Does past behavior predict future behavior? Does past performance predict future performance?
Quite often in our minds the answer is yes. If someone did it before, they’ll do it again. If someone was great in their last job, they’ll be great in the new one. Or maybe the old aphorism, once bitten twice shy is your basic approach to decision making. I had a bad result doing something once, so I won’t do that again.
I became interested in the subject of making predictions when I just recently read “Against The Gods – The Remarkable Story of Risk” written by Peter L. Bernstein. It laid out the history of how people over time learned how to assess risk and make decisions. It put in mind the role of a supervisor who quite frequently makes decisions which are based on taking risks when forecasting the future.
Predicting the Future: Selecting Candidates for a Position
To what extent do your personal biases affect your interpretation of the facts or the “gut instinct” you use as the basis of your prediction of the future? Without realizing it, managers are quite often predicting the future with varying results. Unfortunately, most managers do not have an effective crystal ball.
When choosing between candidates to be hired or promoted, you are making a prediction on the future as to who will be the best employee. What facts do you rely on?
The candidates being considered come from whatever system you use for rating and ranking employees in order to be able to select the best candidates.
The Old Days: Paper Hiring Systems
In the old days, for internal promotions, it was a staffing specialist that went through an employee’s paper personnel file and assigned points for things such as job experience, training, and performance ratings. Even with these ratings given by the staffing specialist, rarely was the manager required to pick the top-rated candidate. For external new hire candidates, the staffing specialist would review the applicants applications or resumes and do a screening based on predetermined criteria. This would lead to a best qualified (BQ) list or equivalent.
With considerable variations based on the agency and agency adopted hiring processes, the manager would be the sole interviewer of all candidates on the BQ list; a panel would interview the candidates and give them a score based on their performance in the interview: the manager could request a new the BQ list; or the manager could pick someone without interviewing.
This all depended on the nature of the hiring action and any conditions placed on the hiring or promotion process as a result of a collective bargaining agreement. This extensive review is intended to uncover the best candidates, those capable on paper to do the job.
There has been criticism that this paper bound system easily led to misidentification of experience or past history of candidates. It is also dependent on the skill, consistency and lack of bias by the staffing specialist. They relied on their past experience (history) in making determinations on how they awarded points. The vast majority of staffing specialists had no illegal biases that they were aware of, however the system they were required to use may have had biases based on past history. This past history was then relayed on to the selecting supervisor as fact.
Modern Era: Electronic Hiring Systems
In today’s technology driven environment, most companies use an electronic based system. Such a system would look at the prospective candidate’s electronic application and then decide to what extent an employee is qualified for the position.
These types of systems remove many of the complaints about the old systems driven by human beings making judgments on employee’s qualifications. However, the computer-generated qualification approach used was created by people who inadvertently or purposively incorporated their own past history into the computer application.
Some of these new systems will also do the rating and ranking. The fairness of electronic rating and ranking however is in dispute. A recent article in the New York Times “We Need Laws to Take on Racism and Sexism in Hiring Technology” (March 17, 2021), claimed that artificial intelligence used to evaluate job candidates can become a tool that exacerbates discrimination. While this article is not about the efficacy of the electronic tool used by the employer it does raise the question of potential bias even before the manager makes a selection.
Managers, in most cases, are required to select from the candidates provided to them by their human resources department. The question is how much should they rely on the candidates past history since the rating and ranking process, in most cases, is heavily dependent on the verification of past experience and past achievements, and to what extent do a manager’s biases effect its review of the candidates.
The Peter Principle
Something else that should be in the back of your mind is the Peter Principle. Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull wrote a well-known book entitled “The Peter Principle”.
The Peter Principle stands for the proposition that people are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent, as the skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.
The best example of this is the penchant to promote to supervision those employees who were the best technically in the work to be done and to pass over those who are not technically as good but could make better supervisors. This is done, among other reasons, to reward the experts because if they are not promoted, they may go elsewhere or because supervisory skill is not a top priority until it is.
It also could be seen as a bias towards technical talent over potential supervisory skill. Many biases you have are not illegal biases, choosing someone with technical talent based on your past experience does not violate any law, however it may still result in not making the best selection for a supervisory position.
Selecting men over women, because you believe based on your past experiences that men do the best job, may be considered an illegal bias against woman. However, in your mind its not a bias at all, it’s just fact. You are predicting the future success of a new hire or promotion not just on their past history but also your own.
Selecting the Right Candidate for a Position
In researching this article, I came upon a whole treasure trove of publications on the subject of selecting the right employee, particularly with respect to looking at past behavior and performance and future potential. There are innumerable tests and assessments that can be used to determine the best possible person to promote or hire. Unfortunately, many of these tools are not available to all employers. Also, none of these approaches came with a guarantee that it was an absolutely fool proof approach to hiring or promoting.
You are not predicting how well the candidate did in their last job but in the new one you are trying to fill. A candidate must clear the hurdle of being qualified to do the job based on their past history.
As discussed above, the candidate’s past history may or may have been properly assessed. What you are really trying to find out is how well they will do in the new job you want them to do. When you are promoting a first-time supervisor, you are not assessing them on something they have already done but on something they have never done before.
The questions you ask them should be geared toward how well they will do in the new job and not how well they did in their last job. You have to understand what your expectations are for the new job and then skillfully ask them questions aimed at their ability to meet these expectations.
What are the qualities you are expecting of a supervisor? Do you expect them to be good communicators, able to meet deadlines, or be fair with employees? You could ask the candidate to think of someone they have worked for and what made them a good supervisor in their mind. All your questions should be aimed at discerning how they will act in the future not just they how have acted in the past.
Predicting the future is not any easy task. One good way to start is to recognize any biases you have which may distort your approach to making an accurate prediction. Next look at what expectations you have for the future in order to determine what is the best way to get to that point is. Relying on the past as your sole means of predicting the future can very easily end up with a poor outcome.