Every corporation out there would love nothing more than to have the best and the brightest minds working for them. However, for every large organization out there, with their extravagant compensation packages, there are that many more small to medium-sized employers competing for the same talent. Even if they increase their salary ranges and add different options to try and compete, how well do these companies fair in the long run? How can they increase their chances at retaining good employees? The answer may be in the tier at which they hire.
Susan Adams at Forbes argues that in striving for mediocrity, the result may be a harder working, more loyal employee by comparison to hiring the rockstar on paper.
A recently released research paper by three European academics makes the intriguing argument that it may be better to hire a mediocre job candidate than to hire someone with sterling credentials. Why? The mediocre hire may give the job his all because he feels indebted to the hiring manager for choosing him. The most qualified candidate, by contrast, may feel like he deserved the job, and decide to 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 principal gets a payoff that results from two factors, the chosen person’s demonstrated ability in advance and the effort he makes once he is chosen. The principal is also allowed to send the chosen person a message after she makes the choice, letting the chosen person know whether she thinks the person is the most qualified or not. In the experiment, the chosen person who has the least ability puts in extra effort that compensates for his failings. The researchers call this “induced reciprocity.” In their words, “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.”
In the experiment, a sizable minority of the principals, 30%, choose the less qualified person. The experiment also shows that those under-qualified people then put in 50% more effort than the people who are more qualified. That effort compensates for the under-qualified applicants’ lack of ability, and the principals who choose the less qualified people wind up with a 40% better outcome than the agents who choose the more qualified people.
The researchers try a version of the experiment where the principals do not communicate with the under-qualified applicants about why they were chosen. In that scenario, the under-qualified applicants don’t make the extra effort to do a good job. Conclusion: It can pay to hire someone less qualified, but if the hiring manager wants the person to work extra hard, he had better communicate clearly with the person and let her know he is giving her a chance, even though she is less qualified.
I find this paper fascinating, but I wonder to what extent this happens outside the research lab. It is something for hiring managers to keep in mind, and gives less qualified job seekers a reason to hope for the best.
In companies being honest about what they have to offer, the strategy of hiring middle-of-the-road candidates may already be in place. Why hire the 4.0 student that spent all his time studying when what you really need is a 2.8 student with a personality? Not that all 4.0 students don’t have personalities, but you get the point. Screening solely based on GPA or credentials may get you the best candidates in theory, but in reality, C’s make degrees and they could make your next great hire.
Traci Kingery, PHR is an HR Professional and freelance writer based in the Midwest, specializing in immigration and talent management. When she’s not improving unemployment, she keeps busy with her husband and four children.