Article: We hire people more like ourselves

Strategic HR

We hire people more like ourselves

Madan Pillutla, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London School of Business on stereotypes that influence hiring, his research projects and more
We hire people more like ourselves

If a person is going to be a threat to the recruiter, he will not select that person


Professor Madan Pillutla has extensive experience in different fields. Currently, he is a professor at London Business School. He also holds the position of an Assistant Editor at the journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and is a member of the editorial boards of the Administrative Science Quarterly and the Academy of Management Perspectives. Prof. Madan shares with us the factors that influenced his decision to shift to academics and discusses his research topics circling Industrial Relations.

You began your career at ITC Ltd and now you’re a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School. Take us through your journey from the corporate to academics. 

I was in ITC for only 16 months. I began as a management trainee and had to step in as a personnel manager at the factory within the first year I was there. It was hard because I was young & inexperienced and realized that there was a lot to learn. I wanted to become an academician, as it would allow me a lot of time to read books, which I loved to do. So I decided to leave ITC.

During my time as personnel manager at ITC, we had strikes, lockouts and all kinds of industrial disputes. I guess that is a reason why in my early research I wrote extensively on negotiations and equitable agreements. A lot of my negotiations with the Union on behalf of ITC felt like each party attempting to gain advantage over the other; we never really focused on equitable solutions. So, I formed my research questions during my time at ITC and my early career as an academician was greatly influenced by my experience there.

Money today has come to play a major role in both complex structures and people interactions, especially in the corporate world. Since you have researched on incentives, can you talk a bit on it? 

It is a fad to cite old research in psychology conducted in laboratory situations that showed money is not as strong a motivator and that we should incentivize people by giving them a sense of purpose. I believe that this particular finding applies to a very small set of people and a limited set of jobs. For instance, if a voluntary blood donor is paid money, she might stop the donation because she could feel that it looks like she is giving blood for the money she is getting in return. This is one of the few cases where money undermines motivation. How many such situations exist in the world and especially in the corporate world?  So, it is much safer to make the assumption that money is a motivating factor in general.

Many people say they are not motivated with money but when you conduct a survey among employees, most of them are not satisfied with their salaries. So how do you explain this dichotomy?

As I noted before, it is not that people are not motivated by money; it is definitely one of the motivating factors. But other factors like showing respect and making the employee feel that s/he is truly valued in the organization will also motivate them to a large extent.

Another interesting research of yours focuses on Discrimination in Selection Decisions. Can you elaborate on it? 

In the recruitment process, we tend to hire people who are similar to ourselves so we tend to homogenize organizations. If the hiring person is from a certain state in India and there are two equally qualified potential candidates before him, the HR person is likely to choose the person from his native state over the other. This is not a conscious process; people’s preference for others who are similar to them happens outside of their own awareness, which is why it is a difficult bias to correct.

Another factor that influences our decisions is the stereotypes we hold. For example, if a person from the UK is comparing a British with an Indian, she might be of the impression that the guy from India is good at maths and the one from the UK is creative. So she might be more likely to hire the Indian if the job demands quantitative skills and more likely to hire the British if the job demands creativity. In other words, the decision makers choose based on stereotypes as per the job requirements.

Lastly, what affects the hiring decision is whether a person is going to be helpful to my career aspirations with his contribution or is he going to be a threat to my position. If a person is going to be threat to the person who is hiring, s/he will not select that person. So discrimination in the selection process is influenced by these three factors—similarity, stereotypes about the individual being evaluated and their fit to the job, and perceptions of threat.

That’s interesting; even in one of our previous interviews we were told that HR persons hesitate to hire better than themselves. Do you think that’s a challenge for HR managers?

HR only help with hiring because eventually the function they are hiring for, be it marketing or finance, is going to have the final say on any given candidate. So HR is not usually threatened by, say, a finance person. But HR can influence organizations in making these big decisions and can ensure that the organization doesn’t hire people who are not very good because the person doing the hiring feels threatened. I have never heard HR managers talk about the possibility that people strategically hire others worse than themselves, but think they definitely should be. Many people do go around saying that they want to hire better than themselves; but more often than not, this does not happen. HR managers should, therefore, be conscious of this possibility.

One of your researches holds that forgiveness is not always divine. How do you think does forgiveness damage relationships?

This research idea was mainly influenced by my observation; some people see themselves as morally superior to others—I am quite certain that I am not the only person who finds such people problematic. In the Western world, a lot is now being written on happiness and positivity and how we should be happy and noble. Part of this line of research focuses on forgiveness and makes claims about how forgiving a wrong doer releases a lot of tension for you. This, however, is applicable when the wrong doer accepts his/her mistake. But at times, there’s ambiguity—a person may not even think that s/he has done something wrong. So at such times, forgiving that person is not going to go down well. S/he is likely to view your forgiveness as a tool that you are using to give yourself control over him/her. So that is the angle I explored on forgiveness.

You have also worked on areas around trust and fairness in interpersonal relationships. How do you think HR can balance these two elements during good times and bad times? 

Yes, trust and fairness matters the most when companies start talking about losses and distribution of losses. When times are bad, people should know that others are suffering just as much as they are suffering. It is difficult to argue that some people should lose their jobs or take a cut in their salaries while others don’t. 


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Topics: Strategic HR, #HRInsights

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