Forget the best, pick the mediocre candidate

by Caitlin Nobes01 Jul 2013

Have you ever had such an amazing opportunity that you felt you had to work twice as hard to prove you were worth it? The same might just hold true for job candidates – hire the person who will be most grateful for the role and they’re likely to work much harder.

The catch is though, you have to tell them they weren’t the best candidate.

A research paper from three European academics found that a mediocre job candidate worked much harder because they felt indebted to the hiring manager. In contrast, the most qualified candidate might believe they deserved the job and could approach it with a more relaxed attitude.

The researchers ran an experiment where a principal chooses one of two people to perform a task in exchange for compensation. The person could inform the person chosen whether or not they were the most qualified and the experiment found the chosen person who has the least ability puts in extra effort that compensates for his failings.

“Agents who feel less entitled to fill a position may reciprocate more than agents who feel they deserve it, when principals are able to induce such feeling in the mediocre agents,” the researchers said.

In the same experiment where those chosen were not told they were under-qualified they didn’t see the same effect.

So how can HR apply this concept? While it is probably still worth focusing on experience and expertise, if you choose a less-qualified candidate because of their attitude or potential, let them know. You might get some more discretionary effort.

However, HR consultant Andrew McNeil said purposely hiring a mediocre candidate was the worst thing a recruiter could do. “Hire great performers and you will see the rewards soon. Hire poor ones and they will probably get dismissed or leave before doing too much damage,” he said. “But hire people who are just good enough and then do nothing to raise them from mediocrity, and you will pay the price for a very long time and in ways that you may never know.”


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