The Flawed Interview Process
JIM KENNEDY • MARCH 2018
In an issue of the Harvard Business Review, one Fortune 500 CEO describes the interview as "the most flawed process in American business."
Based on our 35 years of experience training people in behavioral interviewing, we couldn't agree more. We also think the root of the problem is obvious: a lack of interviewer training for the people who are hiring.
Interviewer training not offered at schools and companies
Every major American business school teaches students how to take an interview, yet not one teaches students how to conduct an interview. At Wharton, for instance, students must attend a one-day workshop on taking an interview before they sign up to see campus recruiters. But there are no workshops - required or otherwise - on leading an interview.
Unfortunately, this situation usually doesn't improve once students are in the workplace. A few companies have formal policies about interviewer training, but many organizations are far more casual, and candidates frequently end up being interviewed by someone with virtually no training or coaching in this critical area.
That isn't in the best interests of either the company - where each hiring decision can represent a potential outlay of hundreds of thousands of dollars - or the candidate. The fact is, untrained interviewers often don't know what to look for in a candidate, let alone how to ask effective questions or drill down for authentic answers.
Interviewers don’t get feedback on their performance
The lack of initial interview training is compounded by the fact that interviewers are seldom given any feedback on their performance. Most interviews are conducted in private with no monitoring. That means mistakes not only often go unnoticed, but also tend to be repeated over and over.
The problem starts when employees begin to interview others for the first time. This might be soon after they're hired or several years into their career. In either case, what takes place prior to the first interview usually determines a person's long-term orientation to interviewing. Yet all too often, companies take a sink-or-swim approach.
Consider the case of Bob. Just a few weeks after he is hired, his boss hands him a resumé, saying, "Bob, you'll be doing some interviewing for us. Jennifer is coming in tomorrow. Why don't you talk to her and see what you think?"
Bob assumes his manager already has confidence in his ability to handle the new task, so he's reluctant to acknowledge his complete lack of interviewing skills or to inquire about training. And because he has been interviewed quite a few times himself, he figures he pretty much knows what to do.
His preparation consists of reading Jennifer's resumé and jotting down pat questions such as, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" or, "Tell me about a time when you demonstrated you were a team player."
Once Bob gets into the interview, though, he finds he's getting short answers and learning nothing that isn't already on Jennifer's resumé. So he decides to switch gears. He begins telling her about the job and what it's like to work at his company. In effect, Bob is now selling her, and all pretense of assessment has ended. For all practical purposes, the selection interview is over, but Bob doesn't realize this. He now enjoys doing all the talking.
Interview evaluation forms often encourage subjective ratings
After the interview, Bob's manager might ask: "So, what did you think of Jennifer?" Bob finds he can get away with a few summary comments. "She looked good; I think we should hire her." Or, "I'm not sure, I wasn't really that impressed." Any evaluation form used may be no more than a series of boxes to check off, and they often use subjective rating scales like "excellent," "average," etc.
If his sentiments are in line with others on the interview team, it's unlikely Bob will be asked for any details on how he came to his "decision." And it's even less likely that Jennifer will be asked to critique the interview.
As a result, there is no real way to determine what happened when a hiring mistake occurs. Individual accountability is lost in the process. Whereas losing an account or failing to win a new business pitch is subject to scrutiny, hiring mistakes are seldom debriefed by the organization.
Importance of behavior-based interviewing training
Unfortunately, a lack of training isn't the only problem facing today's interviewers. Many also don't value or understand the importance of behavior-based interviewing. They focus exclusively on the experience, knowledge and education required for a position and fail to really assess key behavioral qualities. Instead, they simply form an impression as to whether or not they "like" or "could work with" the person.
This is especially true of people interviewing candidates for technical positions. Because these candidates are being hired to do something very specific - develop, solve, build, produce code, and so on - interviewers believe they only need to probe for the technical competence to do the job.
In fact, I spoke with an engineer attending one of our interviewer workshops. He told me he'd gone through 14 interviews before being hired by a high-profile company, but that not one of the interviews was behavioral. When I asked how many interviews would have been necessary to determine his technical competence, he replied, "One. I had the same technical interview 13 times, but nobody interviewed me from a behavioral perspective."
Obviously, looking at a candidate's skills, education, and experience is an important part of screening. But interviewing doesn't stop there. It's not just a matter of whether a particular candidate can do the job, but also of "how" and "why" they will do it. Without this information, it's impossible to predict future on-the-job performance and behavior - a crucial part of the selection process.
Finally, it's important to note that untrained or poorly trained interviewers aren't the only factor affecting the interview process. The overall stakes are higher today. A global talent scarcity, growing diversity in the workforce, more savvy candidates, and declining candidate authenticity all have an impact on interviewing. (For more information on these trends, see the article: Behavior-based Interviewing: Does It Still Work?)
But while most of these market forces can't be controlled, companies can do something about the preparation of their interviewers. We firmly believe that training employees in proper interview techniques, and then holding them accountable, will go a long way toward improving this mission-critical process.