The recency effect – 3 ways to avoid it ruining your next hire

By Robert Half 25 June 2018

The recency effect reflects the way our brains are hardwired to remember information that was presented to us most recently.

The impact this train of thought can have on a hiring manager can be quite influential, such as falling into the trap of having stronger recollections of the last candidates interviewed, rather than those in the middle or top of the interview list.

Left unchecked, the recency effect could see your company missing out on the jobseeker best suited to the role.

This blog explores why hiring managers to be mindful of the recency effect and the steps one can take to minimise its influence on recruitment decisions.

The risks of the recency effect

If you’re not convinced about the impact of the recency effect, ask a colleague to read a list of words out loud to you, then try repeating back the words you remember. Chances are you’ll recall at least some of the first words you heard (that’s thanks to the primacy effect) but it’s likely that the majority of words you remember were those at the end of the list – the ones you heard last.

In most aspects of life, the recency effect is perfectly harmless. But for hiring managers in the process of interviewing job candidates, it can shape which jobseekers are at top of mind for the job offer.

As a hiring manager, you could interview a large number of candidates in any given day. It’s easy for faces to blur, names to lose resonance, and by the end of a long day each candidate can seem to merge with the next. It can be hard for individuals to stand out. That’s when you may be most likely to succumb to recency bias – favouring candidates towards the end of the interview process.

The trouble is, the candidate best suited to the role could be someone you spoke with early on in the process. Or it may be a jobseeker you met somewhere towards the midway mark. Yet these are exactly the jobseekers you could be most likely to overlook.

Overcoming the recency effect

A key starting point is simply being aware of this possible bias, and how it could influence your hiring decision. When you know the recency effect exists, you tend to be much more alert to the prospect of succumbing to it – and that’s a good thing. But it’s not the only step to take.

Here are three straightforward methods that you implement during your next hire:

1. Implement a clear system

Having a system in place can help you to stay vigilant to the recency effect.

At the heart of an effective system is a clear set of interview questions. Back these up with a clearly mapped out interview structure before you commence the interview process. The two together – consistent questions and a standard format, will ensure every candidate has the same interview experience. In other words, you create a level playing field.

Next, develop a set of rating criteria for the information and responses you gather from each candidate. It is worth investing time here because when each candidate is scored according to consistent criteria, your interview notes will be a pivotal tool to overcome recency bias.

2. Allow time for note-making

Allow sufficient time at the end of each interview to complete your scores and jot down meaningful notes about each job candidate. Maintaining accurate notes is critical to help you remember what was said, and accurately assess each jobseeker based on their responses and accomplishments.

The key is to make these notes when the candidate is still fresh in your mind. Don’t put off the task until later when you recollections may not be so accurate.

3. Avoid mental fatigue

The interview process can be mentally exhausting for hiring managers, and this can increase the likelihood of recency bias taking over as your tired mind makes it easier to recall the last candidates you spoke with – and harder to think back to job candidates you spoke to earlier.

Stay mentally alert by allowing plenty of time for breaks between interviews. Having a break – preferably one where you get up and move around, can allow your brain to create new associations for individual candidates (“Joel Smith? Yes, I spoke with him just before I grabbed a glass of water mid-morning”).

Taking steps to avoid – or at least minimise, the recency effect can go a long way to ensuring your company secures the talent that is best suited to the role and the organisation.

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