How to Hire People Who Are Out of This World
And what it means to be the best person for the job
By MARTIN REZNY
In my previous article about the problems with taking IQ testing too far, like by using it to determine whom to hire or enroll, I proposed that maybe we should instead choose insight as the best measure of general intelligence. I also promised to talk about hiring.
So, how do you measure insight? What would it look like applied in a job environment? I was thinking about that, and then it struck me — I have seen an example of a job interview that was doing exactly that. Chances are, you have too.
In the 1997 sci-fi classic Men in Black, Will Smith’s character is being considered for the job, along with what looks like the best that various military organizations have to offer. In case you don’t remember the scene in detail, I’ll walk you through it right now.
In what we can assume is the first test, the candidates, who are all sitting in the same room in oval, egg-shaped chairs, are given a bunch of tests on paper to fill out using pencils. However, the issued tests don’t have a hard back cover, so it’s virtually impossible to fill them out on one’s lap while sitting down, and none of the chair surfaces are flat.
There’s only one free elevated flat surface around, a table in the middle of the room. After a while of everybody struggling to fill out the tests, Will Smith decides to drag the table to his chair, making an ungodly screeching noise while doing so. This attracts judging looks from the other candidates, which is undoubtedly a big part of why none of them attempted to do the same.
Even before, immediately after they were all greeted by the interviewer, Will Smith annoyed everyone by asking why they’re all there. To his question, one of the other candidates gave an enthusiastic non-answer, which only Will Smith called out as ignorant and laughable, to which the interviewer only responded with an annoyed look, copied by all the other candidates (before he exchanged a subtle, meaningful look with the other agent hidden behind a one-way mirror).
In the second test, the candidates went to a firing range and were handed guns. They were supposed to neutralize dangerous threats while not firing on innocent bystanders, both represented by cardboard cutouts randomly showing up between strobe light flashes.
While all the other candidates fired on all the monstrous-looking aliens and not at a little girl, Will Smith did the reverse. Afterwards, when asked why, he explained that the monstrous-looking aliens weren’t actually doing anything threatening, while the little girl had no reason to be there and was holding dangerous-looking science books way above her age.
Do you see what happened there, why he was hired, and not the “best of the best of the best”? He showed that he’s not afraid to embarrass himself in order to use his critical thinking and solve problems, while continuously questioning instructions in order to maintain his integrity and protect the innocent.
The brilliant part is that the agents set up the interview with precisely this outcome in mind. They weren’t looking for a candidate who can do exactly what he or she is told the fastest, they were looking for a candidate with high situational awareness and contextual understanding who can’t be easily fooled. You know, the most generally intelligent one.
Hiring for Intelligence — the Clue Is in the Title
It may or may not surprise you that the field that’s literally called “intelligence” is indeed the most likely field to use this advanced form of candidate testing. And it shouldn’t be surprising, since the stakes in intelligence operations are generally somewhat higher than in your average corporate office job. Moreover, they’re not just looking for people who are smart, but for people so smart that they can outsmart other smart people.
Speaking as someone qualified to make an educated guess, if you were seriously considered for a job as a secret agent or intelligence analyst, you would go through the standard battery of straightforward background checks and physical and psychological exams, but not just that.
At some point, once you’ve passed all the basic tests, you would undergo at least one round of some kind of an MiB-type test, with its specifics depending on the agency that you’re considered for. A test that would include some degree of pressure and misdirection, designed to determine your genuine character and capacities in a kind of situation that you may realistically find yourself in.
It could be for example a test where you’re required to explain how you would accomplish various objectives in a mission-like scenario, only with a twist — the mission scenarios would be highly unethical, and the objective of the test would be to see if you realize that they’re unethical and object to them in some manner, over a negative response from the interviewer.
Or there could be no twist, I guess, and the agency in question would be a dumb, unethical one. You never know in this field, they will neither confirm nor deny anything. But assuming such a test is being done and has this twist, hypothetically, it would be a version of a real test used by psychopathologists to identify psychopaths.
As one of the most renowned Czech psychopathologists, Radkin Honzák, describes it, you would give a series of IQ test-like problems to solve to a subject, or just a series of meaningless instructions to follow, but again with a twist. At random intervals, disturbing images would pop up, without explanation.
You see, non-psychopaths tend to be disturbed by disturbing images, which results in them interrupting the test. Psychopaths, on the other hand, happily proceed, only concerned with solving all the test problems or following all the instructions as fast and as well as they can, oblivious to what’s happening.
In this light, it should be finally easy to see why I have a problem with people who think IQ is a good measure of general intelligence. People who think that their high IQ is what makes them intelligent are easily outsmartable. A person who doesn’t question tests is doing so because of a deficiency in their mental faculties, not because of having superior mental faculties.
Consequently, the academia at large (with the exception of psychopathologists, perhaps) is dumber than the intelligence community precisely because academicians tend to have a combination of intellectual naivety and narcissism, which results in a lack of both self-awareness and general awareness, and this blindness is exploitable.
There’s even a term for that, “useful idiot”, which typically applies to a highly educated person who presumably has a very high IQ. It’s a person who unwittingly helps some agency or political actor accomplish their goals as a result of being tricked into believing some sort of bad-faith justification or ideology. Of course, deeper insight doesn’t inherently make you more ethical.
The Inhuman Unintelligence of HR
Now that we have an extremely specific, scientifically backed example, and assuming you’re still reading this instead of writing an angry reply, I guess I can address why I’m writing about this. I’m currently approaching my third year of technically working in HR, or as we call it at Red Hat, the People team, and despite not being directly involved in talent hunting or interviewing, I have collected some thoughts. Some relatively troubling thoughts.
Starting with the positive, it’s no accident that Red Hat has its own HR, meaning it doesn’t rely on hiring agencies, and why it prefers “people” over “human resources”. One of Red Hat’s mottos, “We are Red Hat”, may bear an unfortunate similarity to “We are the Borg” from Star Trek, but it signifies the exact opposite hiring philosophy — employees are not supposed to be treated as interchangeable, inanimate components of a giant, faceless machine.
By the way, what follows is obviously not any official message endorsed by Red Hat. It’s a series of my own personal observations and opinions, and it’s not a description of how Red Hat specifically approaches the hiring process or any of its policies. If anything, Red Hat is more of an exception that proves the rule, or a contrast example. Not perfect, but not dumb.
It may come as a surprise to people who think “human resources” is a fine term, but candidates are people, with personalities and lives and everything. Sadly, that’s not how they’re generally treated by hiring agencies.
Most candidates are rejected before anyone has ever met them or talked to them, purely on the basis of their CV lacking a particular paper-based qualification, a certain number of something, or a high enough score in some kind of formal test. I don’t think I have to spend a lot of time on criticizing this, given that nobody has ever actually tried to defend it in my experience.
Even in engineering, where certificates make some sense, the best IT companies try to assess the potential of the candidate, what they can be trained to do in time, rather than what they have already accomplished. Think of it like this, the most gifted person for your position who will ever be born in the history of the world may have just finished college. Do you want your competitor to draft them, only because they talked to them or otherwise tested them while you couldn’t be bothered?
As I have already established from the point of view of the intelligence people, the academia is not the best arbiter of intelligence, and you should never trust its testing standards. Besides, if your HR team doesn’t intend to assess the potential of candidates, what are you paying them for? What do they even do for you, then, beyond filing paperwork? And that’s just the beginning.
Once your HR team starts doing its job by setting up objective tests of ability and interviews with applicants, they can very easily do it completely wrong in the best of faith. It came to my attention that the most common interviewing standard today, mandated by law in some countries, is the so called behavioral approach, or more specifically the STAR method — Situation, Task, Actions, and Results.
Basically, it revolves around asking the person what they have done or would have done in a particular situation, what steps they would have taken to accomplish a result. If you’ve been paying attention, you may be aware that this sounds like the hypothetical example of an intelligence job test, except without any kind of twist that would allow you an insight into the candidate’s true character. Which is a problem — you have to assess character.
Behavioral psychology, which has spent the last several decades mostly being heavily criticized within the academia while being uncritically accepted in the business world, is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a magic bullet that will give you a great insight into an individual person. Behavioral psychology is in fact at its best in the opposite scenario of crowd statistics.
Here’s a short list of ways in which what you get using STAR is useless:
- What the candidate did once is not a representative sample
- What the candidate says they did or would do is not necessarily what they did or would do
- Ability to describe your thought or work process is not required to possess or be able to apply that thought or work process
- A candidate is not their past behavior, and so is not their future potential
- Asking specifically about behaviors entirely ignores internal intentions
- Focusing on past behaviors or hypothetical behaviors within constrained scenarios will tell you nothing about any original contributions that the candidate is able to make that you can’t conceive of yourself
I’m sure I missed a bunch more, but these are more than sufficient. To sum up, the only information you get by asking about problem-solving behaviors is unreliable and misleading, and you don’t get any of the actually important information like what the candidate’s internal motivation is or how they’re doing in terms of personal integrity. I guess that’s why some STAR interview guides encourage you to ask about the candidate’s motivation and goals, which has only nothing to do with a behavioral approach to questioning.
But regardless of how you question candidates, the biggest mistake would be to take what they told you at face value, since they absolutely are expected to lie and pretend, and to try to infer motivation or character attributes from past behaviors, or lack thereof. I’m baffled by how many interviewers seem to full-on believe that what they’re told in interviews by candidates is a true reflection of who the candidates are.
The Best Person for the Job Problem
Let me give you an example. You have two candidates. You gave them both the same objective test of ability to do the job in question. One tested very high in ability, the other at the low end of the acceptable range. You look at their CVs and see that the one high in ability has multiple degrees and varied interests, but no experience working in the field, while the one low in ability has only a basic degree and narrow interests, but some working experience.
Finally, at the interview, the one with more skill, degrees, and interests, but less experience, comes off as reserved and avoids talking about their motivation to do the job in question or the field, while the one with less skill and fewer degrees and interests, but more experience, comes off as enthusiastic and explicitly says why they want to do a job in the field.
Oh and you also asked them both some STAR questions, but since neither of them is a complete idiot, they were both able to describe how they solved a problem once. I’m really trying to be fair here, but I literally can’t think of how the candidates could meaningfully differ in answers to such questions, assuming they both can speak and have accomplished anything ever.
With all the information above, whom would you hire? What do you think about the two candidates in question? Maybe you think that the choice here is between a person who is more qualified, but less motivated, and a person who’s less qualified, but more motivated. In this context, what hiring managers often do, at least around here, is to always hire the latter candidate.
Put simply, it’s the “being overqualified” problem. As a friend of mine to whom it keeps happening told me, what they keep telling him is that “you wouldn’t enjoy the job”. Ignoring the euphemistic language, the philosophy at work here is that you should hire someone who’s ambition in life and potential is sufficient to be able to do the job, but limited enough so that they won’t be able to leave the job or the field even if they wanted to, which is unlikely to begin with. You won’t get an HR person to admit that, though.
If you follow this philosophy, and you’re accurate in your assessment of the two candidates, then I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve done something not intelligent. What has happened is that you have denied your company a person with great potential. Sure, they may have gotten bored with the job and left. But guess what, you have no guarantee that the person with lesser potential is going to stay any longer. Why? Job interview is lies.
An objective test of ability coupled with a holistic assessment of the person’s background without any preconceived mandatory specific accomplishments will give you some small inkling into the candidate’s character. A person with varied interests outside of school or work, who nonetheless had accomplished multiple degrees and applies for a mundane job, is probably a reliable person who is extremely serious about getting the job. If they’re not enthusiastic in the job interview, it probably only means that they’re honest, or introverted.
A person who’s enthusiastic during a job interview for a relatively mundane job is probably pretending. Especially if it is a person who has only ever done the minimum that was required of them their whole life. At best, if they’re honestly enthusiastic, it may be a sign of naivety and amateurism, or their lack of interests or exceptional accomplishments beyond a paid job probably means a lack of direction or introspection. Remember, the key indicators of the best person for the job are any signs of integrity and potential.
Comparatively, you have just traded a chance at an exceptionally good employee for a chance at an exceptionally bad employee. You may get lucky and the employee will turn out fine, but you are virtually guaranteed that they won’t be exceptional. In a way, you were probably right that “overqualified” people wouldn’t enjoy working for or with you — someone who doesn’t recognize or reward excellence. This is how intelligence in the form of insight factors in into the hiring process, or rather, this is where it typically fails.
You Make Us All Look Bad
And let’s not gloss over how this kind of corporate hiring process fosters mediocrity, in fields that lack entirely objective measures of ability or which aren’t in a very specific sense critical (resulting in something exploding unless they’re being done by an excellent professional with unassailable integrity). In other words, this is why most corporate functions are populated with mediocre candidates. What’s worse, after these people become entrenched, truly competent, well-rounded do-gooders are seen as a threat.
Professor Wes Cecil from the Peninsula College (the lectures of whom are available on YouTube) ascribes this tendency to the whole western hierarchical structure of society. It may seem counter-intuitive, but hierarchies do not promote individual excellence. The root of that, which is perhaps most true of corporate hierarchies, is the impersonality of the relations between people in a hierarchy. You are your function, not your person to other people. You don’t have to be personally great, you just have to fulfill your function adequately. “You” are entirely interchangeable.
Anyone in a position of authority who wants to keep their job is also highly incentivized to hire inferior subordinates. Which is again perhaps most true in corporate hierarchies, or generally in those where your income and therefore livelihood is at stake. A person who’s truly more excellent than you has the potential to supplant you, if the company culture is to any degree competitive. But even without appealing to the survival instinct, you probably wouldn’t hire a person who’s better than you out of sheer bias.
Personal hiring bias is actually a very complex category, as it isn’t any one thing, but instead a multitude of interacting biases. Given the choice, you would probably hire a more attractive person over a less attractive one, one who matches your temperament over one who does not, one who shares ideological or spiritual beliefs with you over one who does not, and the list goes on. None of that has any connection to excellence. People you don’t personally like can be all kinds of more excellent than you. People also tend to not like people who are better than them for that alone.
Furthermore, in order to avoid becoming painfully self-aware about being a kind of a shit person for rooting against more excellent candidates, the entrenched less-than-excellent people can turn to rationalizations to justify themselves. They may come to believe that they’re doing the more excellent candidate a favor by sparing them from a job they wouldn’t enjoy (as if being destitute is more fun). They may come to believe that their mediocrity or being kind of shitty are in fact superior qualities, and the more excellent person’s integrity is just some kind of naivety or laziness.
Which is in fact how, as Slavoj Zizek describes it, Nazi leadership decided to convince normal people to do terrible things — every idiot can do the right thing, that’s easy, but only the most patriotic fantastic person can do the truly hard and honorable thing in the service to their country, like compromising their integrity by committing horrific war crimes. I’m of course not equating shitty managers to Nazis, but this example does illustrate how easy it is to twist even the obviously worst acts into seemingly noble deeds.
To be clear, being able to do the song and dance of a standard job interview is technically a skill that one may want to work on improving, but it’s important to recognize that it is about learning to cater to irrational biases of interviewers, not about demonstrating one’s genuine excellence. Even if honestly attempted, that simply can’t be done to any sufficiently rigorous and fair standard in such a short span of time. At best, you could consider being good at job interviews to be a form of acting, A.K.A. being a charming liar.
It’s true that people often don’t get hired because of being objectively less excellent candidates, I’m not denying that, but taking being hired as a sign or proof of one’s excellence is frankly delusional. Building up your sense of self-esteem around being hired and rising through the ranks is even more deluded, and judging people who were not hired as inferior because of that fact alone is somewhere between tragically deluded and outright despicable. I mean, social science as a whole is being seriously questioned lately, and you think that random managers have always been doing an impeccable job?
What to Take Away (From Hiring)
If this all looks pretty bleak or personally insulting to you, what I can do to reassure you is to say that this is not so much an indictment of specific people, as it is an indictment of certain types of corporate structures, systems, and processes. Which can be changed. The only thing that’s needed, that I’m trying to foster, is being generally intelligent about it — working to grow self-awareness and deep contextual understanding of the situation.
The good news is that the solution is a win-win scenario, in which the bottom line of corporations would objectively benefit from corporations becoming more humane in how they approach, assess, and treat candidates. Nobody benefits if people are incentivized to reject excellence, both in other people and as a worthy goal to pursue for themselves.
I’m not gonna lie, it can be difficult to devise truly insightful testing scenarios, like the ones some intelligence agencies are probably using. Especially to incorporate an element of deception that’s both effective and legally unproblematic. Ability to exist in a legal gray area and license to keep things classified is a distinct advantage of covert organizations.
However, everyone can become more intelligent about how they evaluate data that they can obtain using standard means, including through job interviews. Better questioning skills can be developed by interviewers, who can also be aware of their personal biases. Companies can intentionally change policies, lead internal discussions, and provide training to address potential perverse incentives that can arise from competitive pressures and reward mechanisms within the business. Some are already trying that.
But most importantly, hiring shouldn’t be left to external hiring agencies. At best, they’re inherently disconnected from the company culture of your company, whatever it is, making them unable to determine if any candidate is truly the best for you. At worst, based on what I was told by a number of people who worked at a number of such agencies, they tend to be the most inhumane corporate environments imaginable, outright embracing cruel mistreatment of employees as fully quantifiable, dehumanized resources.
If you don’t believe me and my anonymous sources, I guess you could apply for a job at an HR agency and find out for yourself. The specific examples of inhumane practices that I’ve heard of include incentivizing people to keep working while sick by cutting their bonuses if they go on any sick leave, resulting in everyone always being sick at work, or micromanaging when the employees can go to a restroom. Both represent a company culture of shaming people for their basic physical needs, which is extremely at odds with basic human dignity. You’d probably be more respected in most jails.
To give you a positive example, Wes Cecil’s criticism of the downsides of western hierarchical organizational structures only serves as a contrast to the West African culture, imported into the United States via the slave trade. In premodern non-hierarchical (typically oral) cultures like this one, you are a member of a community where everyone knows everyone personally. This results in everyone trying to build up excellent personal qualities, credibility, renown. It incentivizes treating others with respect and decency.
Wes Cecil speculates that the superior qualities commonly attributed to African Americans, like them being better musicians or athletes or the whole “black don’t crack” ability to seemingly never age, are obviously not a result of genetics, but of this culture being dominant in many black communities. A culture focused on developing individual excellence, on living with personal purpose, a culture of not letting yourself go as you reach a certain age. You can easily find many examples of people who don’t seem to “crack” among excellent athletes, artists, or scientists of any ethnic background.
While it may be impossible to achieve this type of culture and community on a national or global level, as our societies have grown too large, it’s entirely feasible in a company or department setting. If people are treated like more than their function, that’s when you get them to collaborate and help each other, to care about the success of the company, to contribute whatever it is that’s unique about their ideas or skills. That’s an environment where people will grow and support each other, seek excellence on purpose.
That’s how a company gets a decisive edge against its competition, especially in a world where insightful recruiting and humane company cultures are rare. The only problem of this approach is that only a minority of people is currently able to handle functioning in a community geared toward achieving true excellence, limiting the available pool of suitable candidates. However, the jury is still out on whether that is because many people naturally lack sufficient level of the required type of intelligence, or because of most education systems and company cultures working hard to prevent people from developing insight and reaching their full natural potential.