Firms Make Hiring Emotional - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Firms Make Hiring Emotional

Firms Make Hiring Emotional

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin


Because good grades and know-how may get your foot in the door, but emotional intelligence is what will keep you there.

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

It’s essential to get it right when hiring for the C-Suite. But when every candidate has the perfect resume, how can you distinguish between them? 

The answer may be to toss aside the resumes and look for a more effective measure. Like so many disciplines today – from behavioral economics to emergency responses – the art of hiring increasingly depends on a better understanding of human behavior.

A growing number of companies – Google, L’Oreal, AT&T, even the U.S. Air Force – are factoring emotional intelligence (EI) into their hiring processes. TalentSmart, a leading EI consultancy company, claims that 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies seek out its services. 

The most widely accepted definition of EI — also known as emotional quotient (EQ) — was put forward by John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990 and rests on the following key abilities:

  • Accurately perceiving emotions in oneself and others
  • Using emotions to facilitate thinking
  • Understanding the meaning of emotions
  • Having the capacity to manage emotion as required 

This framework was used as the basis for the popular Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), which assesses candidates’ strengths according to the four measures above by presenting them with a series of possible situations. Because it’s impossible to provide an objectively correct response to an emotional situation, the answers are determined by consensus, usually based on the responses of a large test group. Some swear by it, others criticize the results for rewarding respondents who adhere to established social norms, potentially homogenizing the workplace and limiting creativity.


In the last 15 years, many academics and businesspeople became enthralled by the concept of emotional intelligence, including Dr. K.V. Petrides, founder of a leading personality research center at University College London and a pioneer in trait-based EI testing.

When an over-emphasis on intellectual and technical capabilities comes at the expense of other aspects … then organizations ’seek ways to remedy the imbalances.’ 

Since 1998, Petrides has been honing the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue). This model focuses on 15 traits linked to emotional intelligence (including adaptability, assertiveness, emotion regulation, self-esteem and stress management) and assesses them through a self-reporting questionnaire.

Close-up of of hand filling out answers on a multiple choice exam.

Source Getty

While some knock the idea of self-reporting — believing that people gloss over their own failings — Petrides argues that “there is nothing more important than our self-perceptions.” While self-reporting is vulnerable to EI-inflation, he emphasizes that “responses can be verified through 360-degree assessments,” whereby the individual is rated by others as well.   

According to Thomas International, a corporate provider of EI tests, TEIQue has been translated into 12 languages, and thousands of surveys are used each month by companies like Sovereign Capital, a London private equity firm, and Proco Global, an international recruitment firm. 

GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring… they don’t predict anything.

— Laszlo Bock, People Operations VP 

Why the recent surge in popularity? Petrides tells OZY it’s about corporate greed, lack of professional fulfillment and workplace discord. He thinks that when an overemphasis on intellectual and technical capabilities comes at the expense of other aspects of the human being, then “individuals and organizations alike seek ways to remedy the imbalances.” 

If nothing else, hiring difficulties and high turnover represent huge costs for many businesses. The Department of Labour estimates that the average cost of a bad hire is 30 percent of the individual’s salary. That adds up with six-digit executive salaries; in 2010, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh estimated that his bad hires cost the company “well over $100 million.” 

So who benefits from wider application of the principles of EI? By improving executive choices, companies can cut costs and boost profits while fostering a more pleasant and empowering workplace. Also, when grades and CVs are given a back seat, people from diverse and unexpected backgrounds become more visible to those making the hiring decisions.   

Google, for example, is hiring more applicants without a college education because, as People Operations VP Laszlo Bock told The New York Times, the web giant realized that “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring … they don’t predict anything.” Instead, Bock looks for cognitive ability, humility, emergent leadership and ownership. 

What’s more, introducing scientifically tested and analytically rigorous tests like TEIQue replaces the current norm of selecting employees based on “cultural fit,” a subjective concept that often disadvantages women and minorities. 

[Considering emotional experience is] the only dependable way of ensuring lasting happiness and genuine success in one’s life.

— Dr. K.V. Petrides

There has been criticism, however, lobbed at EQ testing. For starters, its popularity has resulted in the proliferation of unsubstantiated tests, which can do more harm than good. Companies are advised to invest in academically validated assessments. And some researchers point to the potential “dark side” of high trait EQ scores. Many infamous dictators are believed to have had high EQ. “Individuals high in EI may use their skills to advance their own interests, even at the expense of others,” notes UCL Professor Martin Kilduff. 

EI tests can’t promise cuddly, harmonious workplaces, but the widespread adoption of these assessments is certainly a welcome sign that the raw materials of human experience – emotion, empathy, relationships – are being prioritized in the modern workplace.

Petrides, for one, is aiming big. He believes that placing a value on emotional experience, both personally and professionally, is ”the only dependable way of ensuring lasting happiness and genuine success in one’s life.”


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