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Job Interviews: The Worst Selection Method

Job interviews are the most common means used to select new people. The jury is still out as to how effective they are. Research has shown them to be everything from ineffective to almost the best results that can be obtained. The huge variation has to do with how well the interviews are structured and the bias is controlled. Unstructured interviews are the easiest to do, but ineffective. Things such as race, gender, appearance, age, body language, interview surroundings, and the job market itself all have an impact on their efficacy - what psychologists refer to as bias. Bias is anything that influences the results other than the thing that is being measured.


How might the results be influenced?

Candidates can be, and often are, selected for a position before they even say “Hi” to the interviewer. The decision is taken in the 30 seconds it takes them to walk into the interview room.


Why managers think job interviews are effective

A search online will reveal all manner of reasons why managers think that job interviews are effective. For instance, they believe that if they ask the same questions of everyone, then they can compare “apples with apples”.

They believe that they can identify the potential of the person as an employee, or assess future competence.

Still others think that they can evaluate the candidate’s speaking skills. This belief is erroneous because of the vast difference between impromptu skills and those of a well-prepared speaker. The best ones put in hours of preparation to make it look easy.

The problem with all of these things if that none of them may be relevant for the job. In fact, that’s one area where managers really fall down. And the responsibilities of the jobs themselves now change so rapidly that it’s normal for the duties to be inadequately described. That means that candidates often think they’re interviewing for one position, when in fact they’re interviewing for something else. And only the manager know this.


Personal confidence

There are those who believe that interviews can help to identify those who have self-confidence, a characteristic that many look for. This is misleading for three reasons.

One is that unless the job specifically calls for it, then it doesn’t matter. It may be an ancillary skill that you like to see, but it’s unnecessary for the job at hand.

A second reason is that anyone who engages in creative work will lack self-confidence. Stories abound about how actors, artists, musicians, and writers feel insecure about the quality of their work all the time - so much so that the fear of doing it makes them physically sick. Academy Award-winning actor Henry Fonda was known for throwing up in his dressing room before a performance. If self-confidence was used to measure his ability, we would never have heard of him.

A third reason is due to something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is a kind of cognitive bias - a false belief - that people are smarter and more capable than they are. Those who are guilty of this lack the competence to recognize their own incompetence and overestimate their abilities.

If you hire someone simply because they display a level of confidence that impresses you, then you could end up with the wrong person. It could be that they’ve blinded you with their charm, and you can rest assured that if this was a rare event that the Effect wouldn’t have a name.


Clarify CV

Some interviewers believe that an interview will enable them to clarify what’s on the candidate’s CV.

There are problems with this notion, too.

One is that it may do nothing more than satisfy the curiosity of the interviewer, even though what is learned is irrelevant to the job. That can bias the outcome.

Fit, or what can perhaps be better described as chemistry, can give managers a sense of whether the person would be accepted by other employees. In and of itself, that may be a good measure except that interviewers will bring their own biases to the decision. What feels good to them may not feel good to the people the candidate would be working with. The opposite is also true.

This is why some companies will have the candidate spend time with their prospective team. Apple, for instance, in the early days, had candidates spend an entire day or two with the people they would be working with. Everyone had to feel good about that person.

Interviewers also believe that they can use the interview to assess the candidate’s knowledge; but its one thing to talk about it. It’s quite another to demonstrate it. Those who are overconfident in their abilities can always talk a good story. In fact, story tellers tend to do better in interviews.

Interviews are also used to get a feeling for how people think, or to get an opinion. Depending on the needs of the position, this may or may not be related to the job, which means that more bias is brought needlessly into the process.


Why job interviews are ineffective

For whatever good, true or false, managers think interviews do for them, there are some serious drawbacks.


Nuanced deception

One is that the vast majority of interviewees won’t tell you the truth.

Sociologist, Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work, calls it nuanced deception, which is an embellishment of the truth. Referring to a study done at the University of Massachusetts, 81% of interviewees lied during an interview. Ironically, researchers also lied to the participants who thought they were actually interviewing for a tutoring position, rather than participating in a study. Friedman says that candidates lie during the interview because you won’t hire them unless you hear what you want to hear. And so in order to get the job, people say what you want them to say.

Of course, interviewers think that they’re astute enough to spot the liars, but Friedman says that they’re about as good at doing that as they are at predicting heads or tails in a coin flip.

Fifty-fifty, in other words.

And funnily enough, they, too, suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect because they “feel significantly more confident in their conclusions.”

Along with this is the belief by managers that the interview will enable them to verify qualifications, though short of having actual certificates or diplomas, you still have to take their word for it.


Interviewer bias

If every candidate told the unvarnished truth, it’s still doubtful whether the interview would give you a full or accurate picture of them, who they were, or what they could do. And even if you’re aware of your own biases, you’ll still be influenced by them, whether you want to be or not as the examples below demonstrate.

  • Those who have a deep voice are considered to be trustworthy, but anyone with a cold will have a deeper voice than usual, and if the person with a naturally deep voice has a touch of seasonal asthma, then their voice may sound raspy. And so right away you can see how fickle this criterion is.


  • Tall people are reckoned to be natural leaders, probably because they’re visible. They’re easy to spot in a crowd. But their height has nothing to do with their leadership abilities. And those who are attractive are often considered to be intelligent. A quick look at what comes out of Hollywood should disabuse you of that idea.


Interviewers introduce bias into the interview by the way they frame the questions, so much so that it will determine how the candidate answers them. Any variation, whether it’s with words, intonation, body language or something else will change it. (Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.)

Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic, the company that created WordPress, conducts interviews via text. All he sees are words. That way he’s not influenced by the appearance of the person. He claims that 95% of the people they interview this way are offered jobs.


False assumptions

Just as school exams bear no resemblance to the work that students will do in the “real” world, how someone performs in an interview doesn’t predict their success on the job. The problem is that when you rely on them to select someone for a position, you’re vesting the event with powers that it doesn’t have.

Most interviewers assume that they can spot the perfect or near perfect candidate. The research shows, however, that this is a myth of their own making. No one wants to admit that they’re lousy at this, and so they assume that their good at it. But that doesn’t make it so.


Job interviews are predictable

Job interviews have become predictable. Everyone asks more or less the same questions - questions that don’t really tell you what you need to know about the probable success or suitability of the candidate.

Not only that, but there are hundreds of websites that people can study with every imaginable question they’ll be asked, and good answers to provide. But interview preparation is just like studying for a test. Passing it only means you’re good at that; not the job that you’re interviewing for.


Candidates interview managers

Perhaps a final reason why interviews are ineffective from the interviewer’s standpoint is that the candidates are interviewing you.

Maybe you hadn’t thought of that.

Those who are eager to get the job may miss it, but others will be thinking, “Do I want to work for this person?”

How you conduct yourself during the interview will speak volumes for what it’ll be like to have you as a boss. If, for instance, you can’t be transparent during the interview, then the candidate will have good grounds not to trust you about anything including the job that they’re interviewing for.


What is the most effective way to select a candidate?

In view of all the problems with interviews, is there a way that they can be used to select people for a job? Is it possible to discern the quality of one candidate over another?

Yes. There is, though you must bear in mind that no method is perfect. No process will work every time. People will still get hired who don’t work out for one reason or another.

The most reliable method seems to be structured interviews that are coupled with actual work . . . well, almost.

It’s what Friedman calls a job audition.

Actors, musicians, and even some students have to do a job audition. It’s an integral part of the selection process for entry into Cambridge or Oxford University, for example.


What does the job audition contain?

One or more exercises that afford candidates the opportunity to prove what they can do.

Measures of cognitive (general mental) ability, however, are as effective and perhaps even a bit better than doing a sample of the work that the job will entail.

A better combination occurs when mental ability is paired with integrity. That so many people “stretch the truth” on both sides during interviews gives you some idea of its importance.

Especial care must be exercised when using cognitive tests. They must measure ability where it’s relevant. It’s unwise to use them in every instance and will do you no favours in the long run. People who are very smart become bored easily and will leave a job that no longer challenges their cognitive abilities.


Structured interviews

You can’t escape structured interviews, however. And these are much more difficult to do than meets the eye. They consist of pre-defined questions and response categories. This approach tends to mitigate the impact of many biases, but as you now know, measures of cognitive ability can obviate the need for interviews altogether.


What future do interviews have?

There are those who argue that job auditions, sample work tests, and interaction with current employees will replace interviews, however, none of these is a perfect solution.

One problem is the time that’s required to make a fair assessment. It’s unreasonable to expect someone who is being considered for a position to be as competent as those who have been working there for a period of weeks, months, or years, and the orientation that a candidate is likely to receive in order to participate will be cursory at best, which will prejudice the outcome.

Another problem is one mentioned earlier - that managers haven’t adequately described the job for which a candidate has applied. That means that when work samples are submitted, they may not contain everything that the hiring manager is looking for.

Whatever method or combination of methods you use, you must be aware of the pitfalls and biases of all of them.

There is no perfect system.

There is no method that will always give you the best candidate all of the time.

The care that you put in, however, to remove bias - those things that unintentionally influence you to decide on one person rather than another - will improve your choice.


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