Gut Feelings and Intuitions in Volunteer Screening

By Linda Graff
From Beyond Police Checks, Graff & Associates, 1999, pp. 126-7

They are impossible to define and yet most of us experience them. Triggers called "gut feelings" arise with some regularity among screeners. Variously called "intuition," or "instinct," screeners sense that something is "off," or "not quite right" with particular candidates. It might be the feeling of the hair standing up on the back of your neck, or the troubling sense of uncertainty that nags at you when the interviewee leaves your office.

What should you do when you experience misgivings of this nature? The first thing to do is to push yourself to identify precisely what triggered the sense of apprehension. Was it something in the candidate's manner, choice of words, presentation style, body language, or attitude? If you can pinpoint the source of discomfort, then explore it. Is it a legitimate cause for concern, or is it merely a reflection of discomfort with "difference"? Be careful that discrimination against someone not exactly like yourself is not in play.

The gut feeling can arise from other sources. Perhaps the source is a slight inconsistency among the data collected about a candidate. Perhaps the source is the too careful choice of non-committal language from a referee. Maybe a sense of unease surfaces from a slightly less than convincing explanation of gaps in an employment record or frequent moves from community to community.

The recommendation is that gut feelings not be ignored (Lorraine Street, 1996; Robert W Wendover, 1996; Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, 1996). There is often some basis in reality for an intuitive sense of apprehension. Like other red flags, a gut feeling should not be grounds for disqualification but, instead, a cause to investigate further.

Get a second opinion. Ask a colleague or a supervisor to join you in a second interview with the candidate, or to re-check a reference. Think about how much you want to share with your assistant in advance. It might be better to say less about your misgivings and see if he or she picks up on what you sensed. She or he might be able to confirm or dispel your concerns.

When misgivings cannot be easily allayed, it may be necessary to ask the individual to undergo further screening. For example, an additional interview, extra reference checks, a performance assessment, or a probation period might provide enough additional information for the decision to become clear. Caution is advised, however. As Lorraine Street (1996: 3.37) says, "the organization must be careful not to discriminate against someone by asking more than it normally would, without a good reason." Here is the basis for pushing hard to identify the source of unease. You may be called upon to defend it in the face of an allegation of discrimination.

As Lorraine Street (1996) elaborates, the situation may not be easily resolved. You may be faced with a difficult choice. You place a candidate you are still uncomfortable with, which may increase risks, and which will certainly increase the importance of all post-screening risk management mechanisms. You decline the application of a candidate on less than clear or defensible grounds which leaves the organization vulnerable to discrimination claims. Sometimes the choice comes down to what your gut tells you might be the best course of action in the best interests of clients and the organization's mission, versus the most prudent legal option of non-discrimination.

Clearly a win-win outcome is unlikely in such a dilemma. The ethically right choice is probably to give priority to the well-being of clients, but either way, the screener will want to ensure that the organization supports the option she or he pursues.

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