What Neuroscience Says About Your Hiring Practices: Q&A with Jan Hills

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Brain-savvy business expert Jan Hills uncovers the neuroscience behind how you recruit and hire—including tips for better interviews and reducing bias.

Jan Hills, brain-savvy business expert

Courtesy: Jan Hills

Jan Hills is an expert on improving business practices using the findings of neuroscience, the author of Brain Savvy HR: A Neuroscience Evidence Base, and a partner at Head Heart + Brain. We got on the phone to talk about how the brain works, how it influences hiring decisions, and what we can do to build better, more brain-savvy recruitment practices.

“[Neuroscience] can help you establish a better hiring process or policy.”

What is neuroscience?

Pure neuroscience is an understanding of how the brain and the nervous system work. Most of what we use at Brain Heart + Head is what would typically be called social neuroscience – looking at different reactions within the brain seeing whether they match the psychological hypothesis.

Why should an employer look to neuroscience to shape its hiring strategy and practices?

Neuroscience can tell you whether there is an evidence-base for the way you manage your businesses. For example, you might ask, is there an evidence-base for how we manage bias in your hiring? Do we understand how we might be able to reduce bias? Is there an evidence-base around people’s values, and how that drives their behavior? This information won’t directly determine your hiring strategy, but you should keep it in mind in your policies and practices.

Can that understanding of how the brain works help employers make better hiring choices?

It can help you establish a better hiring process or policy.

Take, for example, how many organizations approach the interview process by putting the candidate under stress and seeing how they react. The underlying assumption is that if they can cope with it in the interview, they’ll probably cope with it on the job. But what we’ve learned about the brain and how it responds to stressful situations is that that’s probably not a valid assumption. Firing difficult questions at the candidate is not a very good approximation of how they might deal with a stressful client situation, for example.

If you really want to understand your candidate’s capabilities, then you want their brain to be operating at its optimum during the interview – not operating at a suboptimal level because their limbic system is screaming “oh, this is a dangerous situation, let me get out of here!” [laughs].

Are there other common recruitment and hiring practices that are based on incorrect assumptions and not backed by the evidence?

Companies often approach their recruitment and selection practices on the basis that it’s the candidate against the company; that the task is to eliminate people. But really, it’s should be approached on the basis of social interaction. How are you connecting with the candidate on a social contact level? Because that will give you a much better understanding of how they will connect with people in the workplace.

The question to ask yourself is, are you mirroring your work environment when you meet with the candidate, or are you creating a false environment where the candidate might present themselves in a way that’s different from what you’d experience when they’re on the job?

“… Are you mirroring your work environment when you meet with the candidate, or are you creating a false environment?”

Would it make sense then, for candidates to be meeting their potential teammates and interacting with the hiring manager more frequently?

Certainly, have the candidates spend more time in the actual work environment. That doesn’t necessarily need to be sitting across the table answering questions. Why not invite your final two or three candidates in for the day? Because at the end of that, not only will you better understand these individuals, but they’ll also better understand what your culture is really like. Not just what you say your culture is like, because you’re naturally blinded to aspects of it – the potential downsides. It’s one of our biases as human beings: we want to appear desirable and interesting to others. The more you can simulate work scenarios for candidates, or even invite them into the workplace, so you can see how they interact with their colleagues and in your culture, the better data you’ll have to base your hiring decision on.

What about from the flip-side – are there recruitment process improvements we should be making for the hiring manager’s sake?

Managers also benefit from making the selection process more about social interaction, instead of a test.

In terms of hiring managers, figure out the right mental state for them be in when interacting with candidates, so they can seek out the right information. If they’ve just come running into the interview without having looked at the interviewee’s CV, having just come out of a difficult meeting themselves, their head’s not really into what they are about to do. They will not be projecting the right image of the company to the candidate. And they’re also not going to be alert to the unconscious signals the candidate is sending, to process them and turn them from “oh, this candidate gives me an uncomfortable feeling,” to “oh, this candidate wouldn’t fit our culture because…”

Can neuroscience help us identify the reasons behind, or even help us reduce, unconscious bias in hiring?

We can’t not be biased. All the brain research will tell you: our brain developed to be biased because it gives us shortcuts. If we didn’t have those shortcuts, we wouldn’t be able to cope with all the data in the world. We’d be totally overloaded just having a conversation.

What many organizations do to combat bias is put managers through training that tells them how the brain is biased, identifies what all the myriad biases might be, and then expects them to now stop being biased! That’s just not possible. Rather than putting the burden on hiring managers, it’s much better to put in place recruitment processes that help mitigate the effect of biases. For example, you might look at recruiting people blind – removing their name and other personal information from their CV before the manager reviews it. Or you might ensure multiple people from different backgrounds are involved in the hiring process. All of those sorts of things begin to cut through biases.

“We can’t not be biased. All the brain research will tell you: our brain developed to be biased because it gives us shortcuts.”

What’s the first thing employers should do to become more brain-savvy in their recruitment and hiring?

Educate yourself. Start by looking at three things:

  1. The impact of stress on the brain,
  2. The impact of social connection, and
  3. The impact of bias.

Just try and understand them, and then ask yourself: “Considering these three areas, where is our process strong? Where is it weak? How much stress does it create? How much does it help mitigate stress? How much are we treating candidates as human? Are we connecting with them, socially?” Starting with this will take you a long way without making it burdensome.

One thing that gets in the way of using neuroscience in business is that science kind of scares people. As a recruiter, or someone in HR, or a manager, you’re probably not going to go off and read the kind of neuroscience articles from the scientists who carried out the research. But these days, there is quite a lot of good quality interpretation of that science available.

Get more of Jan’s insights on the neuroscience of interviewing (part one and part two) and check out her book Brain Savvy HR: A Neuroscience Evidence Base.


Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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