Science: We Are Terrible at Interviewing. Here’s How to Fix It.

April 22, 2015

Here’s the fundamental problem we face as job interviewers: we think we are really good at it. We think we can spend a few minutes with a person, peer into their soul and determine how they’ll work out.

But the fact is, we can’t. Time and time again, science has found that we have a persistent, irrational confidence in our interviewing ability, to the point where we’d be better off not talking to a candidate at all then spending 20 unstructured minutes with a person to “feel them out.”

Relax, though, there’s a solution. And it really comes down to one word: discipline.

Why you shouldn’t “follow your gut”

The dangerous part of unstructured interviews is that we tend to make a decision about a candidate within a few minutes of meeting them based on how similar they are to us. We then tend to value that decision over information that is a far better predictor of a candidate’s success, such as their previous work performance.

In other words, we irrationally “follow our gut” instead of taking a more scientific and ultimately more effective approach.

For proof, look no further than a 2012 study conducted by Jason Dana and Robyn Dawes, two psychologists who work at the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University, respectively.

In the study, the duo had 76 participants predict two students’ GPA for the upcoming school year. For the first student, participants just looked at the student’s background information, including their GPA in prior semesters. For the second student, the participants received all of that information, but conducted an unstructured interview with the student as well.

Overall, the participants  predicted the performance of the student they didn’t interview a lot more accurately than the one they did. That means the unstructured interview proved to be a hindrance, not a benefit.

“Interviewers probably over-value unstructured interviews,” Dana wrote in the study. “Our simple recommendation for those who make screening decisions is to not use them.”

So what is the best way to screen candidates?

Interviewing should be part of screening candidates, but it needs to be a structured, scientific processes. Additionally, other tools like a work sample and a background check should play a big role in hiring.

In an exhaustive study that analyzed 85 years of research, college professors Frank Schmidt and John Hunter found that the quality of a work sample was the best indicator of how well a person will do at an advertised job. So a strong screening process should include some sort of assignment that mimics what a person will actually do on the job, such as asking a marketer to submit a banner ad or a salesman to sell the product you’re offering.

However, the study found that other screening methods, in conjunction with the work sample, make hiring processes even more effective. Two such methods they recommended coupling with the work sample are a background check and a structured interview.

A background check is a fairly straightforward tool to determine a candidate’s level of integrity, but what exactly is a structured interview? A structured interview is one where each candidate is asked the same questions and multiple assessors take notes of the answers and rate them at the end.

Tech giant Google, a company renowned for its hiring process, takes such an approach, asking candidates a string of relatively basic behavioral and situational questions. Assessors take notes and assess each response at the end, in an effort to take (some) of the bias out of interviewing and create a more scientific approach. Since they use multiple assessors, the belief is that the wisdom of crowds would allow them to make a more objective decision.

Final thoughts

A great hiring process is one that requires a lot of discipline from everyone on your team. Frankly, just conducting unstructured interviews with a few of the best candidates is easier, but it has also shown to be less effective.

So, yes, a structured process requires more effort than a non-structured process, no question. But what’s harder in the long run: having a rigorous hiring process that results in exceptional employees who are a joy to have, or having an easy-to-do hiring process that results in okay employees who can be a pain to manage?

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*Image from Office Space

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