The problem(s) with interviews
By and large, the job application process has remained pretty much the same for decades: you apply for a job, maybe do some tests of some sort (largely unrelated to your job and in fact having a questionable scientific basis for being given), then do some interviews with HR and subsequently someone in the business then a decision is made about whether you get the role. There may be small variations on this approach, but it will be pretty recognisable whether you interview at Tesco or Tata Motors.
It has worked for many years so why change it I hear you ask?
Well, let’s look at the ways just the interview process can be (and often is) gamed or is ripe for manipulation.
Before we do though let’s all agree on what we are looking to achieve here — we want to hire the best possible person for the role, who is going to do a good job, in as little time as possible. As we can’t know any of this for sure when we interview the person, we want to optimise for the likelihood that this is the case.
The first problem (even before the candidate gets into the building/call) is often that (especially in larger companies) it may be that the candidate will never work for the interviewer and so the interviewer’s incentives are not necessarily aligned. They may be doing the interview to get out of other work, to look good to their managers or just because they have a power trip of some sort, none of which are particularly good starting points. The interviewer must be someone that the candidate will work for, to ensure that they have some skin in the game when making the decision.
But that’s not the only issue that can arise before the interview even begins. What about the mood of the interviewer? If someone has had a crappy day prior to the interview then it is going to be hard for them to set aside their emotions when interviewing the candidate, resulting in them being unfocussed, potentially short and at worst, will make the candidate feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. This will likely lead to the interviewer not being able to impartially assess the candidate and even if they are able to, the candidate may be turned off by the interviewer, a proxy for the company, leading them to look elsewhere.
But this isn’t just an issue on the interviewer’s part, the candidate could also have been having a bad day, we all have them, should it stop someone from getting a job though?
One could argue you are looking for emotionally controlled people and so them having their mood affect their interview would be a bad sign anyway, right? But that would be incredibly short-sighted as, firstly, you are likely holding them to a higher standard than you hold yourself and secondly, you aren’t looking to hire a robot, you are hiring a person.
If they have emotions and are comfortable showing them then it may mean they are more emotionally intelligent and will recognise them in others — a key attribute for any people manager.
What about the candidate’s preparatory time? Some candidates may have known about the interview and be given questions a week in advance whereas another may only be told the day before due to only getting the call back late in the day or finding the role near the deadline. This infers an unfair advantage in some ways on the former candidate, they’ve had time to think through specific questions, research the company, maybe even reach out to current employees through LinkedIn.
And what about their current employment status? If they are employed elsewhere will they have had time to prepare? Especially if they have other personal obligations.
Then there is the time of day the interview is held. You may be aware of the classic study around prisoner parole where prisoners were far less likely to be granted parole just before lunch/when hungry. You could feasibly propose that interviewing just before lunch or right at the end of the day would have a similar impact on your decision-making. Do you really want your stomach to be deciding who you should be hiring?
People often think the fairest way would be to interview everyone back-to-back to compare but once you’ve asked the same questions for the fifth interview in a row, you will undoubtedly get to a stage of ‘interview fatigue’, with your flagging enthusiasm and attention to detail are clear to all parties involved.
Each role may have several interviewers assigned to it, but everyone has their own perspectives on things (just ask 10 people to describe the colour of the next car that drives past), so, how do you minimise the subjectivity across interviewers and prevent (relatively speaking) ‘worse’ candidates being pushed through one interviewer over another who is a little more stringent (and would not have put the same candidate through)?
So, to the interviewer’s abilities themselves. Firstly, how is it we ensure that they are unbiased, not just from a gender, race and ability perspective but also from a hobbies/interests perspective? Often people will look to hire people like them (affinity bias), and that may just mean people they see themselves “being able to have a drink with”, but that obviously doesn’t mean they will be the best candidate for the role or company.
Such biases could impact the types of questions that are asked, how comfortable the candidate feels, the interest and engagement the interviewer shows, all of which could have a huge impact on the direction of the interview.
And so, to the actual meat of the interview itself…
The ‘charisma trap’
Right off the bat, you are struck by the candidate’s confidence and charisma, they are giving good eye contact, sitting comfortably, speaking slowly and calmly. This must be the person you should be hiring right?
Wait one minute. Think. Does this have anything to do with the role you are hiring for? Sure, it may be magnetic but are you hiring a public speaker? And is it something that the candidate must have right away or is it something that can be taught? How have they got to that level of confidence and charisma? Maybe it is through a privileged upbringing or maybe they have interviewed so many times now that this is all second nature to them? Is this person going to be someone who will love getting their head down and doing the nitty-gritty work you need them for?
Don’t get distracted, think critically, it may be you are hiring for a leader and they have the substance to back up their charismatic demeanour but it also may just be a confidence-trick, so be careful.
Then come the questions, most interview questions are pretty unnatural (and likely irrelevant). Tell me about a time when you…, What would x say about you…, What are your weaknesses… All of which are things we don’t think about necessarily on a day-to-day basis and will probably not if we got the job itself. They test memory recall and ability to bullshit as much as anything else, attributes which, I’m pretty sure you aren’t optimising for…
Most candidates will also have prepped these answers to within an inch of their lives anyway, running them past friends and family so by the time they come to you they are franken-answers, amalgamating views of 15 different people, again, not useful when they are at work unless you are hiring the 14 others along with them. These kinds of questions might also appeal more to those who like talking about themselves, something a lot of (very capable people) can find awkward or embarrassing, often showing in their body language when answering.
Again, we also come back to the point that people answering such questions in perfect prose may be the ones who have been interviewing en masse and getting nowhere elsewhere when maybe they should have spent more time working on the skills relevant for their new job…
Questions that you ask in the interview itself should be related to the job the candidate is interviewing for. Give them examples of situations they will experience and see how they would deal with them prospectively, in detail, potentially demonstrated by behaviours they have exhibited in the past (but acknowledge this may not be accurate).
Rather than asking lots of questions, go deep on a few and really get into the little facts, as that is where they will stumble if they didn’t do the work. Try and do a role play with them if you can and see how they respond, some of the best ways to interview them may be to work through a real work problem with them and see how they attack it, after all, work is often not done in isolation.
Take your time
Finally, consider the length of the interview, this is a big decision to be made. You are hiring someone that you may be spending tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds on and (more importantly) someone you will be spending more time with than your family (potentially) so don’t just do a 30 min interview, get them in for a good amount of time and if you are unsure, get them in again, you’re either making a great decision or an expensive mistake after all…