Peer Interviewing: The Right Tool in the Wrong Hands?

Apr 30, 2014

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.

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