The hiring process rewards narcissism

Hiring Process and Narcissism

Hiring Process and Narcissism

That headline probably shouldn’t really surprise anyone, but it’s still terrifying. It comes from this study, which is in turn summarized here. Here’s probably the essence of what you need to know/understand:

“A job interview is one of the few social situations where narcissistic behaviors such as boasting actually create a positive impression,” said Del Paulhus, Psychology Professor at the University of British Columbia and the study’s lead author. “Normally, people are put off by such behavior, especially over repeated exposure. “ The research noted that “narcissists tended to talk about themselves, make eye contact, joke around and ask the interviewers more questions. As a result, the study found that people rated narcissists as more attractive candidates for the position.”

This is literally terrifying, and has myriad implications for the world of work and the future of work and all that. Start with the first sentence above: it’s “one of the few situations…” I’d mostly agree with that. That said, there’s other research indicating the millennials and beyond will constitute a full culture of narcissists, so maybe we’re all undeniably screwed here.

Look, I’ll make this personal — because why not, right? My job search process was miserableHere’s one story that encapsulates it. At some level, I feel good about where I ended up and that it worked out. At another level, I still look back and think, “Goddamn, that is a very flawed process.” I think the place I ultimately came to is that the hiring process is a sale, which shouldn’t surprise that many people — most things are a sale, ultimately.

Think about that logically, though: who’s going to do better in a sale concept? Someone who’s a bit on the narcissist side, or someone who’s a little more demure?

That brings up Problem No. 2 here, which might be even more terrifying and gaping:

Study reveals interview cultural bias – The study also revealed an important cultural bias, as participants of Japanese, Chinese and Korean heritage “showed lower levels of narcissism, and were less likely to receive ‘definitely hire’ ratings as a result.” The tendency to be impressed by narcissists, noted Paulus, “results in an indirect cultural bias – particularly against East Asians.”

So, uh … our tendency towards narcissist self-promoters, reflected in research-based fact, is actually making the hiring process essentially illegal.

That’s not very good, right? Doesn’t seem so.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve, because it touches on a lot of human failings about perception, needs, priorities, goal-setting, empathy, context, connections, networking, and all that. All the words I just listed are concepts that people think they understand, but often have no idea around. If you want to understand why idiots often think they’re smart people, read this. 

Hiring Process Flawed

If, on the other hand, you want to understand how the hiring process begins its flawed ascent, read this. The sheer fact of the matter is, we all worship at The Temple Of Busy; so when a new job opens up at a place, we often don’t stop and think and ask questions like:

  • What was good about who just held it?
  • What was bad about that person?
  • Did the last 2-3 people show that the roles are broader than we think?
  • Did the last 2-3 people indicate that maybe this job could be rolled into another job?
  • What’s the bottom-line value of this role?
  • How could this role be broader or given more bottom-line value?

If you stop and think about those things (and more), then you’re going to make a smarter decision that makes more sense. What most people do is polish off the ol’ job description — literally the one that probably was used four-five years ago — and then rush headlong into posting on Indeed, posting on LinkedIn, etc.

That’s not a strategy. That’s just a full-court press of checking boxes. 

So The Temple of Busy = we can’t stop and think = we make poor, rushed hiring “strategy” decisions = we get people in front of us and they seem confident = we respond to it = it’s probably not the right hire for the right job.

What’s sometimes amazing to me is that we’ve thrown millions — probably billions — of dollars at the hiring process in terms of ATS systems and all that, and even though we want to believe technology can save us and make us more effective (Apple did it!), what we forget is that simplicity is actually what does it. We need a simpler process for defining a job, finding the right people out in the world, and connecting them back to the job. We don’t need more, more, more technology and programs. That’s what got us here in the first place.


Ted Bauer


  1. Funny I should stumble upon this, when I just had yet another interview today. I am a generally quiet and reserved individual, so interviews are a nightmare for me. I clam up and find it difficult to talk about myself. Lack of confidence? YES! I agree that each of us are out there trying to “sell” ourselves, and doing so will certainly be easier for some then others. I feel very capable and I know I am qualified for the jobs I apply to, it is in the interview that I find difficult. I have had the displeasure of knowing a few narcissistic individuals, so I can certainly see the appeal employers would see in hiring such cunning, boastful people. So how does one stand out from the competition if there are not narcissistic or a type A personality?

  2. I was just getting good at selling myself during job interviews after living in NYC for two years (a city where there’s a fine line between narcissism and self confidence) and then moved to Minneapolis, where it seemed that speaking about my accomplishments during job interviews was sorta frowned on (Minnesota culture is infamous for its ‘Jante Law’, or tl;dr not talking about yourself in a way that can be perceived as putting yourself before others). There’s narcissism on the part of hiring managers, too – they want what they want, i.e. more people like themselves to hang out with.

    • Huge cultural difference there, and saw it firsthand having lived in both places. Your point at the end is super true, and amazing: hiring managers basically want people they won’t necessarily be drinking buddies with, but people who ‘resonate’ with them. As a result, like hires like. I had an interview with Exxon in October 2012. I nailed that sucker, and while I probably would have hated the job, I would have made some solid money for a little bit. Of course, the recruiter hired 2 people exactly like him. It’s life, you know?

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