Equally qualified job candidates: Can you trust your instincts?

Several applicants were interviewed for a job opening in the plant engineering department. The field narrowed down to two candidates, Phil Hartshorne and Lucas Johnson, both of whom appeared to be equally qualified.
By Raymond Dreyfack December 1, 1999

Several applicants were interviewed for a job opening in the plant engineering department. The field narrowed down to two candidates, Phil Hartshorne and Lucas Johnson, both of whom appeared to be equally qualified. Both had graduated with good grades from reputable colleges. Both were well dressed and personable. Both had scored well in the company’s pre-employment tests. There was only one apparent difference between them. Hartshorne was Caucasian; Johnson was African-American.

Instinctively, for reasons he could not articulate — or chose not to articulate — Chief Engineer Don Kramer, the interviewing executive, gave Hartshorne the edge. Maybe it was the firmness of his handshake; maybe it was his eye contact. Or maybe… He chose not to put this unformed thought into words.

Whatever the case, the employment decision wasn’t an easy one. Could he go with his instincts, Kramer wondered? Or should he take the decision to a higher court?

With this thought in mind, Kramer sought out the advice of his boss, Plant Engineer George Ruffing.

Question: In Ruffing’s place, how would you respond to Kramer’s indecision?

Ruffing’s response: After reviewing the candidates’ qualifications carefully, Ruffing gave the chief a half smile. “Except for their obvious difference, these two guys might be twins. They both strike me as equally qualified.”

“That’s the problem,” Kramer replied. “Maybe too equally qualified. It’s a tough decision, unless I toss a coin, or go by my instincts.”

“Which are?”

Kramer frowned. “I tend to give Hartshorne the edge.”

Ruffing nodded. “Don, I’m not going to tell you which man to choose. But if you go with your instincts, my advice is to make sure you not only know why, but will be able to spell out why if need be. On the one hand, we have the moral and ethical factor to consider. On the other, in today’s job market, an executive must be on his toes when equally matched candidates of different race, religion, or gender show up. And the possibility can’t be ruled out that they could be “testers.” Testers often work in pairs. Selecting one over the other without being able to support the decision with valid corroborating evidence could lay a company open to a discrimination lawsuit.”