What if recruitment was random?

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says overhauling hiring practices could increase gender-related fairness and diversity, and upgrade the quality of leaders in the workplace

Credit: PhotoAlto/Milena Boniek/Getty Images

Although there is well-established science backing the concept of making recruitment evidence-based and data-driven, most organisations still play it by ear, over-relying on invalid assessment tools, such as personality tests, or placing too much importance on unreliable and poorly designed interviews. At the same time, hiring managers tend to think they are great judges of talent, which is hard to refute when they are also in charge of evaluating the performance of the candidates they decided to hire. A slightly better scenario finds recruiters and managers feeling too guilty to admit that they are following their intuition, which denotes some progress in our quest to make hiring more meritocratic. 

How much worse off would we be if we just randomised recruitment? This sounds like a silly question, but it’s actually a good way to examine the status quo. Consider that science progresses through falsification: when you want to show that X works, you hypothesise that X does not work, and collect evidence to refute your hypothesis. The reason is that you can never be sure to find ultimate proofs for something, but you can find evidence to disprove anything that is correctly formulated – that is, an empirically falsifiable claim, such as: ‘More often than not, people with X characteristic will outperform those with Y characteristic.’

Science suggests that well-designed recruitment interventions should enable us to pick the best of two candidates 80 per cent of the time (and get it wrong 20 per cent of the time). But in reality, most managers and leaders underperform, resulting in a disengaged and alienated workforce that, even before the pandemic, would have happily taken a pay cut to replace their boss. In the real world of work, we still struggle to find the right home for people’s skills and talents, and misunderstand most people’s potential – to our own and their detriment. 

Since the average predictive accuracy of typical recruitment processes can be expected to be 9 per cent (a correlation of 0.3 between inputs and outputs), we may assume that randomising recruitment would decrease organisational effectiveness by 9 per cent at most, since talent does not fully account for an organisation’s success, and there are ways to improve the performance of poorly selected employees. 

Importantly, random recruitment could actually help organisations improve their diversity goals. Whenever a demographic group under-indexes or is underrepresented, despite showing no deficits in actual potential (eg educational, work ethic, creativity, expertise and skill), we can safely conclude that current recruitment practices are consciously or unconsciously biased against that group. 

Take, for instance, gender: although women today make up most of the world’s population, as well as outperforming men on hard skills, educational attainment and critical soft skills, such as empathy, humility, emotional intelligence, coachability and integrity, current recruitment methods are proactively discriminating against women – this is the only reason that 60-90 per cent of leaders in the world are male, across any sector, industry and organisation type. Thus, randomising recruitment would not just increase gender-related fairness and diversity, but would also upgrade the quality of leaders.

The same principle can be applied to lower-income candidates, minorities and any group that continues to be the target of prejudice and discrimination despite having at least the same potential or probability to perform on a job than candidates from a privileged in-group. 

In short, we can define unfairness through the realities of self-destructive hiring practices, which hurt not just the candidates who are unfairly overlooked, but also organisations that limit their own potential by selecting more low performers than they would do by simply tossing a coin.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at UCL and Columbia University, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and co-author of The Future of Recruitment. He will be appearing on the forthcoming second series of the What If? podcast from the CIPD's Work. magazine. Catch up on the first series now.