By Dr. Sébastien Fernandez

A counter-intuitive yet highly practical approach to what really matters when hiring. Using a consistently methodical system throughout the hospitality recruitment process could win out in the long run over simply following gut instinct about a future employee.  

Poor use of intuition when hiring

Some illusions persist over time. One of them is to believe you can determine who should work for you based on a 1-hour conversation. If so many people could accurately judge others, we would not observe voluntary or involuntary turnover to be that high in some companies. We would probably also not see so many intimate relationships end and an increasingly high rate of divorce (assuming people can choose the right partner for themselves). If it is difficult to determine whether you will finish your days with the person you met one hour ago, it is also challenging to identify the candidate who will work diligently over many years for your company. One of the reasons lies obviously in the high unpredictability of life. The other reason lies in the poor use of intuition when hiring.

Hiring can be a time-consuming activity with significant business consequences. Hiring the right person might increase service quality, customer satisfaction and retention, word-of-mouth, or even increase sales. Even if some managers approach this task with confidence in their capacity to spot talent, evidence suggests that this skill seems to be highly over-rated. Interviewing a candidate is indeed very different from holding a casual conversation. There are three principles (among others) that should be kept in mind for conducting effective interviews: consistency, quality of questions and precision.

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Consistency of questions

Consistency refers to asking the same questions to all the candidates. It is not only a way to ensure fairness, but it is necessary to determine which candidate is the right one. I acknowledge that asking the same questions restrains the interviewer’s freedom and gives fewer opportunities to address the subtleties of each candidate’s background. However, it facilitates the comparison between the candidates.

Imagine you ask one candidate the famous question “Why have you applied for this job?” and the following question to another candidate “What do you know about our company?” Even if these two questions measure the candidate’s motivation for the job, their wording is very different. The first question might lead the candidate to be very general in his/her response, “I always wanted to work for this prestigious company” or “I think that this company suits me well.” The second question might create more stress because it is worded as a knowledge question. At the same time, it might prompt the respondent to be more specific. You can only compare the quality of the responses if you have the same questions.

Quality of questions

Consistency is not enough because one can ask the same questions to all the candidates without providing any relevant information for making a good decision. It is essential to consider the type and quality of the questions asked. Questions that refer to experience and knowledge can be considered as relevant, e.g., “What can you do to upsell an appetizer?” “Can you show us how you prepare a margarita”?

Candidates may also be asked to imagine how they would react in a particular situation (these questions are referred to as situational questions). Finally, past behavior questions are valid because these questions require that candidates explain in details how they solved problems or how they behaved in the past, e.g., “Can you explain how you handled a mean customer in your previous job?”, “Can you remember one of your worst shifts and how you were able to survive it?”

Precision in the evaluation

It is not uncommon that interviewers rate the candidate on a single scale at the end of an interview. They might gain from proceeding differently. The responses of the candidates might be assessed on a scale from 1 to 5 for each question. This approach forces interviewers to analyze how each answer provided meets the standards set in advance by the company.

The human mind likes simplicity and takes lots of shortcuts when making decisions. For instance, many people suffer from what is commonly described as the ‘primacy effect’. We give more weight to the information we received first. For example, interviewers might decide not to give the job to a nervous candidate who made a bad first impression while responding to the first two questions. In the same manner that it is not always the tennis player who wins the first set who will win the match or the team that scores the first goal who will win the game, we cannot be sure that the candidates who are excellent in the first five minutes of the interview will be the winning ones.

Hospitality recruitment: Our gut feeling is not always a good counsellor

It is interesting to investigate further why we trust our first impressions so much. If first impressions did not hold a kernel of truth, we would probably not feel attached to our beliefs. For instance, it seems we can evaluate better than chance if a person is extraverted or introverted after a 50 milliseconds exposure to his/her face. There is also evidence that students can predict teacher evaluations after only watching a 30-second sequence of a class. These and many other studies have shown that our first impressions are not always misleading. So, why would our first impressions be useless when we conduct interviews? Even if our first impressions or gut feeling is not entirely meaningless, they are less suitable than a systematic approach and more challenging to justify.


Many hypotheses can be advanced to explain the lower-than-expected relationship between gut feeling and hiring quality. One of them is that candidates’ personality very much influences our gut feelings. Even if there are links between certain personality traits and competencies, they are not interchangeable. Whereas competencies refer to what people will achieve under some circumstances, personality refers to a stable pattern of behavior, feelings and thoughts across occasions and situations.

For instance, stress management might be considered a competency, while proneness to worry would be a personality trait. Even if there is a positive correlation between the two (individuals who are more prone to worrying tend to have more difficulty managing stress), they are not the same. The issue with some forms of interviews is that they might inform interviewers if the candidates seem to be prone to worrying, but not so much about their capacity to manage stress. As personality is related to performance but to a lesser extent than competencies, it might explain why gut feelings are not worthless but suboptimal for hiring successful candidates.

The algorithmic approach

The poor usage of our intuition might not be due to our inability to pick up the right information but to our tendency to over-rate this kind of information. Many well-rounded empirical studies have concluded that the superiority of algorithms over intuition in employee selection might be due precisely because good algorithms will weigh information adequately.

The problem with interviews is that they give access to so many details about candidates (verbal responses, gestures, posture, tone of voice, smell) that the human mind cannot process this flood of information effectively and cannot identify the signals that matter. The use of a proper interview approach can be assimilated as the calculator of mental arithmetic. Doing mental calculations can be as (if not more) effective than relying on a calculator for simple math operations, but doing it over time will increase considerably the number of errors – and will be much slower.

To conclude, interviewers will inevitably make fewer mistakes when hiring if they consistently ask the same questions, ask good questions and rate each answer separately. Like any competency, the use of aids is not a sign of weakness but a way to overcome our weaknesses. It is nowadays not unusual to use machines (scanners, calculators, etc.) to calculate the cost of the items in our grocery cart, take notes to retain information provided in a lecture or use a plan to keep track of tasks to be done. If we know that our memory, planning skills or quantitative skills are not infallible, why do we trust so much our capacity to read others?