Interviews: Frequently Used, Less Frequently Useful

By Robyn – Jay Bage

bage marchOne of the most common methods of deciding the best candidate for the job is interviewing. We give a great deal of weight to this often very brief encounter with our potential candidates. Not that brevity is the issue. By the time a candidate has made it to an interview, you have already determined them to be qualified for the position. That’s why we ask for resumes and completed applications.

Interviews are designed for two purposes: to verify information received on the resume and application and to assess “fit”—the degree to which your candidate is compatible with the organization’s and current employees’ mission, values, work ethic, energy, mood, etc. Sadly, our reliance on interviews to provide useful and accurate information is often misplaced. They are notoriously invalid (not assessing what you intend to assess) and unreliable (yielding inconsistent results).

One problem I see is that we don’t always train managers to conduct interview. In my experience, the best we do is overlay an organizational process and hope folks figure it out and get it done. You remember the drill. You are handed a stack of resumes, a list of questions, and a schedule by which your recommendation is due.

I remember once being sent a packet from human resources that contained three resumes and a list of suggested questions. Fortunately I was fully aware I had no idea what to do and sought help from a more senior colleague. In hindsight that colleague wasn’t much more prepared than I was. Still, her help made the difference between a disaster and a greater disaster. A worse (and in my observation, more common) case is being given nothing except the resumes or applications.

Managers need training in conducting interviews, as much as they need training in other areas of management, to develop the skills required to select the best candidate. Good interview skills include:

  • Solid preparation. The chances that you will select the best candidate are increased when you carefully prepare your questions ahead of time and ask each candidate the same questions. You should also be clear what constitutes a good answer. If you don’t know what you are looking for, and don’t ask each person the same questions, you have no basis on which to compare them.
  • Document the interview. Write down each candidate’s responses. Later, after the interview, you can rate the answers based on how close they came to your desired response.
  • Set aside biases. I’m not talking about discrimination, which has no place in an interview or any other employment action. I’m talking about psychological biases that creep into and distort our better judgement. For example:
    • Like me, not like me. We tend to favor people who we assess to be like us.
    • Halo, horns. This bias happens when something great about a candidate colors our judgment about every other attribute OR when one negative attribute makes every other attribute seem worse than it is.
    • Recency, primacy.When our judgment is colored by what happens (what we see, hear or assume) when we first meet a candidate or what happens last.

When we are aware of potential biases, we can set aside their influences and make higher quality decisions.

  • Avoid “illegal questions.” Actually, the questions themselves are not illegal. But the information you could illicit may give you information you are not entitled to use in making a hiring decisions. For instance, as employer you have no right to know if you candidate has children, what his ethnicity is or her religious affiliation. If a manager isn’t trained, she may not be aware of the types of questions and discussion topics to avoid.
  • Control. Maintaining control of an interview is a skill that can be learned through mentorship, modeling and observing others. As an interviewee, we are told to “take control” of the interview. As an interviewer, this is problematic. If the candidate is in control of the interview, the likelihood that you will inadvertently stumble into information you are not entitled to have is high. The likelihood that you will discover the information you seek is low.

How did you learn how to conduct a good interview? What tips might you have to make them more productive?


One thought on “Interviews: Frequently Used, Less Frequently Useful

  1. Very insightful article. I have discovered that interviews can be an art more than a rigid science. Putting candidates at ease is important and the chairperson must set a professional yet assuring tone; railroading through questions without some human touch is demeaning. A major oversight can be placing this additional workload, sitting on a panel, on managers and supervisors while expecting the interview panel has no outside duties; often managers risk falling behind on other duties while on interview panels. HR and other managers must take up this outside work or the panel invariably faces stress, racing from the panel to cover the desk, personal calls, and managing external affairs. Call it culture, leadership, or another term, the process of hiring and promoting reflects on the candidates.


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