Where the Interview process goes Wrong

Employers of the world, your prospective employees are not idiots. You wouldn’t be considering hiring them if they were (unless you were looking to hire drug mules or something). They can read subtext as well as, if not better than you can. So you might want to consider a little more closely how the way you handle hiring new staff makes you look. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

No one is objective. Not even you.
Seriously, I mean that: no one is objective. Humans just aren’t made that way. Sure, there are differences in how close to impartial objectivity different people can come, but no one can get 100%. Hell, I’d be surprised if there was anyone who got above 80%, and that’s me being generous.

So with that in mind, you might wish to re-examine your childish faith in the ability of Behavioural Interviewing to yield an objective result. I know it sells itself on its ability to turn the subjective into the objective, but what it really does is sell you the comforting illusion that your subjective interpretation of someone else’s behaviour can be made objective just by filling out the right forms. The same applies to role plays as part of job selection. Objectivity doesn’t work like that.

I’m not saying that there aren’t objective tests out there – a spelling or math test, for example, has clear and unequivocally objective right answers – but interpreting individual human behaviour isn’t one of them. Do you think psychology is magic? And even if it were, do you think you could use it without years of training?

There Is No Team In Team
There are some industries where a team approach is important. Where each person contributing their specific skills in the right sequence for the right duration is vitally important for the success of the enterprise. Or alternately, where similar tasks can be performed more efficiently in parallel. But most tasks, in any job, come down to one person performing one task. Not a team. An I (as it were).

There are teams at work, sure, but outside of professional sports, however, they’re considerably rarer than you might think.

In the majority of jobs, the individual worker works mostly alone. They do their job, and it feeds into the whole work of the business, but that’s it. They may be a member of a team for administrative purposes, but that’s a convenience of management, not a vital working condition. Take call centres: there’s no need for teams in those. Each worker answers calls alone, and if they need help, they reach up to the next level, not across to someone else on their level. Indeed, in most call centres, reaching out to a team member rather than a team leader for assistance is frowned upon.

Moreover, humans are innately a networking species. There’s no need to force teaming on people – given the slightest opportunity, people will form their own teams, and the teams formed that way will work better, because free association eliminates the subtle productivity costs of resentment in this area.

And I’m not done with teams yet, either:

I Assume You Don’t Watch “Survivor”?
It’s become increasingly fashionable, at group interviews, to have a section of the interview where potential employees are required to display teamwork, usually by completing a task or solving a problem as a “team”.

Here’s the thing: these people are not a team. They just met each other, so they don’t have the trust an actual team would. They have no idea of each other’s skills or abilities, so they don’t know whose expertise to rely upon. And also, they’re in competition with each other for the prize of winning a job. They’re as much a team as the cast of the average reality tv show, and most of them realise that they have even less to lose than a reality show contestant if they can sabotage others without getting caught. The exercise doesn’t actually test team work – it tests how well people can fake team work, and it actually encourages backstabbing. Unless you’re building a team for the specific purpose of it being self-destructing, this is not the way to go about it.

But this is actually a specific example of something that happens all too often in job interviews:

Will We Use This In The Real World?
It’s a given that in order to test some skills, a certain level of abstraction is needed. The problem arises when that level of abstraction is too high, and the resulting test fails to accurately reflect the circumstances of the job. The team testing from my previous point is one example, and so is any test that requires the testee to answer questions about something they just read without being able to refer back to it.

I know, I know, if they could refer back to it, everyone could get a perfect result and the test would be meaningless. The thing is, if they can’t refer back to it, then it doesn’t accurately reflect the circumstances in the job it claims to duplicate, and so it winds up being just as meaningless, only in the opposite direction.

Here’s an wasy way to tell whether a test is any good or not: try taking it yourself. Yes, you, in the HR department. Do what any other worker would be required to do: make sure that the tools of your trade actually work.

Care About What The Job Is, Not What It Looks Like
Have a dress code that reflects what you actually do. Staff don’t need uniforms unless they’re directly interacting with customers. And that includes the more subtle ‘uniform’ of business attire. I’ve been told over and over again that dressing ‘professionally’ will make me feel ‘professional’. I can only assume that ‘professional’ is a euphemism for itchy. This is another one that’s about employee resentment: people will generally work better when they feel comfortable, and how we dress is a big part of that.

Don’t Invite People To Lie To You
This is the big one, really. A lot of interview questions – and not just the ones I’ve already lambasted above – are little more than invitations to lie to you. And if there’s a better way to give someone the impression that you’re either stupid, credulous or mendacious, and that the organisation you represent is likewise.

What interview questions invite people to lie? Well, really, just about all of them, but some are more prone to this than others. That much-beloved chestnut “Why do you want to work for this company?” is probably the worst offender. At best, it is an invitation to flatter the asker; at worst, it carries with it the assumption that even a potential employee is already as loyal as a twenty-year veteran. (For the record: this question has only one true answer, and it is always the same: For the money. Duh!)

Call It What It Is
Don’t try to dress up the interview process in fancy clothing to make it something other than what it is. I’ve seen an interview referred to as a “Selection Event” (which makes it sound like Speed Dating, a metaphor which you hopefully find as disturbing in its aptness as I do) or even a “Recruitment Experience” (which makes it sound like a fun ride in an amusement park).

Seriously, it would be more honest to invite potential employees to a Whoring Contest.

4 thoughts on “Where the Interview process goes Wrong”

  1. There are multiple true answers to the “Why do you want to work for this company?” question. The most common one is “For the money”, but there are companies that I have (and would) work for for less money because of other benefits that aren’t financial in nature, even in the long term. (Long-term financial benefits are things like training and exposure to new technologies. You take the lower pay now to get the skills for higher pay later.)

    I’ve gone to work for companies simply because it was a fun place to be, with good people doing interesting things. I’ve worked for companies because I liked the brand and wanted to be part of it. And I’ve worked for places where I just needed an income and would take whatever the hell came along.

    More correctly, the question for which your answer is the only true one is “Why do you want to work?”.

  2. Oh god the “Team Building” exercise. I went for an interview at a company I’d known before, that has a 5-fold “values” set of which one is “Leadership”. And no-one wanted to step up and start the exercise, so I did. And no-one at all spoke up, and I had to ask people to contribute to the exercise, and …

    Suffice to say, I didn’t get the job because “they weren’t sure I could work as a team member rather than a team leader, and they thought I steamrollered the exercise.”


    Ow… I hear your pain.

  3. Gillian, i can do you one better. When I went on a leadership course because I had recently been promoted to the position of Team Leader we had one of these exercises split over two parts. In the first part i contributed equally, everyone was heard etc, but we weren’t getting anywhere, so later in the day when we went to complete the exercise I did the same as you to be sure that we would complete our objectives before the time was up. I was marked down enormously for lack of team-work. Huh? I’m the manager dude, you should consider it a provilege that I even let you guys contribute your ideas in the first place!

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