Roll of the Dice or Home Run

We’ve been thinking hard about interviews recently.  Purpose, techniques, failings and the many other component parts of a process that is central to both attracting and selecting top talent.  It is a moment in the recruitment cycle where a lot that can go wrong if either client or candidate has not prepared appropriately.

The reason TALTRAN exists is that I found a particular interview to be deeply dispiriting and even disrespectful.  It set me thinking about the way candidates were treated.  Since starting the business it has been a revelation to see how little thought sometimes goes into this important step.  That’s why we invest a lot of time in briefing clients about the people they will be seeing and agreeing what areas can and should be probed.

Despite that, we have become increasingly conscious of the underlying difficulties that can make interviews more about rolling the dice than hitting a home run.  More worrying is that the potential for bias and discrimination is high despite the best intentions of the interviewers.  This can undermine attempts to build diversity, have long term consequences for reputation and even cause the preferred candidate to walk away because they felt the interviewer embodied a company culture that was not sympathetic to their needs.

Learning, Thinking and Adapting

Interviewing is often amateur and misguided with mistakes becoming entrenched over several years.  The number of hiring managers who have been on any formal interview training is pitifully small and it seems to be one of the last areas of business to receive professional attention.  When there has been training it tends to focus on compliance issues rather than how to select the very best person for the job.

Even where a manager has been for professional development on how to interview it’s rarely a skill that is at the top of the list for refreshing.  Keeping abreast of developing social and psychological knowledge is a critical skill for anyone engaged in the business of recruiting.  As a recruitment business we are talking to candidates daily but find that inputs from emerging research bring fresh insights and improves our ability to recognize the qualities of an individual and their potential to add value to our clients.

It is not difficult for a hiring manager to get a refresher on the problems with interviews and get a long list of things that can go wrong.  Underlying those top line findings can be more detailed messages about how interview stress impacts the performance of the interviewee and particularly women candidates.  To be truly humbled anyone who is interviewing might even consider lessons from research which suggests, “the judgement of the interviewers..added nothing of relevance to..the process”.

The need for adaptability has become increasingly important with the growth in remote interviews and the University of Oxford is one example of an organisation that has taken steps to provide formal advice on best practice.  It’s simple but useful stuff about context and how a two dimensional interaction is fundamentally different to a personal, face to face meeting.  All of this means that anyone who is hiring needs to think hard about ensuring that they have equipped themselves with the right skills to do the job.

 

Two Sides to Every Story 

A detour into etymology tells us that the word “interview” came from the 16th Century French “entrevue”, a verbal noun from “s’entrevoir” meaning “to see each other” that was related to interpersonal meetings.  The version used to indicate a media interview didn’t emerge until the mid-1800s.  What is curious is that the journalistic version, an interrogative question and answer session, often dominates in a meeting which should be a mutually beneficial conversation.

The best candidates are as likely to be interviewing the company before making a decision whether to work there.  This is particularly the case where a business is trying to develop its culture, diversity or reputation for equity.  In a tight job market top talent will have options and companies need to work harder at presenting their culture and the opportunities they offer rather than seeing the interview as a quasi-interrogation of the interviewee’s qualities.

Despite this, an internet search using the words “listening” and “interview” throws up results that are almost exclusively aimed at candidates.  We would argue very strongly that active listening, with all that implies by way of body language as well as concentration, is equally important for the interviewer.  It can be difficult to keep that energy level over a day of interviews or after a morning of running a difficult operational meeting but the onus is firmly on the interviewer to manage themselves appropriately and not short change candidates.

Interviews may be the least worst option

Winston Churchill once said that: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried” and we are tempted to say the same about interviews. However, a look at some of the alternatives suggest that it may be better to try and improve interview technique than search for alternatives.

Other solutions include the use of ‘assignments’ to determine the quality of applicants.  The problem is that these often take on the magnitude of a full working role and we have seen examples where hiring managers take the opportunity to get free work or consultancy.  It is simply not reasonable to expect someone to carry out a task which benefits the organization without providing them some recompense if they don’t get the role.

Technology has been offered up as a way of increasing the pool of candidates while allowing a sophisticated and inclusive sifting process.  Goldman Sachs has trumpeted its use of asynchronous videos at the first stage of the process as a way of increasing diversity while remaining efficient.  But for all the promise of machine learning and artificial intelligence to take the hard work out of sifting candidates there are real dangers that this just automates bias and stereotyping.

Some Things to Think About

There is unlikely to be a right answer for every interview situation but we have become interested in techniques that might add value and certainly deserve some consideration for anyone preparing to interview:

  1. Consider the work on “empathy interviews” to challenge your current thinking. It’s an approach which is widely used by designers and may help in thinking of the job interview as a joint-problem solving exercise.
  2. Continue to educate yourself about types of bias and ways to reduce the impact they might have at interview.
  3. Explicitly practice approaches to taking the perspective of a candidate as part of your everyday leadership, management and peer group style. Interviews become easier if they are an extension of habitual ways of working and if working relationships are built around appreciating the abilities, strengths, weaknesses and needs of colleagues.

Interviews are here to stay and it is difficult to imagine circumstances where it would be wise to appoint someone without ever speaking to them.  The only real answer is to get better at interviewing by understanding our limitations and working harder at techniques that will help us make better choices.  We may not be perfect every time but it’s a lot better than being complacent about a meeting that will shape the future of your business.

Image by Alexa from Pixabay

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