Employment managers often overlook situational influences on performance

A new study, published in the journal PLoS One, reveals that employment managers often rely too much on generic performance measures when hiring people and fail to consider situational context.

The research was conducted at the Berkeley-Haas School of Business.Don Moore, the lead author of the study titled “Attribution Errors in Performance Evaluation”, said that many hiring managers don’t take into account the context of a person’s past work performance.

Moore commented that “we would like to believe that the people who are making judgments that affect our lives – where we get hired or what school we are admitted to – have the wisdom to understand who we are, what we are capable of, what shortcomings aren’t our fault. But our research shows people evaluating us have a great deal of trouble considering situational factors or context.”

Suppose that there are two people applying for a senior management position at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). One of the key measures of performance that the hiring manager at LAX will consider is the percentage of flights that leave on time at the applicant’s airport.

The two applicants are called Brian and Bob. Brian has experience working at the Oakland International Airport (OAK) and Bob works at San Francisco International (SFO). Bob’s position at SFO is harder than Brian’s job at OAK because SFO is the airport which is most difficult for planes to land on – due to more overcast days and fewer runways in use.

However, despite the contextual difference in the two applicants, the job was given to Brian because more flights were on time at OAK.

In addition, people applying to graduate school with a high GPA are more likely to be accepted over those with a lower GPA, without baring in mind the difficulty of grading policies in the two universities (some may be much stricter).

Moore added:

“Our results suggested that alumni from institutions with lenient grading had a leg up in admission to grad school, and the reason for that is the admissions decision makers mistakenly attributed their high grades to high abilities.”

This behavior is described by Moore as “correspondence bias”, a term which means people are more likely to draw inferences about someone’s disposition without baring in mind the surrounding circumstances.

The study identified that even though the employment managers wanted to consider situational influences on performance, they failed to when given the opportunity.

Moore concluded:

“If you are a hiring manager, ask for more information about other people in the applicant’s department and how the person you are considering is better or worse than others in the same situation. If you are an admissions director, ask for class rank.”