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Questioning Panel Interviews


photo of panel interview that is not effective

Sometimes certain “best practices” become so ingrained in our culture that we forget to monitor their effectiveness. The panel interview — sometimes called the firing squad interview — is a good example.

In a panel interview, a candidate is interviewed simultaneously by three or more people, who take turns asking questions from a scripted list. A lot of HR professionals once believed that panels produced the best interviews. The practice was equitable, efficient, seemed collegial and, because so many people were involved, bound to result in the right hire.

But although it sounds good on paper, we suggest taking a second look at panel interviews. Here’s why:

The same but not equal
One widely accepted belief about panel interviews is that they’re fair — after all, every candidate is asked exactly the same question, presumably to protect employers from legal issues. But that assumes “fair” is synonymous with “the same,” and that’s not always true.

Consider the case of a company that needs to hire an engineer. They’ve selected five candidates to interview, all with computer science degrees, and one with the added bonus of an MBA. A scripted panel interview that includes questions about an MBA would be unfair to the four candidates who don’t have the degree, but excluding any discussion of an MBA would be unfair to the one candidate who has it. The fairest approach would be to tailor questions that specifically explore each candidate’s background — a personalized approach that rarely happens in panel interviews.

Efficiency — but for whom?
Another perceived benefit of panel interviews is that they save time for employers. But the fact is, they don’t. Candidates have the advantage of meeting a lot of people quickly, but six interviewers who each spend an hour in an interview invest a total of six hours, regardless of whether they do it together in a panel or separately.

Advocates of panel interviewers also focus on the fact that everyone hears the same answer at the same time. That may be true, but is it really a benefit? Sure, after the interview, panelists can debate the meaning of various answers. But those answers aren’t necessarily the most informative or authentic because interviewers generally don’t have a chance to ask probing follow-up questions in a panel format. Or, one interviewer may dominate the interview, leading to an equally distorted picture of a candidate. In either case, the wrong applicants can slip through undetected, despite all the post-interview rehashing.

Lack of Accountability
In theory, panel interviews are egalitarian — everyone can bask in the glow of bringing a rising star onboard. But if the hire is a mistake, who is accountable? Every panel member can say, “Don’t blame me; there were five others on the panel with me.” The panel interview then becomes a way to syndicate the risk of hiring.

A Good Impression?
Candidates can form good or bad impressions of a firm based on how much the interview process makes them sweat. If it’s grueling but somehow also entertaining — startups are notorious for this — that’s probably a plus. But if an interview is merely robotic, then top talent may look elsewhere.

Candid Candidates
Because a group interview can feel more interrogative than a one-on-one interview, candidates may be more defensive or uncomfortable and less likely to provide revealing and honest responses. Technical problem-solving skills or selling techniques can usually be assessed in these circumstances, but assessing other key factors like motivation and long-term growth potential becomes more challenging, if not impossible.

An Alternative
An alternative to panel interviews is the team approach, where two people spend time with the candidate. The first interviewer asks questions for about two-thirds of the allotted time while the second interviewer listens and takes notes. The second interviewer then takes over the final third of the interview, asking focused and powerful follow-up questions. This creates a conversational, one-on-one experience, where each interviewer can establish rapport while still providing the opportunity for probing follow-ups.

Replacing the traditional panel interview with an effective team or individual interview is fairer to candidates, makes better use of interviewer time and provides more accountability. Candidate responses will also be more revealing and your interviewers will have a better opportunity to sell your company. With all these benefits, isn't it time to start questioning why some people are still using panel interviews?