Why Managers Hire Unqualified Candidates


A group of researchers from the University of California at Berkely, Carnegie Mellon University, and Harvard Business School conducted a study on a phenomenon known as the “fundamental attribution error” and how it relates to the business world.  In essence, the “fundamental attribution error” describes our cognitive tendency to rely on concrete facts as a proper measure of evaluating a person, while neglecting to examine any possible external factors.  In the experiment, the researchers asked business executives to evaluate twelve fictional candidates for a job promotion. Some candidates in the scenario performed well at an easier job, while others displayed mediocre performance in a more difficult position.  The result of the study indicated that the executives consistently favored the employees whose performance had benefited from an easier job.

This common, yet flawed logic has not only detrimental effects to the company that hires an unqualified candidate, but also to the applicant who is unjustly rejected.  As a consequence, the “fundamental attribution error” can lead to executives promoting under-qualified applicants, while turning away more competent individuals.

I have seen the “fundamental attribution error” also work in reverse, when a business manager uses his or her “gut” reaction to hire an overqualified candidate.  As we all know, six months later the same candidate is either back on the job market, or has already accepted a more challenging position.

Perhaps “the fundamental attribution error” has had an immediate effect on you or someone you know.  It is helpful to remember that this faulty reasoning occurs not only in businesses, but with college administrators, athletic recruiters, or even casting crews.  Have you experienced the “fundamental attribution error” throughout any part of your career? What are your thoughts on how this type of judgment can be avoided in the workplace?

by: Suzanne Ostrander

To visit the article from Harvard Business School’s website, click here:


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