, only the top 5% can be successful, since you have excluded everyone else?"

    It is the only interview I ever terminated myself.
    • Andres
    • Manager, Difundible.com
    Very interesting. This is why tests like GMAT help in decision making about admissions, because it is taken under almost the same conditions for everybody.
    Also, it reminds us that success and failure are two imposters, and that luck and looks are very important.
    • sumit barat
    • top management, aviation services
    how often do we have a functional manager, going out of the comfort zone to justify an outstanding candidate that HR has declined due to attribution error? the solution lies in aligning the functionally and synchronizing across silos. is the HR aware of the broad strategic goals? do they attend or spend time at shop floors to understand the actual requirement of a customer associate or do they rely on [solely] second hand reports from line managers? HR is supposed to design organization, design jobs, design offices and this they can only do effectively if they understand the business... modern business needs more matured managers, who live the business, eat the business, love the business, and dream the business...
    • RETIREE/STUDENT, michaeljreeves.ter@sbcglobal.net - retiree/student
    Though the article didn't touch on it, there exists an equally presumptive bias: the assumption that the high achiever is more capable and can do more in the same amount of time than the average performing individual.

    The high achiever often has to forgo optional tasks to focus on higher priority tasks to be successful. Since, there is no-one to witness the extra time and effort this individual puts into his work, external observers only see the results and not the actual work.

    Based on the results, these external observers falsely assume that the high achiever is capable of doing more in less time, and have unrealistic expectations of how much additional work they can require of this individual.

    The net result of these erroneous assumptions is "burn-out" of the student or employee.


    • Roberto Barriga
    • ops, Delta Services
    Interesting article and I agree that the bias does exist. Nevertheless if you are trying to pick the best possible applicant or candidate, it is understandable and reasonable to pick for example an A+ student from an easier school than the B- from the harder school. Why? Because the A+ student still has the potential to be an A+ student in a harder school while the B- student has already shown you he can not.
    • Carl P.
    • L& OD Consultant
    I concur that, attribution error, as a methodology - is definitively utilized across industries and is directly associated with: "The limited evaluation of human capital and results in bias hiring and/or admission practices." As noted, in the research findings, the characteristics that are linked to the best or top tier recruitment considerations - are clearly not the best indicators of performance attributes; overtime).

    This type of standardization produces variable errors in defining the appropriate candidate (s), and seemingly does not always correlate to high performance contributors (as defined). It also, decreases/limits the number of viable candidates that could potentially - add value and bring specialized skills to an organization, beyond: predisposed indicators attributed to success.

    Simply considered, to only select individuals based upon formative observational standards, and not incorporate substantive means of evaluation - will continue the proliferation of: "Unqualified Candidates Getting Hired." Resulting in, the short/long-term demise of the select industry/organization, and that of our society (you are only as good as your people - that is why a selection process that assesses/considers all attributes of a candidate; is the only way to increase growth and sustainability).
    • Fabian Ringler
    • Vice President Strategy, Development & Marketing, Austiran Hockey Federation
    A must-see in this context: "How to identify undervalued talent?", from Rasmus Ankersen which visualizes different performance evaluation bias traps - mainly taken from the world of sports - in an amazing style and gives answers to avoid them http://vimeo.com/43247784
    • John Sheppard
    • City Manager, City of Walters, OK
    Maybe this is simply the Peter Principal. If you don't know what that is google it. A couple of years ago my oldest Son, who is a Safety Professional interview with a mid-size construction company and won the position. After a few months on the job management recognized that they needed skills in investigating workers comp claims. My son laid out a quick overview of how to set up such a program. His supervisor mentioned that he had not told them during his interview that he had that experience. He replied, "You were hiring a Safety Professional and you didn't ask about claims investigation." Maybe we don't ask the right questions.

    Some years ago, I am old, I was asked to sit in on the final interviews when an associated organization was hiring a marketing manager. We did know what we were doing since our product was electricity that would be sold in an open competitive market that did not yet exist. I asked the candidate to describe a marketing failure he had experienced and how he handled it. He replied, "What makes you think I have failures?" That was the wrong answer and this young man was A+ student had significant accomplishments in his Resume, your basic overachiever. I wanted to know that he knew how to fail and that he could manage, analyze, reconfigure and move forward. Sometimes you really want to know they can pull it out of the fire.

    I will take someone with failures over a super student/overachiever. One of my Dad's quotes was, "It's time to cut the bull and load the wagon!"
    • J
    • Entry, NA
    Companies whine about bad hires all the time, how it costs them 6 digit sums, yet somehow never consider the common sense approach of giving paid trial periods which will be much quicker and more accurate to judge the capability of the candidate in the actual work process. Instead they still rely on the "marriage-based on first impression" type approach, praising it when it works while ignoring it when it doesn't.
    • Elaine Ellis
    • Postgraduate Psychology Student, UCLAN
    As a Postgraduate Psychology student, this article really fascinates me. It appears to hint at explanations for numerous disturbing social phenomena; particularly those occurring within the workplace, and within educational settings.
    I have long been puzzled as to why it is that numerous studies have highlighted the apparent ease with which Psychopaths and Sociopaths can climb the corporate ladder. For example, "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work" (by Babiak and Hare) was a book that attempted to address this disturbing phenomenon. It pointed out the (very worrying) fact that a disproportionately high number of Psychopaths/Sociopaths make it into Management positions. It drew attention to their glib, and supercilious - but also extremely charming - manner. It highlighted the fact that such individuals are very adept at "walking the walk and talking the talk"; that they are consummate "con artists" who present themselves as affable, competent, organised...
    What the book also pointed out was the frightening fact that many people - employers, colleagues, friends and associates - "fall" for the ruse of the Psychopath/Sociopath. They are completely "taken in" by such people.
    I have always been aware of the concept of "fundamental attribution error", and after reading this article, would agree that it is a particularly dangerous one. It is this quality of humans - this apparent desire to
    rely upon "snap judgements", and the use of "shorthand" in our evaluation of others - that leads us into all kinds of problems. Humans; though allegedly highly-evolved, and highly-intelligent creatures; are apt to err. By choosing (whether consciously, or subconsciously) to judge others based often upon superficial appearances only; or to make judgements based upon only partial information, or questionable "facts; humans open themselves up to significant errors of judgement. They become liable to the making of (potentially) disastrous decisions, quite simply because they have failed to act in a manner that was both impartial, and holistic.
    By evaluating the smartly-dressed and confidently-spoken job candidate as "capable", "intelligent", or similar, the potential employer is both utilising a lazy "shorthand" for the sake of apparent convenience, and committing a fundamental error. Just because someone wears a suit, and speaks well, does NOT mean that they are the best candidate for a job - or even a good candidate! Remember! HITLER wore a suit! TED BUNDY wore a suit!
    Nor, as the article correctly highlights, does a person's confidence; derived from success in simple tasks; prove positive that said person can perform well under more complicated or taxing conditions. Put simply, the person who has had "an easy ride" through life is highly likely to present as confident, outgoing and exuberant (whether as a job candidate, or otherwise) - they have NEVER experienced the reality of a challenge (to them, or to their notions about life).
    For the above reasons - as well as those quoted in the article - it becomes easy to see why Psychopaths and Sociopaths - as well as completely under-qualified and poorly-experienced candidates - can go on, not only to be hired, but to make it into Management positions, and beyond. People far too easily ascribe to others attributes that the do not have! And, sadly, those individuals who wish to advance themselves irrespective of genuine ability or talent may well learn to play on this fact. Dress well, act confident, "blag", "talk the talk", "big oneself up"... whatever it takes to come across as "competent", "knowledgeable", "a good candidate".
    We all know in life about "stereotype" and "prejudice". Well, just like the "fundamental attributional error" (to which they probably help contribute), these human failings are alive and kicking in the world of business. Many educational establishments and career guidance centres coach students as to how to "present" at job interviews. I doubt very much that the content of such coaching will differ greatly from institution to institution; quite simply, it is well known that there are certain "expectations" of interviewees. Dress smartly, be polite, be punctual, appear confident... So, we have a "stereotype" of the "ideal candidate", do we not? Match this, and perhaps even if you are not particularly intelligent, gifted, or well-qualified, you are still at least part way there!
    To add insult to injury, the genuinely good and competent candidate may not always stand out as such. Some individuals; no matter how intelligent, well-qualified, and brimming with potential; suffer adversely during interviews. They may be "nervous wrecks" who consequently find it difficult to articulate effectively. Please do not jump to conclusions, here. There is often a negative assumption that nervousness somehow equates with inability, or lack of competence. THAT IS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE! We must try to remain aware of the fact that some people GENUINELY experience "social anxiety", "performance anxiety", or "testophobia". The utterly brilliant candidate may simply be unable, under interview conditions, to fully communicate that brilliance!
    Besides, other things may work against the genuinely ideal candidate, and make them appear "less than ideal". They may be somewhat unconventional in dress, thought or mannerisms. They may be challenging, outspoken, and "think outside the box". They may not have an obvious track record of easy successes; rather they may have worked in highly complex, fraught, and pressurised roles for years, "nose to the grindstone", with little obvious glory. But they have done the job! They may actually have succeeded by merely "treading water" in difficult situations where others could have sunk without a trace! SHOULD these things make a candidate appear less desirable? Alas, they sometimes do. The quiet, softly-spoken, less attention-seeking individual may be "passed over" as "introverted", "not a team player", "aloof", or "unambitious"; when in reality, they are hard working, dedicated, uncomplaini
    ng, but perhaps a little shy. The unconventional, free-thinking individual may unfairly be labelled a "challenge", or "insubordinate".
    Again, (negative) stereotype and prejudice, plays a part. Candidates are "labelled", often before they have even held a full conversation with the interviewer, or interviewing panel. There may well even be certain individuals who are genuinely put off applying for certain positions/jobs, because they believe that they possess "undesirable" traits; or because they feel that they "cannot match" with desirable criteria. It is important to understand that potential candidates are given role descriptions and person specifications prior to application for a job. How many of said candidates utilise these in order to "fake it" through interview? And how many of said potential candidates are "turned off" by the role description/person specification, and thus fail to apply for the job? How many see such things and think "Well, THAT'S just NOT ME! I'll NEVER be able to prove my ability to do THAT!"? How many compare themselves
    , and feel that they are lacking?
    Sadly, I am currently unaware as to whether such research has ever been undertaken. It would be interesting to know whether potential interview candidates ARE frightened away before even applying for a job, quite simply because, in their eyes, they cannot meet with the specifications. It would be equally as interesting to know whether other candidates - candidates who may, in truth, be less competent and well-qualified, but who are FAR MORE cocky and adept at self-aggrandizement - utilise and manipulate their prior knowledge of the person specification, in particular, to make themselves look like they are the "right person for the job"? Thus, it becomes an issue of personality, not ability - cocky and overtly confident gets the job; perfectly able, well-qualified, but less self-assured (and much less able to glibly manipulate the opinion of others) does not!
    Here, I am brought smartly back to the issue of Psychopaths and Sociopaths. Remember them as glib and manipulative? Remember that they often climb quickly to Management roles? Well, little wonder why! Ditto workplace bullies!
    Just like the under-qualified candidate, these individuals have the fallibility of human nature to fall back upon!