As business leaders, we are all in the recruitment business. We want to hire and promote the best talent.

But, most of us make costly mistakes in recognising the top performers. This results in loss of earnings, turnover, and emotional stress for all involved.

We are so bad at making people decisions that researchers found that promoting people at random would work better.

There is a system specifically designed to ensure fairness and meritocracy, the judicial system. While it is not a perfect system, it has developed a lot of processes with the pure objective to reduce decision errors.

I was a juror in a trial last week. My fellow jurors and I needed to decide whether the defendant was carrying an offensive weapon, namely a knife.

In this post, I wanted to explore how we can make better talent decisions at work by taking inspiration from the judicial system.

1. Two different roles in the decision: The jurors and the judge

In a trial, there is the judge and the jurors. They have different responsibilities.

The jurors are responsible for deciding on the facts. The judge makes sure the law is implemented.

It is a good idea to have a similar division of labour when making talent decisions.

Have some people responsible for deciding on the facts. Can this person perform this task at a high level?

And, have someone else overseeing that the decision-making process is as objective and fact-based as possible.

I made a similar point in my article on Forbes about the role of HR in promoting gender parity.

2. No side-conversations

Interestingly, as jurors, we were not allowed to discuss the case if not all of us were present. That makes total sense to me.

I have shared the story of a director who had only met me a couple of times, blocking my promotion. The way he did it was to say to the promotion committee that he had some doubts. Then they decided with the VP (who had never met me in person) to take it “offline.”

This “offline” conversation happened without the rest of the committee, my manager, or HR present. I did not get promoted, and when I asked the director about it, he made a sexist comment about how we women are naturally consensus-seekers.

I remember I had felt strongly that the decision should not have been made in a side conversation by two people who had very limited knowledge of my work.

Seeing that the judicial system does not allow side conversations among the jurors was reassuring.

3. Using binary and clear questions

Before we went to deliberate, the judge explained to us the law and then created a flowchart with a series of questions:

Are you sure that the knife was a flick knife? Yes or No? A flick knife is by law considered a weapon.

If yes, the next question becomes: Do you consider it more probable that the defendant had a reasonable excuse for carrying the flick knife? Yes/No

If you followed the flowchart, you would end up with a guilty or not guilty verdict by answering binary questions.

What if we created a flowchart of prioritized questions like these for our hiring and promotion decisions?

What are the facts we need to be sure of, and what are the facts we need to think are more probable than not?

4. If you have personal connections to the people involved, do not take part in the decision-making process

Before the jurors were sworn in, we needed to confirm that we did not know the defendant or the witnesses.

In many companies, the person who refers a job candidate cannot be part of the hiring committee, and that makes sense.

Of course, in the majority of the cases, the talent moves on the basis of personal connections. I am not necessarily suggesting changing that here. In a high-growth environment, we want to hire fast, and hiring people we know and trust is often the fastest way.

That said, we need to be aware of personal connections’ bias in the decision-making process. Nobody likes nepotism in politics, and they won’t like nepotism in our company either.

And while personal relationships are great for performance, favouritism isn’t.

5. Shelter from external influences

As a juror, you are not allowed to discuss the case with anyone externally until you reach a verdict. That’s because they will influence you without having seen all the evidence.

It is proven that our biases will fill in the gaps when we have limited information. This is one of the biggest reasons why people who most often are victims of prejudice, for example minority employees, fail to advance in organizations.

Promotion committees do not have enough information about their work. So, they make decisions from partial information propped up by biases.

You want to take the time to present the information to the hiring or promotion committee. Or have a smaller group of people who know the candidates well make the decision.

That said, you still should use a group rather than an individual. Research shows that diverse, inclusive groups will make better decisions than individuals. That is why trials use 12 jurors.

6. Talking openly about biases

The judge would often remind us not to let specific facts bias us.

For example, a few witnesses testified behind a screen. The judge reminded us several times that this was standard procedure. We should not read something about the witness or the defendant into it.

It is proven that we tend to exclude remote participants when we have hybrid meetings. What happens when a job candidate dials in with a bad connection? What happens when an employee works in a remote office? Do we still give them an equal chance?  Maybe a similar reminder that we should not allow distance or connection issues to influence our judgment should also be given.

The judge would also remind us not to let sympathy towards the defendant or the victims cloud our judgment about the facts.

Rather than pretending bias does not exist, the judicial system talks openly about it.

Conclusion

The stakes of making wrong decisions in the judicial system have the power to ruin lives. That is why they have developed a series of processes and procedures to cut the odds of errors.

It is not a perfect system, but it can provide some helpful inspiration when designing our hiring and performance management processes. Which one of the ideas above resonated the most for you?

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