Death by Interview

Managers are constantly searching for the secret to hiring the right employees

Recommended Reads | By Deborah Kerr and Curt Finch | Read time minutes

Door sign stating: Interview in Progress

They want a "killer question" that will reveal the true ability of the candidate during the interview (probably questionable for validity if not legality). They use quirky problems or puzzles they think will highlight the creative and enthusiastic candidates. They spend thousands of dollars on multiple interviews thinking that surely, somewhere during the sixth interview, the candidate's actual personality will be (inadvertently) divulged.

The problem with this approach is that it cannot provide accurate information for a couple of reasons: first, hiring managers overestimate their ability to determine a candidate's skill set based on resumes and interviews, and second, few companies identify in advance the factors they want to evaluate and measure in the interview.

The desire to get good information from interviews is understandable since most managers have made at least one expensive hiring mistake that cost thousands of dollars to fix and led to bad outcomes for the team and clients. And because managers in virtually every organisation use interviews to help make hiring decisions (Wilk & Cappelli, 2003; Ryan, McFarland, Baron, & Page, 1999), it makes sense to explore the challenges and benefits of the interview. In this article, we will attempt to demystify the hiring process and provide tips on making a successful hire.

Deconstructing the Interview

Managers think of the interview as an important decision tool, and job candidates expect to be interviewed as part of the application process (Hausknecht, 2004; Lievens, De Corte, & Brysse, 2003). In fact, candidates see securing an interview as an indication of a successful application (Saks, 2006). Like other hiring decision tools such as resume reviews, paper-and-pencil tests, writing samples, and personality assessments, the interview is considered a test. Therefore, organisations should design interviews carefully and use them consistently with candidates. Interviews come in many shapes and sizes: one-to-one, panel interviews, multiple interviews, candidate presentations, or a combination.

The content of interviews varies widely, too, and so do their results. In fact, research indicates that most interviews provide little useful predictive data. When they talk about hiring mistakes, most managers point to problems in the interview stage of the selection process. They often describe their own interviews as "incomplete" or "not thorough." They fault themselves for not being rigorous enough or taking enough time in determining the personal characteristics they were looking for in the interview (Nowicki & Rosse, 2002). They also understand that not all errors were theirs: some hiring errors were the result of candidates who misrepresented themselves and their skills.

Several factors make interviewing difficult. First, the hiring manager may not have identified the specific characteristics to evaluate in an interview: these could include communication style, technical skills, personal presentation and industry knowledge. The manager should be able to articulate what a "good interview response" will look like.

Second, managers tend to expect simple answers to the complex problems they present to the candidate. They also tend to discount applicant responses that suggest some organisational change might be needed to solve the problem.

The environment in which the interview is conducted and the interview process itself affects the interviewer, the candidate, and the outcome of the interview. You can subtly set the tone for the interview based on where you choose to hold it. While the standard conference room might be a strong initial consideration, reflect on the values you want brought to the job. If you are looking for a more casual, personable candidate you might consider holding the interview in a less formal location. Also consider the fact that the interviewer is a component of the environment. Studies show that similarities between a candidate and an interviewer can alter the exchange significantly. Regardless of what you choose, it is important to standardise the environment for all candidates to ensure reasonably accurate comparisons.

Sixty years of research about interview results proves there is no silver bullet, no killer question, and no trick or puzzle that will provide the information managers want: a look at the "real" person. However, there are some proven steps that managers can take to improve data gathered from an interview.

Step One: Interview Structure

Begin by cleaning up the structure of the interview itself. The problem is that way too many managers conduct unstructured interviews even when their organisations have a formally adopted process of structured, behavioural interviewing (Van Iddekinge, Sager, Burnfield, & Heffner, 2006). Unstructured interviews lead to discrepancies when attempting to compare the interview of one candidate with others or with successful past hires. Thus, a relatively objective and measurable system can be broken down by the "gut instinct" of one overzealous hiring manager.

Step Two: Metrics

Next, decide what metrics will be used to evaluate each candidate. The metrics will change based on the job - a programmer will obviously face criteria different than a copywriter. The point is to ensure that applicants applying for a specific job are measured using the same constructs. It is helpful to conduct some analysis to determine precisely what the updated description of a particular job will be. Companies that put protocols in place for hiring a web developer in 2003 will almost certainly get an inaccurate view into candidate viability if those same protocols are used today.

Step Three: Equip the Interviewer

Once you have determined what skills you want to evaluate, train the people who will be doing the evaluating - those involved in the interview. Whether you rely on an individual interviewer or a panel, you need to train them in effective interview techniques and, perhaps more importantly, instruct them to stick to the constructs you worked so hard to identify and put in place.

The goal is objective assessment of each candidate, and while there will always be a subjective human element, it must be constrained to fit the criteria that best matches the company's hiring goals. While it may be the case that an interviewer got a good feeling from a candidate following an off-topic conversation, it will be impossible to analyse those results. Prepare your interviewer or interview panel to be both personable and precise.

Step Four: Set a Schedule

Next, consider the amount of time necessary to successfully complete the hiring "project". While it is true that in most companies, hiring is an ongoing process without a distinct end, people's time does have a distinct value. If you find that the amount of time spent on the hiring process is excessive relative to the value delivered, then it is time to streamline in some way. Tracking time to this task will give you insight into exactly which activities employees are engaging in so that you can choose which are extraneous and costly. Further, you will need to forecast the value of particular hires. When selecting candidates for essential positions within a company, it is okay to devote more effort than usual to accommodate them. Again, keep the process standardised to the extent that you can, but do so with the knowledge that the standards represent the most efficient use of company time.

Step Five: Effective Documentation

Finally, make sure that your documentation systems are sufficient and up to date. There is nothing more frustrating than attempting to interpret hastily scrawled information on a sticky note. Given the proliferation of portable computing devices, there is no reason to skimp on interview note taking. This may mean having one member of your interview panel (or a separate employee) tasked to take specific notes during an interview. If both parties are comfortable, it might also be worthwhile to record the interview so responses can be shared with 100% accuracy later on. Remember, the notes should reflect the judgment criteria established for the job role.

While an entirely objective approach to hiring is impossible to achieve, you can structure the interview so that all candidates are interviewed in a consistent and thoughtful way. Moving away from "gut instinct" hiring and towards a more measurable and scientific approach will yield positive results in any industry.

About the Authors

Deborah L. Kerr, Ph.D. is a partner at affintus, a selection science company based in Austin, Texas and a performance measurement expert. Her work in performance measurement and management has been written about in 'Financial World' magazine and has been cited as "best practice" by SHRM. Her approach and success with organisational measurement were featured in Paul Niven's 2002 book Balanced Scorecard Step by Step and Mohan Nair's 2004 book Essentials of the Balanced Scorecard. Deborah led the development of the one of the nation's first public sector balanced scorecards and in 2004, that measurement system was recognised as one of the world's best when it was elected to the Balanced Scorecard Hall of Fame. She is on the graduate faculty of Texas A&M University where she teaches management, public policy theory, and organisational performance measurement. Her teaching has been recognised with the University's 2008 Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching (based on nomination and support from current and former graduate students) and with the 2009 Silver Star Award given by the Class of 2009 for outstanding service and dedication.

Curt Finch is the CEO of Journyx. Founded in 1996, Journyx automates payroll, billing and cost accounting while easing management of employee time and expenses, and provides confidence that all resources are utilised correctly and completely. Curt earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech. As a software programmer fixing bugs for IBM in the early '90s, Curt found that tracking the time it took to fix each bug revealed the per-bug profitability. Curt knew that this concept of using time-tracking data to determine project profitability was a winning idea and something that companies were not doing - yet. Curt created the world's first web-based timesheet application and the foundation for the current Journyx product offerings in 1997. Learn more about Curt here


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