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Peer Interviewing: The Right Tool in the Wrong Hands?

by Apr 30, 2014, 12:32 am ET

Norm Abrams of PBS’s long-running series This Old House spent a lot of time educating viewers on the value of using the appropriate tools. He used to say that the wrong tool in the right hands would always produce disappointing results. As builders of teams — not houses — HR leaders might consider this statement in reverse. After all, when it comes to staffing, the right tool in the wrong hands can be detrimental, too.

Case in point: The peer interview.

Many firms believe that peer interviewing is an essential element to their recruiting process. Certainly, when it comes to hiring, peer feedback from team members is valuable to the selection process; if culled correctly it can add color and context to the information collected during interviews.

Collaborative hiring can benefit candidates, too. It allows them to obtain real-world job insight from the people who are actually in the trenches — those who they will work closely with, should they be hired.

When handled properly, peer interviews also provide insightful intelligence on the intangibles. It’s no secret that candidates are less guarded when meeting peers, so peer interviews are a great opportunity to observe candidates’ personal, or soft skills. And, as an added bonus, associates who have a stake in the hiring process and give the “thumbs up” to a new hire seem more interested in that employee and his/her success.

However, just like giving a hammer to an elephant, putting this tool — the peer interview — in the hands of a large percentage of the workforce is asking for trouble.

Now more than ever, HR leaders are seeing and hearing about many situations where peer interviewing actually makes the task at hand difficult if not impossible to accomplish in a timely and efficient manner. This leads to the question, “Is peer interviewing always the vital component to the interview and selection process that many believe it to be?”

Here are a few peer interview stories I’ve recently heard:

  • An associate entertained a detailed discussion with the prospective employee on the taboo subject of salary range and annual raises.
  • A team member exposed his insecurities to the job candidate during the interview by suggesting that she would probably be hired to eventually replace him.
  • An associate shut the office door and spoke “off the record” to the job candidate, fabricating workplace horror stories. At the end of the meeting, he told the job candidate, “If the details of our conversation get back to my boss, I’ll deny it.”
  • An administrative staffer interviewed a candidate and completely contradicted the job description that was previously explained by the hiring manager.

These scenarios are just a few examples of why peer interviewing can backfire. Poor training and lack of communication are obvious causes. However, regardless of the root reason, the problems are almost always compounded by job insecurity.

Today, the feeling of workplace insecurity is pervasive and perpetual. It affects everything from decision making to engagement to productivity, causing worry and fear among a large portion of our workforce.

In an April, 2013 Harris interactive poll, 16 percent of respondents felt that it was likely that they will be replaced by a lower cost employee in the next three months.

Workplace insecurities can lead to deep despondence. According to an October, 2013 Gallup Report conducted in the US, 52 percent of respondents were somewhat disengaged employees and 18 percent hated their jobs.

All of this begs the question, “ Are we putting the right hiring tool — peer interviewing — in the wrong hands?”

Certainly, it is easy to manage this process effectively if peer interviewing is limited to select A-player employees or done in a group setting. But think about this:

In 2006, ABC News conducted a survey regarding peer interviewing. The findings: 7.4 percent of respondents felt peer interviews were a great idea, 40.7 percent thought they were a terrible idea, and 51.8 percent thought they work only if everyone is prepared and on the same page.

Imagine the response to this same survey if had been conducted in 2010, when the unemployment rate soared to 9.7 percent! My guess is that even more people would find peer interviewing a “terrible idea.”

As times change and the workplace climate becomes even more competitive, those in the position to interview their peers may have underlying issues or fears that get in the way of carrying out constructive interviews.

Like other hiring tools, peer interviews can help corporate staffing efforts, but put in the wrong hands they could cause some serious damage.

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.

  • Gareth Cooper

    “Are we putting the right hiring tool — peer interviewing — in the wrong hands?”

    What assumptions underlie the application of the peer interview as the right tool for hiring?

    I think there will always be real limitations to the peer interview. One of which is selection bias especially if we are talking about a one-on-one interview setting. One way to eliminate that could be a peer panel but then you got to worry about issues like groupthink especially if you are looking at a key revenue generating position requiring innovation/creative problem solving.

    It seems reasonable to conclude that the risks of selection bias and other problems increase if insecure employees are requested to participate in peer interviews.

  • Keith Halperin

    ISTM that “peer interviewing” adds to the number of interviewers past the 2-4 range, and this is usually a bad idea.

    -kh

  • Jim Cargill

    Peer Interviewing is seldom a good idea, even in the best of circumstances. Whether one-on-one, or as a panel, external pressures and influences come into play that are not present when interviews are conducted by HR or Managers. In addition, how many of the “peers” have conducted the hundreds of interviews needed to gain sufficient experience in selection, and how many have attended top-quality training on interviewing principles? I will bet that in 99% of the cases, the answers to the above questions will be “None”. Does anyone really think the inclusion of peers not skilled in the selection process will yield better selection results?

  • PAUL FOREL

    I think peer interviewing is effective in a Sales environment when only those doing the interviewing are in the top percentile of those doing the billings.

    Those who are top billers can enthusiastically talk about their jobs since they work past speed bumps, if any, on the way to being top producers.

  • PAUL FOREL

    Picking up from what Mr. Cargill said….

    1. That the peers are not necessarily trained in observing and assessing a candidate being interviewed;

    2. Leaving the HA to sift through the various responses of the untrained peers and finally deciding to go with his/her own assessment, after all.

    = Time Wasted.

    I think that if a HA has a specific group of peers s/he uses for this purpose and they are all ‘top producers’ regardless of whether they are in sales or not….then it is probable that HA can go with the group assessment of the peers especially since that peer group knows what it takes to be successful in the job being sought.

    As long as that peer group is ‘healthy’ and there is no malice or hidden agenda amongst them, I see the peer interview as doable….especially when that HA lightly manages that group and they are self-motivated.

    ‘Course, that also means that if that peer group does not see that new person ‘fitting in’, then the candidate is sunk, no matter how qualified s/he may be.

    La La La La La La ….it all depends on the dynamics of the peers themselves and how they are managed.

    LOL, the last time I was peer interviewed I was accepted by the lot but I still found it necessary for some reason to ask the HA why he could not make up his own mind…

  • PAUL FOREL

    Hmmmm,

    What I meant to say was,

    “…I still found it necessary for some reason to ask the HA why he could not make up his own mind…

    …instead of leaving it to me to manage six interviewers.

    [That's a clue. Anyone who can manipulate one interviewer can manipulate six of them.]

  • Richard Araujo

    I think peer interviewing can be valuable and useful, but it has to be controlled. Peers should only be asked to evaluate specific aspects of a candidate. If you can’t control the process or them to keep their judgement and questioning limited to a narrow target, it’s best to avoid the practice.

  • PAUL FOREL

    Richard,

    I think I agree with you and I do see a challenge to inviting the group to participate in the final decision, having limited input, especially in these days of X’s, Y’s and Millenials who feel they have a vested interest in how the game is played.

    It would take a lot of finesse to allow limited participation in the selection process while seeming to take the group’s assessment to heart.

    Once you give the employees a sense of empowerment, it is difficult to limit that distinction by putting borders around it…

    Inviting the peer group to participate in the selection process requires a background condition of mutual trust so that if the HA wants to override the group, there won’t be a sense of resentment amongst the group.

    This is not an impossible puzzle- it just needs to be played out with a sense of expertise by the HA.

    The ‘problem’ is that all the bad examples of how this is handled poorly will make the blogs vs the smooth running ops of a well-oiled groupthink.

    You know how it is…the breakdowns seem to get more notice than the wins do.

    What is needed here is for Gail to show us stats from industry on how this executes in real life.

    A survey of readers from, for example, Industry Week and/or the SME would be instructive.

  • Richard Araujo

    “Once you give the employees a sense of empowerment, it is difficult to limit that distinction by putting borders around it…”

    Very true.

    A guy on LinkedIn recently wrote about an experiment a company did, they hired a group of people based on a resume assessment alone, and another group through the typical hiring process. Apparently there were no differences in performance or longevity they could detect between the groups. Now, I can’t get specifics yet on this so it’s purely apocryphal, but it would not surprise in the slightest if this happened. And I really do want specifics. A company that does something like this is one I would love to find out more about. It takes balls to do something that might prove you’re full of it.