Interviews suck. They’re no fun for the interviewer and a tense, stressful process for the interviewee. And the news just gets worse: they don’t work either. Interviews are supposed to help you decide who will be an effective employee and who won’t, but the plain fact is, traditional interviews don’t do that. In fact, one expert goes so far as to call interviews “haphazard conversations”!
So what’s wrong with your typical interview? Interviews have a number of problems that have been recognized for years. Their major problem is that they’re inconsistent. First, they’re inconsistent from applicant to applicant. Most interviewers don’t ask the same questions of each applicant so they don’t get comparable information from each applicant. The order of the questions and the flow of the answers can vary wildly from one applicant to the next. Research suggests that even questions from the applicant can change the interview content in unpredictable ways.
Second, if you’re using multiple interviewers for the same job, those interviewers are typically not consistent with each other, either in the way they conduct their interviews or in how they interpret the information they get.
Finally, the biggest consistency problem comes from plain old human memory. People are overconfident about how well they can remember even important information they heard during an interview. And the more interviews you do, the bigger the problem gets.
As if that’s not enough, interviewers often form their impressions of applicants on the basis of information that’s irrelevant to the applicant’s potential job performance. I once read in a “dress for success” article about interviewing that men should always move their pen to the left side of their pocket so it doesn’t show through their jacket. Let’s think about the logic of this statement. It’s essentially saying that if an applicant leaves his pen on the right side of his pocket (and you see it peeking out during the interview), then this is a signal that this person is going to be a lousy employee. Sorry, but that’s just silly. That’s not the kind of information that predicts who’ll be a good employee and who won’t.
And to be fair to both sexes, I should mention that the same article said that women shouldn’t wear fuchsia to the interview (my wife had to explain to me what color “fuchsia” was). Sorry, but there’s not a scrap of evidence that the color of your suit is a reliable predictor of your job performance.
In short, your typical job interview is inconsistent, quirky, based more on impression management than job skills, and generally does a very poor job of what it is supposed to do. But the news isn’t all bad, the interview can be saved.
Some simple precautions and changes can greatly increase the quality of your interviews. A decade of research has shown that “structuring” an interview can take a lousy measure of potential job performance and make it a good one. So how do you “structure” an interview? Here are some simple tips to get started:
- Have every interviewer ask the same questions of each applicant (preferably in the same order). Better yet, create a form.
- Have the interviewer take extensive notes during each interview.
- Limit follow-up questions and prompting. (Yes, I know that’s what most people like about interviews, but it’s a big mistake.)
- Don’t discuss applicants between interviews.
- Train, train, train your interviewers. It’s not a skill that comes naturally.
- Finally, ask questions that have “predictive validity”. In other words, don’t ask stuff like “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be.” Instead, ask questions that make the applicant demonstrate specific job knowledge. Ask hypothetical or situational questions that make the applicant describe their past job behaviors.
And don’t worry about where their pen is!