It is said that one of the distinctive features of the Trump White House is the low levels of expertise of its staff, including some who are not relatives or in-laws of the president. The reason is that an overriding concern in hiring is loyalty and commitment to the president (the person) rather than the presidency, which rules out the most capable individuals who could have served holding job titles like Chief, Director, Deputy, Assistant, and Special Assistant. Of course, this focus on loyalty and commitment above all is an anomaly of the current White House… or is it?
A recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Roman Galperin, Oliver Hahl, Adina Sterling, and Jerry Guo has looked at how professional hiring managers select candidates and found that they typically prefer moderately high-capability applicants over extremely high-capability candidates. Why is that? When a job applicant has extremely high capability, the hiring managers question (without evidence) whether this person will be committed to the organization and motivated to work for it.
Notice what an odd kind of discrimination this is. For most kinds of employment discrimination that we know about, the people discriminated against are often different demographically than the hiring manager (so, not white, or not male), and the hiring manager can draw on cultural stereotypes to question their work capabilities. In this research, gender and racial stereotypes are not in play, and the hiring managers are fully aware that they are choosing the less-capable candidate. The problem is that they are comparing the applicants against an ideal-type hire who is good at exactly the job hired for and who will enjoy the job and stay with the organization for a long time. They are trying to predict the applicant’s future behaviors and worry that the most capable applicant sees the job as just a stepping stone to something better.
So, what can the extremely capable candidate do to get hired? One thing is to signal their commitment. The researchers were able to show that applicants with any kind of commitment signal would be more likely to be hired if they had extremely high capability than if they had moderately high capability. For example, applicants can pay more attention to the organization’s mission than to the pay package or can tell the hiring manager that they have declined offers from other organizations. The only problem is that this is just talk, and it is not clear that actual applicants can persuade hiring managers of their organizational commitment as well as this research team could. If a hiring manager dismisses the signals of commitment as empty talk, the extremely capable candidate would again be less likely to be hired than someone less capable.
When we do research on how organizations make hiring decisions, we often encounter disappointments. The world is far from as meritocratic as we think it should be. The process documented by this research looks a lot like hiring contaminated by envy of the best candidates, and who knows, envy could be exactly what starts speculation that an extremely capable candidate isn’t good enough for the job and the organization. In any case, it is strange to see research showing that extreme capabilities can be a liability for job applicants, and it’s a reason to worry about how organizations function.
Galperin, R.V., O. Hahl, A. D. Sterling, and J. Guo.2019. Too Good to Hire? Capability and Inferences about Commitment in Labor Markets. Administrative Science Quarterly, published online ahead of print.