what role should gut instinct play in hiring?

A reader writes:

As a fellow recruiter/manager, how much do you count your gut instinct into the hiring decision? If someone on paper has all the experience you want and answers all the technical questions correctly and the hiring manager loves him, but he just for some reason gives you a creepy vibe or is a little off-putting — I’m sure you have been through that before — do you make a call based on that? Do you share that gut instinct with the hiring manager?

I’m sure this will be a controversial answer, but I put a lot of stock in my gut — if what it’s telling me is negative. Every time I’ve ignored a negative gut instinct in hiring, I have ended up regretting it. Every single time.

Now, there are two important qualifiers I’d add to this:

1. I pay attention to my gut when it’s saying “don’t hire.”  But I try to ignore my gut when it’s saying “hire.” I want my decisions to hire to be based 100% on solid, real-world evidence — track records of success and so forth.  If I’m going to make a hiring mistake, I would much rather it be that I mistakenly pass up someone good than that I hire someone bad.

And I’ve found that positive gut reactions are more likely to be wrong. They’re often based on things that really shouldn’t matter in hiring — such as that the candidate feels like your type of person, or that she reminds you of your sister. It’s also easier for someone to send off “competence” cues that aren’t backed up by the reality, whereas “incompetence” cues or “bad attitude” cues tend to be linked to something real.

And there is a ton of evidence that our guts want to hire people who are similar to us, especially around gender and race lines.

2. You need to be brutally objective about how qualified your gut is. Has it been educated by experience? Does it has a track record of being right in this area? Do other people agree with your assessment of your gut instincts or are you the only one who thinks they’re great? Is there any chance your gut is engaging in racial discrimination or other forms of bigotry? These are all things you need to think hard about.

(And if your gut frequently tells you someone would be a bad cultural fit when that person happens to be a difference race than you or has a disability, your gut is officially suspect and thus is banned from participating.)


As a side note, what are gut reactions all about, anyway? I do not think they’re some magical mystery that can’t be explained. I think they’re reactions to fact-based evidence that you’re just not processing consciously. Gavin de Becker makes this point in a totally different context in his fantastic book, The Gift of Fear — he points out that when crime victims had a bad gut feeling right before the crime, that alarm wasn’t coming out of nowhere (although it felt like that to them); rather, he noted specific factual things their brains were picking up on subconsciously that were leading to what seemed like an inexplicable bad feeling but was actually traceable to real signals.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Anna*

    I agree with trusting your gut! it's just difficult to justify that instinct when the candidate looks good on paper and interviewed well, and the hiring manager doesn't care what your gut is saying – he/she loves the candidate, and that's that! But you're right; every time I dismissed that instinct, it has turned out to be accurate.

  2. GeekChic*

    I'll agree with your comments about using gut only if this modified sentence is heavily highlighted and bolded: "(And if your gut frequently tells you someone would be a bad cultural fit when that person happens to be a different race or religion than you or has a disability, your gut is officially suspect and thus is banned from participating.)"

    I have seen too many people succumb to their own racism or fear of disability to be overly sanguine about sanctioning gut feelings even when used not to hire. A tip: if you think you don't have any biases you shouldn't be using gut feeling because you don't know yourself well enough and/or don't admit negative things about yourself. Because everyone has biases… everyone.

  3. Savvy Working Gal*

    Trusting your gut works both ways; when you are the interviewee and when you are the interviewer. Two instances come to mind:

    I was interviewing a candidate for a receptionist position. She had been an office manager (actually she was the only office employee) in her previous position. When I asked her specific questions about her duties she gave inconsistent answers; my gut told me she doesn’t know what she is talking about. Over the next few weeks I interviewed several other candidates none of them working out. In desperation I went back to the inconsistent gal because my boss had liked her. What a mistake. It turned out her previous position had been at her boyfriend’s company. She left because they were getting married and she didn’t think it was a good idea for them to continue working together. She never adapted to her company. It took her weeks to even pronounce our company name correctly when answering the phone. She felt the receptionist duties were beneath her and wanted more responsibility like signing checks (I don’t even sign our checks and I’m the Controller). Plus, she was used to coming and going as she pleased. When I balked at allowing her to take another week off without pay because she didn’t have any vacation she resigned. She didn’t make it a year.

    Several years ago, I was interviewed for a controller position. My gut told me I will never be able to work for this guy, but I received an amazing job offer. On paper it was everything I dreamed of and more. Two days into the job I knew I had made a mistake. I stuck it out nine months, hating every minute, ’til I found another job. Now I am probably too cautious.

  4. Anonymous*

    I agree with Savvy Working Gal that the gut instinct is a two-way street in the realm of job searching and hiring.

    I also have had similar thoughts along the lines of the book you suggested, AAM. Sometimes I wonder how my brain picks up on things I might in the present, but somehow it's as if it figures things out before I do – if that makes sense. I might see if the book is in my local library.

  5. Anonymous*

    My gut is always right. I have found that when I ignore it I get into trouble. You really are picking up on subtle clues that your brain isn't categorizing, but is seeing. If the person gives you the creeps, then you are probably right.

  6. JaneA*

    I've been led astray a few times by what I thought was positive gut instinct, but which I realised later was wishful thinking.

    Whenever I've overruled my negative gut instinct, I've regretted it.

  7. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous 11:10 — Get the book! You won't regret it! (Your library should have it; it's pretty popular.) I love your description of your brain knowing before you do — I think that's exactly it. It's like a cognitive process that is just faster and more perceptive than conscious thought.

    JaneA and Hannah — Isn't it interesting how it's not as reliable when it comes to positive instincts? It's the negative instincts that seem ironclad (which is maybe related to survival).

    Which of course leads me to Gift of Fear again — he has this great point in there when he's talking about how people try to talk themselves out of negative instincts, trying to rationalize them away. He points out how ridiculous it would be to see an animal trying to ignore negative instincts –no animal experiencing fear would think "it's probably nothing." I love that.

  8. Charles*


    This is the second issue that I will strongly disagree with you over. (the first is an employer deciding that a candidate is not a good fit because of "culture")

    Now you are saying that it is okay to not hire someone because your "gut" tells you something about them that you cannot articulate!?

    Sorry to use a cliche; but in both cases I feel that you are on a very slippy slope.

    In my experience I have seen many good employees or potentially good employees be screwed over by such ignorance. Judging someone without anything of real substance.

    If the hiring manager cannot articulate what exactly it is that her "gut" is telling her; then maybe she shouldn't be in the position of judging others to see if they are a good fit for the position. Step aside and let someone else do it or, in the very least, ask for a second opinion.

    I'm voicing my opinion because I hope that others who are in the position of hiring/firing don't think that everyone agrees with these ways of doing things. In my opinion such an ignorant way of doing things is morally/ethically wrong.

    BTW, is anyone's instinct truly accurate? Or is it just that when it does predict something that we pay attention while ignoring the dozen of other times when it is inaccurate?

  9. Liz*

    I second GeekChic's comment about being very careful to recognize your own prejudices.

    I've been on the other end of this "gut warning," in a practice interview set up by my school. After I had answered everything as well as I could, the elderly man sat back and said, "You say everything right, and you present yourself well. But there's just something off about you… "

    He suggested it might be that I sat too far forward in my chair.

    I kind of wondered if it might have to do with his stated policy of not hiring women because he "Really needed someone who could play golf."

  10. Ask a Manager*

    Charles — But when the reality is that every time I've ignored a bad gut feeling about a hire and hired them anyway (because of exactly what you wrote — couldn't articulate why I was concerned), that person has ended up being a poor performer who ultimately had to fired or otherwise transitioned out. After a certain point, doesn't it become crazy to ignore that bad feeling, if you know it has literally been right 100% of the times you've ignored it?

  11. GeekChic*

    AAM… not to be overly provocative. But maybe your gut is always right because your relationship with those people was never positive due to prejudices you can't acknowledge? And thus the working environment was poisoned from the start?

    What's the difference between "gut" and "unacknowledged prejudice". If you can't say….

    I'm not saying that there aren't poor workers and I'm also not saying that some people wouldn't do better at different jobs or in different industries. But as a manager you should be able to articulate that – not just fall back on "gut".

    I've felt things in my gut before and took it as a cue to investigate my feelings further and come up with something I could articulate. Because I have prejudices and biases – just like everyone does, including you.

  12. Ask a Manager*

    "But maybe your gut is always right because your relationship with those people was never positive due to prejudices you can't acknowledge? And thus the working environment was poisoned from the start?"

    Yeah, I would think that too, except that that's not it, because some of these are people who I had zero contact with after hiring. Some of them worked across the country from me.

    "Because I have prejudices and biases – just like everyone does, including you."

    Absolutely, I'd never try to claim I don't have biases. Everyone does.

    But I don't think it's crazy to say that "gut reactions" can be your brain picking up on subtle things that you're not processing consciously but which are very real. To me, my experience bears that out, and I'd feel foolish disregarding it. (Not to mention unfair to candidates. I don't like firing people and I'd rather not hire them in the first place than fire them later on.)

  13. GeekChic*

    AAM: Fair enough. As I noted myself, I have gut feelings about people too. I have just seen too many instances of latent prejudice to rely fully on gut feeling myself.

    For the record, I don't believe that you have a problem with letting prejudice rule your decisions. Anyone who could respond civilly to as provocative comment as I left generally knows themselves well enough to understand their own biases.

  14. Steven*

    When one speaks about gut feeling, aren't we referring to our innate biases and pettiness?

    Not trying to be PC here, but isn't it a fact that personal chemistry is the primary driver in the hiring process?

    Having been on the interviewer side, I've tried to filter my personal biases out of the equation.

    I know of once instance when, a group, we individually interviewed a Vietnamese candidate (Tech position). The far majority was against him; even a bit of racism was state by group members.

    Well, he was the best technically qualified person, did ok in the verbal interview, better than the Caucasian in my opinion, but the group went with a Caucasian. My "gut" said he's the one. I made my argument. They overruled.

    He was asked back, but wasn't available. He went to the competition.

    Moral of the story. Gut feeling is not the best or the worst hiring tactic. Its a guess. And that's' what the process is – nothing but a guess based on a probability.

    The indeterminate factor is your biases.

  15. Anonymous*

    Gut reactions are always quantifiable. I think it's lazy to go on gut alone without an articulated reason. Let's say you have to defend a gut decision legally. Are you going to use your gut as your defense? No, you'll probably try to back into some other quantifiable reason. That's playing with fire.

  16. Anonymous*

    There seems to be a gender division here, in which women begin by wanting to trust their feelings and then seek confirmation that doing so is wise, and men doubt their feelings based on experience and want to make their decisions based on the empirical facts.

    And it does seem to me you are trying to confirm one feeling ("had a negative gut reaction") with another feeling ("always ended up regretting hiring that person").

    I'm sure the book you read makes a good case about instincts/feelings amounting to unconscious processing in a very limited context (e.g. suspecting you are being followed as you walk from point A to point B).

    That very simple, limited context, though, is one that corresponds closely to situations our species would have experienced for millions of years in Africa.

    It is unlike more complex and dramatically more recent situations, such as trying to assess whether hiring a given person will lead to the best outcome.

    If you seriously believe your brain can, without your knowledge, assess complex situations of *all* kinds, and generate an excellent analysis that manifests as a gut feeling, try a more controlled, clean experiment.

    For instance, play ten rapid games of chess against a computer.

    Do not stop to think. Instead, move every five seconds based purely your gut reaction, as created by the supposed analysis of your unconscious mind.

    Then do the same thing again, but give yourself as much time to analyze the game on a conscious level as you please.

    You will find the conscious analysis invariably does a far better job.

  17. Jamie*

    I had heard often that once the basic skill requirements are met often times the job goes to the candidate the hiring manager feels he/she would be most comfortable working with.

    That's where the "culture" argument can become a slippery slope.

    People tend to me most comfortable around others of the same demographic – not just race but educational level, socio-economic background, etc. That is something hiring managers should work VERY hard to filter out of any gut instincts.

    However, I do think a good fit for the corporate culture is critical.

    People with a more laid back work style would never find job satisfaction if the corporate culture values a strong sense of urgency and a type-A would go crazy working in a culture where the rules were relaxed.

    I think the fit between the candidate and the corporate culture is so critical, because it's something that can't really be negotiated later if you're miserable.

    The corporate culture isn't likely to change, and most of us won't completely revamp our personalities to fit our companies; that's where the gut instinct of a good hiring manager can really come into play.

  18. Anonymous*

    I also have experienced the result of ignoring my 'gut' and seen the results of others doing the same, and they have also always been bad.

    I don't use only my gut, that wouldn't be smart, but if there is something hinky about someone i'm interviewing then I usually pass on them as a candidate.

    After 4 bad experiences of ignoring that feeling that something is off, I can't afford to risk ignoring it anymore. It takes to many resources to try and get that 1 bad person up to speed or out of the office, I'd rather not fill the position at all.

  19. Charles*

    "After a certain point, doesn't it become crazy to ignore that bad feeling, if you know it has literally been right 100% of the times you've ignored it?"

    No, of course, you don't ignore your bad feelings. But, I believe that a good, competent manager would try to figure out what exactly her "instinct" was telling her and not just say "well I had a feeling about that new hire – and, look, my instinct proved me right!"

    Why did those folks NOT work out? Was it really due to that bad feeling? Was it due to something else? How many folks did she have a bad feeling about; but they worked out okay anyway (I personally find that "100% of the time" to be questionable; perhaps you have forgotten the times it was NOT accurate)? How many times did those bad feelings become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

    This should all be a part of post-employee-termination analysis; Not only to justify this employee's termination but to aid in future hirings. Determining what exactly caused that "bad feeling" will clear up the difference between "knowing" something and "believing" something.

  20. Ask a Manager*

    Absolutely. I think about it a ton afterwards. I've tried to quantify it. And to be clear, it's never just "I have a vague bad feeling" but rather "I get the sense that she's unreasonably thin-skinned even though I can't say for sure" or "I can't shake the feeling that he's not going to be aggressive enough with pitching stories to the media" or whatever.

  21. Anonymous*

    Controversial indeed! Just to weigh in with my two cents …

    When you gave those examples: "I get the sense that she's unreasonably thin-skinned even though I can't say for sure" or "I can't shake the feeling that he's not going to be aggressive enough with pitching stories to the media" or whatever.

    Those are well-articulated conclusions based on how the candidate presented themselves … I wouldn't put that in the category of gut instinct. I think when you tell Recruiters to rely on gut instincts, it sends the wrong message. These examples are things that can be documented and likely hold up in a court of law, wherease "I don't know, I just got a creepy feeling about that guy" would not. When your "gut" is telling you something, find out what it is so you can legally cover your behind. And if you can't get a colleague to do the second interview and try to nail it down.

    I love your blog, by the way. :)

  22. Chris Young*

    Intriguing post and discussion Alison!

    Trusting your gut certainly opens the hiring process to all sorts of human bias that can be incredibly harmful to an organization's performance and culture.

    My words of advise would be this: if you are going to let your gut play a role in a hiring decision, you had better do your due diligence through behavioral interviews, pre-employment assessments, reference checks, the whole nine yards – to assure you are not subconsciously discriminating against a protected class or hiring a poorly matched employee simply because you "hit it off" during the interview.

    I have included your post in my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2010/09/the-.html) to let my readers in on this controversial topic and discussion.

    Be well!

  23. A.T.*

    Not sure how good Gift of Fear really is, but maybe Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is a read just as good if not better on the power of instinct, not least because it argues the both sides. As much as there are powerful examples of good instincts, there are other powerful examples of instincts that discriminate against various categories of population in people who do not acknowledge having such tendencies.
    I think the gut feelings have something to do with the statistical learning of which children are much more capable than adults, the ability to recognize statistically significant patterns. But it is the adult's job to analyze, conceptualize and to verbalize. Savvy Working Gal is giving an example of somebody whom she hired she says "against her instincts", but in fact she gives a good reason – the candidate gave inconsistent answers.
    We all instinctually trust people who look, speak or (seem to) think like us. This is an instinct maybe good for the survival of species (like White Fake Blonde Lady Who Speaks Without An Accent And Whose Face Can Barely Be Guessed Behind The Barbie Doll Makeup – I just met an exemplar recently – and others like it), maybe good for the survival and well being of people who look/ think like the hiring manager, but not necessarily good for the company he/she is hiring for. I’m compelled to argue that precisely because the instincts are very personal and tend to personal interests, they should not play a role in the hiring process.

  24. Anonymous*

    It knocks me out when people like Chris Young recommend "the whole 9 yards". That's simply over the top.

    The fact is nothing you can do can assure a perfect hire. Its, first personal chemistry – boss/employee. 2nd numerous factors come into play once a new hire in on board. That being, the reception the others give her/him. Those are the people who will make or break the new hire.

    Any one in HR who say they have a record of perfect hires (define that too) is, well not being honest.

    The probability is about 60% that a new hire works out in the first 6 months. About 50% the 12 months.

    I know what I'm talking about. Its my job.

    Lastly, why beat should a HR person beat themselves up if the new hire fails. Oh, and that why the decision is spread among as many people as possible. To share the blame.

    The blame game. Its what organizations play.

    Sandra P.

  25. Anonymous*

    I am a big believer in gut reactions, *especially* not ignoring negative ones. Every time I've ignored a negative vibe and hired, I've regretted it sooner than later. That said, I wonder if the negative gut can be a little self-fulfilling. First time the 'negative gut survivor' makes a misstep, I was not only disappointed in them, but mad at myself which absolutely made their situation worse. Just wondering is all.

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