After job interviewers are ‘generous’ to one candidate, they judge others more harshly

April 21, 2021
Job interviewers going easy on one candidate may have a negative effect on the ones who follow. (Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com )

Job interviewers going easy on one candidate may have a negative effect on the ones who follow. (Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com )

After interviewers evaluate one job candidate generously, they tend to be harsher toward subsequent applicants, according to a new paper by an international group of researchers. 

Examining more than 10,000 assessments for teaching jobs in the Catalonia region of Spain, researchers found that each time interviewers behaved "generously" by approving a candidate considered to be barely qualified for the job, the likelihood of candidates later that day being hired declined by 7.7%.

The researchers published their findings April 21 in Science Advances

"Once interviewers have given this pass to a candidate, giving them the minimum possible grade to pass in the selection process, they become more strict in the grading," said lead author Marc-Lluís Vives, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Brown University's FeldmanHall Lab.

During the evaluation process for teachers in Catalonia, a panel of five interviewers assigned candidates a score between 0 and 10; a score between 5 and 10 was required to continue in the interview process. Exploiting this ratings system, Vives and his co-authors classified interviewers passing candidates with an exact score of 5 as an act of generosity. 

"The most interesting point is that we could quantify or objectify in a way when people were generous in the grading," Vives said. "In other papers, it's hard to judge how this person judging the candidate is being generous." 

The most common score in the dataset was a 5, which was awarded more than 600 times. But this generosity declined each time a 5 was awarded, lowering the probability of other candidates that day successfully moving forward. The researchers termed the pattern the "generosity-erosion effect." 

The study marks a real-world examination of a common psychological experiment called a "dictator game." In such games, one party holds all the power to decide the fate of another. Dictator-game experiments have shown that the party with power is generally more generous at the beginning but becomes less generous in subsequent rounds. 

"This generosity-erosion effect has already been observed before," said Vives, who wrote the paper with Tania Fernandez-Navia and Jordi J. Teixidó of the University of Barcelona, as well as Miquel Serra-Burriel of the University of Zurich. "The novelty is to apply this insight to hiring decisions." 

The Catalonian teacher interview process is relatively lenient. The majority of interviewees — 62% — passed the round of the interview process that the researchers examined, and the average overall score was 5.5. 

In order to gauge whether generosity-erosion effects also occur in other interviewing contexts, the researchers examined a far stricter process that utilized a similar scoring system in the hiring of judges. 

During the judge hiring process in Spain, nine experts assigned interviewees a score between 0 and 50. A score of 25 or higher was required to advance, a benchmark that just 35% of interviewees passed. 

Examining more than 3,000 candidates for judge, Vives and his co-authors did not find any evidence that candidates receiving a "generous" score of 25 changed the likelihood that other candidates in their interview group would pass or fail. 

This indicates that the generosity-erosion effect may be present only in less competitive hiring situations where passing a candidate is the norm, not the exception, the researchers hypothesized. 

It's unclear whether there could be some unique aspect in the Spanish bureaucracy or hiring process that would make the paper less generalizable to other countries. Vives said researchers elsewhere should examine the issue in greater depth, adding that lab experiments would be useful. 

"We don't know the degree to which this applies to other countries. So far, we don't have reasons to believe it might change, but it's open to further investigation," he said. "For future work, it would be important to try to replicate this effect in a lab instead of in this type of dataset so that we can manipulate conditions." 

The paper, "Lenience breeds strictness: The generosity-erosion effect in hiring decisions," published April 21 in Science Advances, was authored by Marc-Lluís Vives, Brown University; Tania Fernandez-Navia and Jordi J. Teixidó, University of Barcelona; and Miquel Serra-Burriel, University of Zurich. 

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