Just about everyone I know thinks they're great at hiring. Just the other night I was sitting with a bunch of academics who assured me they "just knew" when a candidate was right. They told me about the great picks they'd made, the glorious careers they'd nurtured. They couldn't--without a lot of prompting--remember the duds.

This is affirmation bias at work: We remember clearly the smart things we did and we gently erase our shrink our mistakes. But when it comes to hiring, the evidence suggests that, really, no one knows anything. When Google crunched its massive amount of data concerning hiring, they could identify no process, no individual, no line of questioning or interrogation which successfully surfaced an exceptional number of good hires. Only in highly circumscribed areas of minutely specific technical knowhow was a high success rate possible--and then only because the pool of appropriate candidates was so rarefied.

We know what doesn't work: intricate challenges, brain teasers, GPAs, test scores. None of these tell you anything that matters. Being consistent in interview questioning is helpful as are behavioral questions that ask for evidence of how a candidate has acted in particular circumstances. But the idea that anyone "just knows" is folly. We all suffer from unconscious bias and prefer people most like ourselves.

Every business person I talk to worries about their people. For most CEOs, this is their biggest concern: How to get the most out of the right people? If picking them is random and error-prone, what can we do to get this right? Here's my take.

  1. If we can't hire well, let's fire well. There are good and bad ways to let people go. The approved HR way is quick and fast, brutal and unpleasant. When you have to let people go, it's often because everyone made mistakes. So make the process humane and dignified. Acknowledge error on both sides and make it your goal to leave all parties with respect for one another.
  2. Introduce longer trial periods. The hiring manager and the new hire both need time to get to know one another. Build that time into the agreement so that both can call it off if the fit isn't great. This freedom has to pertain on both sides so that no one feels terrified or exploited--just free to do their best and tell the truth.
  3. Use a wide range of interviewers--separately. Interviewing in a group is almost guaranteed to generate groupthink and to exacerbate bias. Instead, let the candidates meet a range of people in the business and pool impressions only at the end.
  4. Make time for team building. Most companies--especially small ones--make new hires, set them to work and expect the rest to just work out--somehow. But in busy offices, this typically means there's little get-to-know-you time which means there's no opportunity to learn together or to build trust. Create that time and remind everyone that in successful teams, everyone has to deliver--or no one does.

Will this make hiring fool-proof? Of course not. There is probably a connection between the fact that we are bad at hiring, and that leaders worry more about people than any other issue. Instead of looking for the holy grail, we'd do better to devise strong safety nets.