Recruiters and hiring managers love interviews. Every recruiter I know insists that the interview is a necessary and even vital requirement to ensure that the best people are hired. If this were true turnover rates approaching 50% during the first year of employment would not be as common as they are. I have never been sure why interviews are so loved and defended, but they seem to satisfy a human need for connection and relationship. This is fine as long as we do not delude ourselves that an interview is a scientific or reliable way to select people.
If we use interviews as the only or primary selection tool then we should be certain of their validity and that they are used skillfully. In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers the interview to be a selection test and requires that it be validated before use. Yet, I would guess that few interviews are validated at all, and the ones that are may not be delivered consistently or by a competent, trained interviewer.
Research has consistently shown that the typical unstructured interview is unreliable. Frank Schmidt and the late John Hunter analyzed 85 years of research on how well different selection methods predict on-the-job performance. Out of 19 methods, the unstructured interview came in ninth (see Figure 1). It does not consistently ensure that the most qualified person gets a job or that the person will perform any better than another candidate chosen with less care. In all the studies that I have looked at, the validity of choosing candidates by only using an unstructured interview process is about the same as simply picking someone at random. In Figure 1 no method approaches the perfectly valid score of 1.0. The most predictive tools are Work samples and general mental ability tests.
Interviews are rarely done consistently from interviewer to interviewer or from candidate to candidate. One interviewer asks one set of questions and another asks a different set. Therefore we are comparing apples to oranges and the hairs we split and the time we spend agonizing over a small detail or a particular answer to an interview question is wasted.
No wonder candidates often roll their eyes at the absurdity of the interview process and feel unfairly treated. Candidates who meet all the listed requirements for a job are frequently passed over for ones with fewer qualifications. They wonder why. Ans we don’t have any good answers for them.
The way we assess candidates is highly subjective and is based on assumptions (prejudices), often unintended, that the recruiter or hiring manager has. Personality, mood, day of the week, and the chemistry between an interviewer and the candidate are factors as are physical appearance, tone of voice, or even the time of day.
I often ask recruiters to answer this question: If they interviewed two candidates for a job who each had the same qualifications and another recruiter then interviewed them using exactly the same questions, would the candidates receive the same or even a similar score? What would account for any differences other than bias or the other factors I have mentioned? Another way to show how unreliable interviews are would be to ask whether you would be rehired for your own position given your credentials and experience. Do you meet all the requirements? Of course, there is no way to know how you would do but it is an interesting way to think about the process we put candidates through.
From my experience as a recruiter and candidate rambling, unstructured interviews are common. Interviewers ranged over a wide variety of topics, dipping into my resume here and there to ask a question or ask me to validate something they already expected and wanted to hear. In most cases, I could manipulate the interview in subtle ways to make sure my strengths were showcased. In other words, a sophisticated candidate can game the system in many ways to tilt the deck in their favor.
On the other hand, there are many tools available to recruiters that can improve their ability to reliably select and recommend candidates that have the skill and aptitude the position calls for. These methods and tools can save time and free up a recruiter to spend more time sourcing, selling, and ensuring that the candidates are informed and engaged.
These tools include a multitude of screening and testing tools: validated realistic job previews, simulations, aptitude and skill tests, as well as simple things like asking candidates to actually do something relevant to the job: edit an article, write an advertisement, critique a circuit diagram, locate an error, etc.
Many vendors offer well-constructed, validated, and structured interview tools to improve the reliability and validity of interviews. Everyone who does interviews should be trained to use them consistently. Given by a trained interviewer structured interviews can increase reliability by a significant amount. Even so, they are still only a little more reliable than simply picking a “winner” at random from your final pool.
Carefully constructed interviews, where the questions are directly related to measurable skills, competencies, or past experiences take a lot of time to prepare and, to be most effective, have to be delivered in a similar way (ideally exactly the same way) to each candidate for the job.
Internships are another great way to assess a candidate’s fit into an organization as well as their motivation, interest, and ability – both professionally and to work within a team. While they can be difficult to set up and take time, once they are underway an organization has an almost steady stream of good candidates under assessment.
And still another excellent way to get feedback on past performance and character is to conduct a 180-degree reference check using tools that offer ways to get anonymous and wide-ranging anonymous feedback from many people who have worked with the candidate.
I know many of you use other tools in your evaluation, but I also know you always conduct interviews – often many of them. If the interviews are used to establish a human connection, market the organization or position to the candidate, and are not the primary source of determining skills or abilities, I have no issue with them. When they are used as a selection tool – and particularly when we are proud of them as a selection tool – I get concerned. There are much better ways to select candidates and we should be using them more and more.
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