The hidden risks of hiring based on ‘chemistry’

“I just have a good feeling about this one.”

Relying on subjective factors such as interview skills and personality is not the best way to pinpoint successful job candidates. Yet a new study shows that’s the way many—in fact, most—of hiring decisions are made.

According to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll, a majority of HR professionals say their final hiring decisions are at least 50% based on their level of “chemistry” with the applicant (see box below).

The risks: While subjective factors such as chemistry can play an important role in hiring, studies show that differences in race, gender and culture may subconsciously influence these feelings—and set you up for a discrimination complaint.

Courts have flatly stated that the more subjective factors you use in hiring, the more likely a court will challenge your decision-making.

Case in point: When a black employee was rejected for a promotion based on his interview performance, the 6th Circuit federal court let his race bias case proceed. It said, “Interview performance is an inherently subjective determination, and thus easily susceptible to manipulation in order to mask the interviewer’s true reason for making the promotion decision.” (White v. Baxter, 6th Cir.)

Relying too heavily on “good fit” emotions will actually result in more bad-fit hires, experts say.

Example: A few years ago, Raymond Inglesi, the president of a Maine-based HR consulting firm, led a company’s search for an HR manager. Based on experience and abilities, Inglesi ranked the final three candidates—two white males and a white female. The executives chose the third-ranked applicant, the female, due to chemistry.

“They said they hired her because they liked her and she seemed bubbly and positive. I disagreed with the choice,” said Inglesi. Less than two years later, the executives told Inglesi they made the wrong choice and reopened the search.

While it’s nearly impossible to erase bias in all hiring choices, you and your hiring managers can recognize it by asking the following questions before hiring:

  • Have you defined the core competencies required for the position?
  • Did you objectively rate or evaluate the applicant’s skills and abilities to perform those competencies?
  • What factors do you rank above the applicant’s experience and ability to perform the core competencies?
  • Are other candidates more qualified based on their skills and experience, and why aren’t they being hired?
  • Are there aspects of the candidate’s appearance that influence my feelings about the person?
  • What are the similarities between you and the top candidate?

Online resource: Find a list of 20 “silver bullet” behavior-based interview questions to help quantify applicants’ subjective qualities at

Chemical reaction

After you consider a candidate’s skills, education and experience, what percentage of a final decision to hire is based on “chemistry”?

75% or more: 15%
About 50%: 39%
About 25%: 36%
About 10% or less:10%

Source: SHRM survey of 498 HR professionals.