Your Frenemy, the Job Interview
When unstructured interviews work to your (dis)advantage
I recently had a conversation with a friend who described his first experience interviewing for a job. He was applying for a role at a top financial services company. He walked into the interview, introduced himself to the hiring manager, and they were exchanging pleasantries when they struck upon a shared interest in mountaineering. They spent the next twenty minutes discussing the peaks they had climbed, after which the interviewer lobbed him a few soft-ball questions followed by a hearty handshake and a promise to be in touch. He got the job.
My friend was likely hired because of the “halo effect” created by the love of mountain climbing he shared with his interviewer. Like a glowing halo, that common interest cast a warm glow over the remainder of his interview, causing his interviewer to view him in a favourable light.
The halo effect worked to my friend’s advantage, in this case, but maybe not to the advantage of the company that hired him. He quit a few years later after realising that the company’s values weren’t aligned with his own, and that the role wasn’t going to offer him the upward mobility he was looking for. I’m sure my friend worked hard for his company while he was there, but he was a “bad hire” nonetheless, and bad hires cost an organisation from 16% to 213% of their salary (depending on the seniority of the employee). To put those numbers in perspective, a company can lose up to $213,000 when it needs to replace an employee that makes $100,000 per year..
INTERVIEWS ARE A MINE-FIELD
First impressions and implicit biases determine who is hired when an interview is unstructured. But unstructured interviews are favored by hiring managers who like to “go with their gut,” or who want to “get a feel” for the candidate’s fit with the organization. After all, most people believe they are a good judge of character and need look no further than their closest friends for proof.
We select our friends based on social characteristics that are important to us, but our friends wouldn’t necessarily make for our best employees. Consider that friend whose company you enjoy, whose perspective you appreciate, and who can be counted on… to be late. Thirty minutes. Every time. But you don’t mind because they’re loyal and funny, or whatever. The same lack of punctuality, however, can be perceived very differently within an organization.
UNSTRUCTURED INTERVIEWS GIVE IMPLICIT BIAS FREE-REIGN
Unstructured interview: an interview that does not follow a pre-determined format, but proceeds in an organic manner.
A recent Harvard Business Review article reveals that “unstructured interviews consistently receive the highest ratings for perceived effectiveness from hiring managers” while “dozens of studies have found them to be among the worst predictors of actual on-the-job performance.”
A number of psychological phenomena factor into interviews and skew the interviewer’s evaluation of the applicant.
Recency Bias and the Peak-End Rule
As an academic, I am aware of the psychology behind recency bias and the peak-end rule, which is why I write articles, chapters (or a PhD thesis) that end with a bang. I know that my reader is more likely to evaluate the work based on their most recent and most memorable and most intense experience with the writing. For example, if I am presenting a contentious concept, I don’t want that to be the last thing my reader experiences. Instead, I want them nodding their heads in agreement and with enthusiasm. Research shows this will work to my advantage, even if the reader disliked or disagreed with elements of my work, because they will not be making a judgment based on the total sum of my work, or even an average thereof.
The same phenomenon affects an interviewer’s evaluation of a candidate. Imagine a candidate sits an exceptional interview, but before leaving, lets loose a loud and offensive fart. The interviewer will have a hard time completing their assessment of the candidate without the flatulent finale subconsciously affecting their decision.
Time and time again, I hear from organizations that are “trying to hire more women” but just can’t figure out where they’re going wrong. As it turns out, if they are already suffering from low female representation, then using a woman to evaluate female candidates can be counterproductive and prevent an organization from hiring the best person—man or woman—for the job.
If an organization has low female representation, then scarcity threat affects the ways female employees interact with one another. It creates a scenario whereby women feel there are a limited number of positions available to them, and puts women in a destructive competitive position.
Scarcity threat can affect all the interactions female talent have with one another. Female employees responsible for promoting talent will be less likely to promote the best candidate (if they are also female) because that woman is perceived as a threat. Research shows, female interviewers are likely to view a top female applicant as a future threat, and will make hiring suggestions accordingly, even if it means recommending a less qualified candidate.
A study was conducted where participants were asked to determine the best candidate for the role of Police Chief. Participants were presented with a male and female candidate.
One group of participants was given blind applications where one candidate had more experience and less education, and the other candidate had less experience and more education. Participants overwhelmingly preferred the candidate with more education.
However, two more groups of participants were involved in the study, and these groups were given applications which featured the gender of the applicant.
Of these two groups of participants, one group was given applications where the female candidate had more experience, but less education and the male candidate had less experience, but more education. The other group of participants was given applications with the reverse: the female candidate had less experience, but more education and the male candidate had more experience, but less education.
Across both groups, the male applicant was preferred.
Participants were asked to explain why they had selected the male candidate. The first group identified his greater education as the reason for their preference, citing education as the most important characteristic for a Police Chief. The second group identified his greater experience as the reason for their preference, citing experience as the most important characteristic for a Police Chief.
This study reveals that stereotypes lead us to modify our criteria.
In this case, the male applicant suited the stereotypical preference for the role of Police Chief, and that this preference determined the most important criteria.
Recency Bias, the Peak-End Rule, Scarcity Threat, and Group Stereotyping are just a handful of the psychological phenomenon affecting an organization’s hiring practices. For more on this topic, read “How to Stymie Your Biases (Yes, You’re Biased).”
HOW TO DEFEND YOUR INTERVIEWS FROM IMPLICIT BIASES
1. STOP CONDUCTING UNSTRUCTURED INTERVIEWS
Period. They do not help you hire the best talent. A study that reviewed 100 years of research in personnel psychology across nineteen different selection methods found conclusively that unstructured interviews are not effective evaluation tools. They do not help you hire the best talent. (Feel free to use unstructured interview techniques to find your next best friend.)
2. USE STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS
Structured interviews feature pre-determined questions based on pre-determined criteria which reflect what is most desired in your successful candidate. Here are a few tips:
- Determine desired skills, experience and characteristics
- Create questions that position the candidate relative to those criteria
- Respond to each question in real-time, don’t wait until you’re back at your desk
- Ask the questions in the same order during each interview
3. EVALUATE CANDIDATES HORIZONTALLY
Evaluate your candidates one category or criteria item at a time, and rank them accordingly. This technique is proven to eliminate for gender bias and group stereotyping by focusing your attention on individual performance; this makes comparative evaluation more fair, and more likely to yield the best qualified candidate.
4. USE MULTIPLE INTERVIEWERS, BUT DON'T INTERVIEW TOGETHER
This costs your organization the same amount of time per candidate, but requires the candidate sit more than one interview. However, you can mitigate the effects of group-think by conducting separate interviews. After the separate interviews are conducted, compare results—again, horizontally—and discuss any discrepancies based on the structured interview notes.
But job interviews shouldn’t be like first dates.
If your organization is looking to hire right the first time, consider evolving your hiring practices.
(On the other hand, if you’re a candidate applying for a new role, it would be to your advantage to take advantage of the biases that work in your favor.)
© Dr Kristen Liesch 2017. All rights reserved.