Why a Job Interview Might be Leading you Astray

Among the numerous email newsletters we receive, we often see a headline like this: “What does (insert name of CEO here) say is the only job interview question that matters?

That’s certainly a provocative promise. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what you should be asking in job interviews? There’s just one problem. Maybe you shouldn’t be doing interviews at all.

For most organisations, reaching the interview remains as the highest and final stage of a hiring process that might also include a CV review, a competency-based assessment and even a day-long career centre. All the research, however, shows that free-form, unstructured interviews are a poor predictor of future performance.

But before we dive into the research, let’s take a commonsensical look at what a job interview usually is, and why that could be a problem.

Typically the candidate is sent in for a defined period of time to sit down and talk with a number of company managers. Each manager poses the questions he or she feels is important and revealing to ask, hoping that they will be able to determine the candidate’s fitness for the role based on their answers and overall demeanour. But not only might each manager ask different questions, each forms impressions and makes judgments according to their own personal preconceptions and highly subjective reaction to the candidate. In this all-too common scenario, different interviewers can come to very different conclusions on the same candidate. But even if we subtract interviewer bias from the equation and assume unanimity among interviewers, basing a hiring decision on interviews presupposes that how a candidate performs in an interview situation is related to how they will perform on the job. And numerous studies that have been conducted over the years shows that not only are interviews a poor predictor but can be totally misleading.

For example, in a study conducted by Jason Dana and colleagues at the Yale School of Management, student subjects were asked to interview other students and then predict their grade point averages for the following semester.

“The prediction was to be based on the interview, the student’s course schedule and his or her past G.P.A. (We explained that past G.P.A. was historically the best predictor of future grades at their school.) In addition to predicting the G.P.A. of the interviewee, our subjects also predicted the performance of a student they did not meet, based only on that student’s course schedule and past G.P.A. In the end, our subjects’ G.P.A. predictions were significantly more accurate for the students they did not meet. The interviews had been counterproductive.”

In this same study, a group of students being interviewed were asked to give random answers – and none of the interviewers picked up on it. In fact, interviewers who got random answers claimed they “got to know the interviewee” at a slightly higher percentage than those got honest answers! And, even after students were presented with the evidence that interviews were the least likely means to predict G.P.A., they were asked to rank the information they would like to have when making a G.P.A. prediction: honest interviews, random interviews, or no interviews at all, “no interview” was most often ranked last. “In other words, a majority felt they would rather base their predictions on an interview they knew to be random than to have to base their predictions on background information alone.”

What does this tell us? We, as human beings, tend to place an inordinate amount of trust in our ability to judge another through face to face conversation – even when all evidence says otherwise.

So, rather than place blind trust in job interviews, perhaps your organisation should consider some alternatives. Structured interviews, for example, attempt to remove some of the subjectivity from the process by having all interviewers ask the same questions. Studies do show that structured interviews are moderately more reliable for predicting performance. But they still don’t approach the accuracy of assessments based on personality and cognitive ability.

Of course, we understand – so long as we persist in the false belief that we can size up a person by talking to them, job interviews are not going to go away anytime soon. However, by being cognizant of their limitations, you can take steps to assure that you are not misled by them!

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