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Death by Interview: Revealing the Pain Caused by Excessive Interviews

by May 13, 2013, 6:08 am ET

“Death by interview” is the harsh but unfortunately all-too accurate name that I give to the majority of corporate interview processes because of the way that they literally abuse candidates.

Death by interview is worth closer examination because harsh treatment during interviews impacts almost every working American, simply because each one of us is subjected to many interviews during our lifetime.

The hiring interview shares a love/hate status, where even though applicants initially hope to be granted an interview, once they are finally notified, they almost universally undergo a wave of stress and painful memories that causes them to stop looking forward to them.

“Death by interview” is the term used to describe the drawn out pain that job applicants suffer as a result of requiring an excessive number of interviews, repeating the same questions across multiple interviews. and the unnecessary uncertainty that is part of most interview processes.

Death by Interview Component No. 1 — An Excessive Number of Interviews

Every job applicant understands the need for interviews, so the pain point occurs when an excessive amount are required. The CEO of one well-known technology firm that I once advised dictated that every candidate for every job undergo an astonishing 17 interviews. Of course no one knew how or why he arrived at that outrageous number of interviews.

Google is another firm that has justifiably earned a reputation of demanding a double-digit number of interviews. Its justification was that because hiring impacts everyone that the new hire interacts with, “everyone at the firm should be able to interview a candidate.” Fortunately, its well-earned death-by-interview reputation forced Google to eventually conduct internal research that demonstrated that “after four interviews, you get diminishing returns.” And since Google is interviewing for positions that require advanced skills and innovation, it’s time to realize that for most jobs, any number beyond three interviews is probably unnecessary. Obviously when the optimal number of interviews is exceeded, not only does the firm receive little additional value, but each of the candidates must suffer unnecessarily.

Pain Points Caused by Excessive Interviews

An excessive number of interviews means that even though the candidate themselves may not literally “die,” the chances increase that their spirit, ego, and their feeling of self-worth will unnecessarily be crushed. Some of the problems caused by an excessive number of interviews include:

  • Stress — excessive interviews that are stretched out over a long period of time result in a long, stressful wait, which in turn places unnecessary pressure and discomfort on both the candidate and their family.
  • Forced lies – if a candidate is currently working or if they live in another city, going to multiple separate interviews requires them to make many phony excuses or even lie to their boss in order to get away for each interview.
  • Lost wages — if the candidate is paid hourly, each interview and its related travel time forces a candidate to lose significant wages. Even if they work in a salaried job, frequently missing work will likely hurt their career.
  • Firms suffer too — holding an excessive number of interviews will not improve hiring decisions but it will waste both manager and recruiter time. And when applicants post negative messages about your interview process on the Internet, death by interview will eventually damage the firm’s external image and future recruiting.

Why Corporations Frequently Require an Excessive Number of Interviews

There is no legal requirement that requires a firm to conduct a series of interviews with each candidate. Instead, fear is often the reason for so many interviews. This fear of a hiring mistake causes most to support continuing interviewing to the point where every doubt is minimized. Unfortunately, because interviews have a low predictive value, no number of them will guarantee that the individual is a perfect fit.

Death by Interview Component No. 2 — Repetition

The second major component of “death by interview” occurs when subsequent interviewers inexplicably ask the same question that the candidate has already answered during a past interview. Over multiple interviews, repeatedly being asked the same question is confusing to the candidate. One firm that had the wisdom to survey applicants about the interview process found that candidates were frustrated and even angry about repeat questions. The survey further revealed that the repetition gave candidates the impression that the firm’s management was uncoordinated and disjoined.

Pain Points Caused by Interview Question Repetition

Repeatedly asking the same question during subsequent interviews has a number of negative impacts both on the firm and the candidate. They include:

  • A feeling of failure — in addition to the obvious confusion and frustration, asking the same question over and over can make candidates feel like they answered the question incorrectly the first time. This could cause the candidate to change their answer when a question is repeated, which would provide hiring managers with contradicting information and that could make a hiring decision less accurate.
  • Appearing unorganized – repeating the same questions can send a message to candidates that the corporation is not organized. Another practice that may make the organization appear to lack organization occurs when interviewers ask questions whose answers can be clearly found right in the provided resume. Together these practices may create a negative image that may cause candidates to drop out of the recruiting process prematurely and if criticism of the practice reaches the Internet, it may also reduce future applications.
  • Less information provided – obviously repeating interview questions means that fewer new questions will be asked. Fewer questions means that less “new information” will be added that could improve the hiring decision.

Understanding Why Successive Interviewers Repeat the Same Questions

Different interviewers repeat the same question often because interviews are not structured, planned, scripted, or coordinated. No one in HR assigns specific questions to the different interviewers, based on their expertise, nor does anyone in HR track which questions were actually asked. Corporate interview manuals that suggest sample questions can also make it too easy for every manager to simply ask the first questions that appear on the sample list.

Death by Interview Component No. 3 — Unnecessary Uncertainty

The final factor that causes interviews to be painful is the amount of uncertainty that the candidate must endure. The abuse occurs when candidates are unnecessarily kept in the dark about the interview process and what is expected from them during it.

Pain Points Caused by Excessive Uncertainty

Some of the pain points that are caused by unnecessary secrecy and uncertainty include:

  • Uncertainty causes frustration – uncertainty surrounding what to expect during all aspects of the interview may cause the candidate many unnecessary sleepless nights. Areas of uncertainty that could easily be cleared up include: What are the steps? How long will the process take? What skills they are looking for? Which individuals will be doing the interviewing (and their role) and who will make the final hiring decision?
  • Transparency is expected – many candidates, especially those from the new generation, expect a high degree of corporate openness and transparency. As a result, failing to provide a great deal of upfront information may cause some candidates to prematurely drop out of the process.
  • Uncertainty in feedback – the high level of uncertainty is often continued when the firm fails to provide timely feedback to candidates. If an inquiry to find out their progress or how to do better next time gets an unsatisfactory response, they may permanently give up on the firm and advise their friends and colleagues to do the same.

Why Candidates Are Unnecessarily Kept in the Dark

There is no legal restriction that prohibits companies from telling candidates upfront about every aspect of the interview process. Instead, purposely keeping candidates in the dark serves the purpose of allowing unprepared hiring managers the opportunity to “wing it” throughout the interviewing process.

It turns out that if you promise nothing, there is little chance that you will be challenged for failing to meet your promises. This uncertainty is possible because most candidates are relatively powerless, so they have few options but to unquestioningly endure. When it comes to the issue of a lack of feedback, many in HR are adverse to conflict, so they routinely refuse to provide information that may raise further questions, conflicts, or even legal issues.

Final Thoughts

I’ve written extensively on “what is wrong with interviews” but the issues raised here are completely different. “Death by interview” is a hideous corporate practice that is worthy of a conversation during corporate recruiting meetings, simply because most of the pain is unnecessary.

If recruiting leaders are to understand and limit “death by interview” they first must gauge the problem and increase awareness by developing metrics covering total interview time, interview question repetition, and candidate frustration levels.

Some might mistakenly assume that death by interview and improving the candidate experience are less relevant today during a down economy. But it is a major mistake for corporate leaders to make that assumption, because if they do, their corporation will pay a heavy price after the “war for talent” returns and the power begins to shift over to the candidate. Using any customer service standard, the typical corporate interview process simply fails to make the grade!

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

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  • Cindy Postanco

    Thank you for a great article that touches a lot of problems with the interview system that is used today.
    I was especially touched by your final point, about the power shift that will soon come (hopefully), along with the end of the recession. As long as the power in one sided, that side will always make the rules. We might try to fight it, and even make a few little changes in how we address job interviews, but for as long as finding a job is an issue, recruitment will not empower the candidates.

    But we are bound to see the power shift that you mention, as soon as people will start looking for better jobs, not just looking for job. ANY job. It has always been like this.

    In the meanwhile, we should try to do our best to relieve the stress off the candidates, by making interviews more interactive, by eliminating all the unnecessary steps from the recruitment process, and by lobbying the top management to allow the HR department to run the recruitment process as they see fit. Start recruiting with the aid of new technologies, and use tested methods that attract candidates and not scare them off.

  • Brittany Hageman

    I would have to disagree. I believe that a longer interview process is good for both parties. If someone is looking to make a CAREER change then they need to be as educated as possible to know that this is the right step for them. It shows the difference of whether a company is looking to offer you a job or a career. Why would you move to a company for the next 5 years or more of your life after talking to them for an hour? You need to “date” potential employers to know if they are right for your career path. I would rather take some vacation time away from my current role to be sure that the next opportunity is one I can find success in and in an environment that I will enjoy.

  • http://sggh.net Ronald Katz

    Thank you Dr. John for more brilliant insights. Having worked on both sides of the interview desk, as a recruiter and coaching people looking for jobs, I can tell you that this practice exists and is not only bad for candidates and companies, it is bad for the country and our economy to accept a corporate practice as dastardly as this one. Thank you for shedding light on what has become a bad practice that has through overuse become accepted. Companies that over interview all too often do so because they have no idea what they’re looking for. They must do the pre-work if they are to effectively staff their organizations. Thank you!

    An @Cindy, yes, the backlash is coming!
    Ron Katz

  • Michael Silcox

    As a third party recruiter I agree with the author. A few of my clients conduct exessive interviews often scheduling them weeks apart, increasing the life cycle of the interview process. Nothing can kill a deal like a long drawn out process. A solution to this is to have confidence in your candidate regardless if you are a corporate or external recruiter. If we have done our job, any candidate we present to the hiring manager should be the best available. If the hiring manager has confindence in their recruiter’s candidate qualifications they should feel comfortable shortening the interview process.
    I understand that we often get very poor job descriptions but I always try to demonstrate to the hiring manager the value of explaining the JD to me will allow a smaller but more qualified candidate pool that can quickly move the hiring process forward.

  • Richard Araujo

    I don’t think the Doc would disagree with you, Brittany. But the relevant question is do the multiple interviews actually accomplish this goal of ‘dating’? They don’t in most cases. If interviews were more structured and planned, more would be better, but there would still be diminishing returns after a certain number.

    Interviews should always be viewed as a chance to get information. Unfortunately a lot of the shortfalls of the process are hard to manage. Even after providing short bios and recommendations to hiring managers, including key questions asked, they often ask the same questions again. They either don’t absorb the prep work, or they don’t trust it, and so they repeat it. Also often the delays in feedback are not due to lack of follow up from the recruiters, but lack of response from the managers. I’ve been chasing one guy down for nearly two weeks now on potential candidates I have, emails and phone calls. I can’t tell the candidates anything because I literally have nothing to tell them.

    I think this kind of behavior is a side effect of a labor surplus. As I’ve said in a few other comments though, I think that surplus is semi permanent. I also think that in our culture prospective employees have always viewed firm owners and managers as being in the driver’s seat, rather than viewing themselves as valuable commodities the company should want to employ. When people interview their goal is to get the job, even if the job sucks or is not right for them for other reasons. Both parties need to come to the interview looking for information to make a sound decision.

    It also gets much harder to manage the further up the chain you go. The principles at my current company are unmanageable, period. People have been trying for decades. All meetings descend into hours long screaming sessions with no direction, without exception. Interviews often do, too. Personally I’ve stopped trying to change that because that’s how the company is, and how it is run. I want candidates to see that in the interview process to gauge their response.

    I think the last part is also cultural, where firms agree with the view I laid out before of their prospective employee base. They think they’re in charge of the whole situation, and that people should feel privileged to be ‘allowed’ to work for them, whatever their actual place in the market is relative to what other employers offer. As such, you get poorly managed firms offering 25th percentile or less in salary and benefits, declaring in their ‘Vision’ or ‘Mission’ statements how they demand top talent and reward it, even though that is far from the truth.

    Recruiters should prep candidates to use the interview for what it’s meant: to get information. They should not be afraid to ask questions, or to be blunt to piss off the interviewer to get the information that’s critical to them to make a decision. Likewise they should watch the process and detach themselves from it with the understanding that watching this process likely gives insight into the company’s other processes, so pay attention. Unfortunately, with so many people in dire straits these days, we’re not likely to see this perceived power imbalance shift much if at all for a long time.

  • Brandon Barber

    I agree, not sure you need more than 3 interviews. Perhaps a phone screen initially, then a face to face with the hiring manager and the team. After that, another meeting to meet with other executives, HR, etc. Sometimes a casual lunch works well to feel each other out to make sure it’s a fit. Any process that takes more than a few weeks is too long. The candidate loses interest and most likely finds another job in this market. Regardless of interviews, the whole process usually takes too long on average.

  • Richard Melrose

    Well said, Dr. John.

    Employers should screen with assessments that have high predictive validity for job performance and job learning. Schmidt and Hunter’s meta-analysis ( http://bit.ly/QK64aW ) showed the strongest combination to be “general metal ability” (GMA or g)and “integrity” testing, with added value if the integrity instrument assesses “conscientiousness”, as well. Together, these two assessment domains explain roughly two- thirds of the variation in job performance and job learning.

    Why interview someone who lacks the cognitive ability to do the job or the integrity to be trusted?

    Two interviews should suffice: (1) a “structured interview”, with questions referenced to a job analysis, conducted by a competent (trained and practiced) interviewer and (2) a “job knowledge” interview conducted by a capable interviewer (e.g. domain expert), who can quickly and accurately gauge the extent of candidates’ relevant job knowledge(again with reference to a job analysis).

    When the results of those two interviews are added to the two assessment indications, predictive validity generally rises to between 75% and 90%.

    Meanwhile, most employers operate with predictive validity r ≤ 0.35 (i.e. generally less than 35%), no matter how many unstructured interviews they conduct.

    A work sample will raise predictive validity even further and can be made the basis of a follow-up conversational meeting, with each finalist, the hiring manager, prospective coworkers and, possibly, the hiring manager’s boss and prospective subordinates, as well.

    Finally, conduct thorough background and reference checks.

    This recommended process has two major advantages: (1) far fewer hiring mistakes and (2) speed that makes it possible to hire the best, before somebody else does. Some employers avail themselves of a third advantage, once they gain confidence in their “upgraded selection processes” – i.e. they use the predictably higher, recurring job performance of their selections to “pay for” top talent. Schmidt and Hunter provided the formula for the economic value of selection process upgrades, via improved job performance.

  • http://www.affintus.com Deborah Kerr

    Scientific evidence favors Dr.Sullivan’s views – the validity coefficient of the typical interview is about .18 – which means that the interview is not useful and you would get approximately the same performance result if you selected the new hire at random or by flipping a coin. To improve the utility, it is necessary to help managers do more than have a conversation with a candidate: build an interview system that includes scales, anchor definitions, and offer support for all interviewers, especially hiring managers. Of course the most important aspect of the selection process is picking the right people to interview. The best guide for that is a valid pre-hire assessment that every candidate completes.

  • http://www.recruitinginferno.com Steve Levy

    Three letters: E-S-P. Neither recruiters nor hiring managers have it – although far too many believe they do.

    Frankly, if recruiters and hiring managers were able to define the real job (NOT the “qualification”-oriented drivel that is little more than a compensation document), then the interviews could more quickly hone in on performance issues). If these “talent” people were so good at assessing “fit” then they wouldn’t have to date so many folks in order to find the right life partner. I wonder what the divorce rate is among recruiters and hiring managers.

    Yeah, some ESP… ;)

  • http://www.barometa.com Rupert Sellers

    Absolutely agree with Dr John’s points. Hiring managers need to think more about the candidate experience and empathize more.

    As commented in this article http://bit.ly/14hGYG8, candidates hate filling applications forms and going through long drawn out interview processes… The candidates you want will simply drop out if you force them through too many hoops.

  • Michelle Rosenbaum

    Enjoyed this commentary as it brought back memories of the
    “death”….

    Interviewed with a company on two occasions for five or six hours and when they wanted another interview I decided not to attend.

    The recruiter was livid!!!…But, I told her it did not make sense to me an Accountant that after five hours these bankers could not quite make the decision. It was just a matter of principle. But another time I finally told the recruiter that I had given him my life history and my blood so did I have a job or not…..I still had to send him one more email….which I did sweetly and with respect.

    Let’s face it. Time is Money!!!…(that is the reason for doing time for crime…just figured that out; why sit in jail.)

    When dating I finally got into the ultimatum mode….so when told how wonderful I was on the third date, responded, Great, then let get married and raise a family. It saved a lot of time and effort. The man I married fell in love with me immediately; and I thought, maybe he is crazy!!!…how would he know so quickly…but he was in international sales…..

    Think it is about character and culture and the big one, Timing!….

  • http://www.HRMC.com Larry Cummings

    Google’ job infographic brags ‘has used up to 29 interviews’ A pain point not true w/ HRMC’ interview-first platform. Why waste everyone’s time! I love this quote:

    “If you’re not getting exceptional hires, it may be because your traditional interview process…dwell(s) on the past (resumes)… a superior alternative is to ask them to solve real problems…(and) allow a top candidate to show off their capabilities, ideas, and innovation.”
    Dr. John Sullivan April ERE.net

  • http://www.HRMC.com Larry Cummings

    Here’s Get a Google Job #Infographic – http://pinterest.com/pin/105834659965685829

    I have a 55+ pinned on my ‘Talent Acquisition’ Board

  • Keith Halperin

    Back from SF Recruiting Unconference and RIS…
    Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. I think companies should avoid not only too many interviews, but too many interviewers. I’ve not heard any evidence that shows you need more than a couple of 2-3 hr interview rounds with 2-4 interviewers/round (perhaps in conjunction with the tools, etc. commenters have mentioned) to establish competency and likeability/cultural fit; (the only real factors needed) for the vast majority of interviews. I saw an interesting product yesterday at the RIS- it seemed to try to address the problem of managing an overly-complicated interview process instead of providing the more elegant solution of simplifying it…

    @ Cindy, @ Ron:. I don’t think we’re going to see a return to a seller’s hiring market any time soon, and conceivably we may be moving toward a situation where *fewer and fewer people have FT, stable, long-term, decently-paid and benefitted employment AT ALL. Consequently, I wouldn’t count on any sea-change improvement in how candidates are treated. I’d LOVE to be wrong on this…

    @ Brittany: Show me hard evidence that the advantages of lengthy and numerous interviews outweigh the disadvantages (not just to the candidate but to the company, too). All else being equal: I believe shorter/fewer processes are better.

    @ Michael: Well said. I think companies should also make sure their hiring managers are empowered, trained, and resourced to make an accurate hiring decision without an excessive amount of interviewing.

    @ Richard A: I couldn’t/haven’t said it better.

    @ Richard M: This makes a great deal of sense. However, I am concerned about the replacement of an ineffective, expensive, and overly long process with an effective, expensive, and overly-long process. How long do your methods take and what do they cost to perform? It might be practical to use your methods for some very critical positions but not all, or it might make sense to use these for all positions.

    @ Deborah: When you throw out statistics and facts, please cite your sources. You and who else says: “The best guide for that is a valid pre-hire assessment that every candidate completes”? I frequently challenge some other person(s) (what’s his/her/their name[s}]?) for throwing out unsubstantiated opinions like that as facts…

    @ Steve: “I wonder what the divorce rate is among recruiters and hiring managers.” Recruiters and hiring managers can MARRY? In what states? ;)

    @ Rupert: “The candidates you want will simply drop out if you force them through too many hoops. Very true, but the candidates you can GET (the “Non Fabulous 95%” that nobody talks about hiring) won’t- because THEY WANT A JOB. I’ve said it before: if you’re not an EOC (Employer of Choice) and you don’t want the “Fab 5%”, or if you are an EOC and don’t want the “Corporate Politically-Well-Connected “Fab 5%” you can do pretty much anything you please within a loosely interpreted legal framework, and they’ll still come to you.

    @ Michelle: Well said.

    @ Larry: Well done. “Why waste everyone’s time!” Because you can, is why!
    IMSM, some person or other (what’s his/her/their name[s]?) has been praising “that company’s” recruiting efforts since at least 2005, and their convoluted hiring processes were an open secret (or open non-secret) since before that time. ISTM that it would be rather difficult to so wholeheartedly and repeatedly praise a company’s recruiting efforts when the heart of the recruiting process (the interviews) was so poorly and inefficiently done. Perhaps that/those person(s) were isolated from that information (not everybody is privy to “open secrets”), or maybe s/he/they did repeatedly critique “that company’s” interview process along with all the praise, but I just don’t seem to recall that. Wish my memory were better….

    Cheers,

    Keith

    *and not through there own choice, either.

  • http://www.rivs.com Bill Meidell

    Dr. John, great post. The lack of structure and redundancy in interviewing leads to another problem, good candidates get left out. Going through a gazillion interviews takes time thus companies unnecessarily reduce their final pool of candidates due to limited bandwidth

  • Josie Erent

    Thank you for your Honesty..Abuse is abuse..I have heard many stories of certain companies using these type of hiring tactics for lower level staff..The reality is that senior executives get preferential treatment…and in some cases do not deal with this level of scrutiny..This is why we hear stories of problematic executives being hired and yes executives hired who lie about their education… It is time for companies to realize that its their talented employees that give their companies a competitive edge in market…Its too bad that most of these executives are arrogant, and indifferent to this type of hiring practices that have become acceptable in the workplace despite government laws…

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  • Stephen Chatham

    Companies also need to be more thoughtful as to the specific questions asked.

    “Tell me about a time” or “Here’s a favorite question of mine” really are a turn off.

  • W J

    The only real reason why we have to deal with the bullshit is because employers they think they are psychics who can hire the second coming of Jesus merely by asking questions and more questions.

    I would LOVE the look of the hirer using multi-round interviews only to lose their top candidate to a competitor because he need money fast to pay his bills or another who quit for various reasons within a month to make the whole process an insane waste of time. Serves them right.