Speed Interviewing: Lessons Learned From Speed Dating

Jun 16, 2008

The basic process of interviewing candidates for open positions hasn’t changed very much in the last century, despite radical changes in how people socialize and interact both in and out of the workplace.

Traditional interviews continue even though no one enjoys them! There is little argument that traditional interviews are time-consuming for all parties involved, often repetitive, and highly subjective. If you include the time it takes to write up notes and to debrief the interview team with time actually spent interviewing candidates and multiply that by the number of candidates considered, you would quickly realize what a serious “time drain” interviews are on corporate resources.

Fortunately, recruiters looking to embrace a radical new approach and save countless hours of needless work (not to mention misery and frustration) can follow the lead of singles looking for love.

“Speed interviewing” and the concepts supporting it come directly from the social phenomena known as “speed dating.” Supported by lots of cognitive research that suggests initial intuition is as accurate as or more accurate than prolonged assessment, a few leading-edge organizations are hopping on board and testing speed interviewing as a possible solution to end the giant disconnect between society today and the HR systems of yesterday.

Brave corporate pioneers include such firms as IBM, Abbott Labs, PNC Financial, Travelodge, Texas Instruments, the Salt River Project, and RBC. The companies use this process for experienced candidates and for college hires.

Thin Slicing: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

HR traditionalists are probably wondering how anyone could gather enough information in a short burst of interaction to make a decision as complicated as whom to hire. After all, there are so many parameters to consider.

However, if you pay any attention to the New York Times bestseller list, you might have heard about a book entitled Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell. While there are numerous learnings in the book relevant to HR, one of the most relevant to this discussion is the concept of “thin slicing.”

Thin slicing is something we all do every day. It is the act of taking an activity and breaking it down into micro segments, which then get coded and analyzed for trends. For instance, when you are driving, your mind captures input from a variety of sources including your car’s instrument cluster, the rear- and side-view mirrors, your peripheral vision, the sounds around you, and of course, your view out the windshield. Your mind then analyzes to help you make a decision about your next course of action. The capture and analysis of all that data takes place in seconds.

Every activity can be thin sliced. While Gladwell introduces several examples of thin slicing, one of the most relevant to us in recruiting has to do with analyzing married couples to determine the health of their relationship.

This is the most relevant example, because accepting a job with an employer is a lot like accepting a spouse in a marriage. Both parties come to the table with expectations, both parties enter into the arrangement voluntarily and can exit at any time, both parties derive benefit from the relationship, and yet both parties remain separate entities continuing to grow/evolve.

In presenting the research of psychologist John Gottman, Gladwell explains how thin slicing videotaped interaction between two married individuals allows Gottman and those trained by him to predict with 95% accuracy how likely the marriage is to last. Gottman’s research of 3,000 couples started in the 1980s. He began with an hour of videotaped interaction and coded each second of video by tagging it with one of 20 enumerated emotions that were present in each of the participants’ facial expressions. The enumerated emotions were then summed and added to additional biofeedback data producing a ratio of positive to negative.

After years of study, he discovered that the observation period could be cut to 15 minutes with a negligible impact on predictive accuracy and to three minutes if an 80% accuracy rating is tolerable. Today, Gottman only looks for four signs: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt, the last being the most telling sign of failure.

Thin slicing works because the subconscious mind is very methodical and rational. In reality, it functions like a finely tuned computer program. The conscious mind, on the other hand, is not as methodical, rational, or unbiased.

As a result, decisions influenced by the subconscious, something that often occurs when time does not exist to evaluate things further, tend to be much more accurate and fact-based.

Speed Dating Concepts

Speed dating is a relatively modern process that is used to help singles rapidly screen a large number of potential dates. The process has been used successfully by dating services, senior citizen groups, and even churches. It was designed because many individuals found that the traditional approach to dating just wasn’t working for them.

The concept is simple and relatively straightforward. Individuals looking for a date sit at separated tables and do a five-minute interview with their first potential date. Then a bell goes off, and each of the potential dates get up and rotate to another five-minute interview, until they’ve interviewed everyone who has interested them. The concept is popular because it allows you to meet and then quickly determine whether an individual fits your selection criteria and is worth the time and the risk involved in an actual one-on-one date.

Speed dating advantages include low risks, a brief time commitment for each assessment, and an opportunity to meet and assess a large number of candidates all at once. Speed dating groups routinely report high satisfaction rates, as well as relatively high dating success rates, in spite of the relatively short initial assessment time.

Like Gottman’s experience with assessing married couples, many who have found speed dating effective had to complete the process several times to help hone their subconscious mind’s ability to discern what truly leads to success versus what the conscious mind states you should look for.

Advantages of Speed Interviewing

Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to speed interviewing in the corporate world, the most common design involves inviting a large number of candidates (between 25 and 200) to meet in a large room. If there is only one hiring manager, each candidate rotates through for a single timed interview.

Another option is to have several interviewers present (and each candidate rotates through each) in order to get multiple assessments of the same candidate for a single job. Another alternative is having multiple managers from different departments present (each potential candidate rotates among the interviewing managers), so that the candidates have the opportunity to get exposure to the diverse job opportunities throughout the firm (similar to a corporate job fair).

Time the interviews so each is the same length, make all assessments on a scoring sheet, and set a time limit between five and 15 minutes.

You may be skeptical, but consider that the traditional interview format you currently use also has dozens of inherent weaknesses. In fact, the speed interviewing process has some significant advantages you must consider, regardless of your view on quick judgments:

  • Immediate comparisons between candidates. Because most interviews for a position are stretched out over days or even weeks, it’s hard for managers to actually remember what they learned in previous interviews. Stretching out the interview process makes accurate comparisons between candidates who managers have met over a several-week period extremely difficult. Speed interviewing provides a significant advantage here because you see all of the candidates within a couple of hours.
  • Less “trash time.” In basketball, wasted minutes (when the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt) are called trash time. During an interview, trash time is the time that the interviewer spends “being polite” after they have already made the decision to reject the candidate because of their negative first impression or lack of “company fit.” Candidates can also have “trash time” after they have decided early on during the interview to reject the manager or the job. This “trash time” is often unavoidable in traditional interviews because both managers and candidates have been told that interviews should last at least an hour. Because speed interviews are timed and short, both disillusioned managers and interviewees can walk away almost immediately after they’ve made a decision to reject.
  • Less total time devoted to interviews. Because speed interviews average five to 10 minutes, managers’ time (and expense) spent interviewing is reduced dramatically.
  • An opportunity to see more candidates. Speed interviewing allows you to see a large volume (two to 10 times more candidates), so there’s less chance that you will “miss” a great candidate who happens to have a poorly written résumé (and thus they would be screened out of most interviewing processes). Using speed dating, you get a quick look at almost everyone who is interested.
  • Managers like them. Most managers dislike traditional interviews and many show their dislike by putting them off for weeks. In contrast, companies frequently report that managers who have participated in speed interviewing have high satisfaction rates. Like it or not, many managers dislike the rigid structure and rules associated with behavioral interviews. In contrast, they actually enjoy using their intuition, first impressions, and the opportunities to make snap judgments. Because managers are making gut judgments, they are more likely to “own” the hiring decision because they had almost total control over the decision criteria.
  • It fits the “next” generation. Although it’s easy to over-generalize; many argue that the short attention spans of the new generation just don’t fit hour-long interviews. This new generation often loses interest quickly and they sometimes don’t want to do the preparation required for lengthy interviews. For these reasons, speed interviewing is deemed “cool” and has seen the most activity on college campuses, although Travelodge uses it to hire managers.
  • Scheduling ease. Because hiring managers can literally “get it all done” in a short period of time, they are more willing to participate in speed interviewing sessions that are held at night or during weekends. In addition, being able to hold speed interviewing sessions outside of work hours and at more convenient sites (like hotel meeting rooms) results in the attraction of more of the highly desirable “currently employed” candidates. Holding these events off-site also eliminates the need to waste a candidate’s time going through security and it eliminates the disquieting interruptions that routinely occur during long interviews held in someone’s office.
  • Shorter time to fill. Because often the very best candidates are literally “out of the market” within 10 and 22 days, any process that speeds up the hiring decision will provide you with more opportunities to make offers to innovators, game changers, and top performers. Although most speed interviewing designs don’t require hiring decisions to be made on the spot, a good number of them utilize that feature (knowing that makes candidates more willing to show up). In addition, a side benefit to speed interviewing is that candidates may see this rapid decision-making process is an indication that the company itself excels at making timely decisions (a characteristic that innovators and top performers admire).
  • An opportunity to assess other characteristics. Traditional behavioral interviews focus on assessing experience and verbal clues. However, because of time constraints, speed interviews almost force the interviewer to focus on a different set of factors including first impressions, body language, and emotional cues. A few firms have used the informal “networking time” before the timed interviews begin as an additional opportunity to assess whether candidates have the social and interactive skills necessary for successful team players

Items related to assessment accuracy:

  • Accuracy. If you buy into the research on rapid decision-making, the speed interviewing process is the way to go. Consider doing a “split sample” test, where some candidates are hired using traditional interviews, while others go through the speed interviewing process. You can then assess the accuracy of each by comparing the on-the-job performance and retention rates between the two methods.
  • Fewer “canned” responses. Like it or not, the Internet has educated most candidates to the point where they come “over-prepared” to traditional interviews. It’s not unusual for candidates to rehearse and to prepare canned answers to traditional questions. A byproduct to speed interviewing is that you may get more genuine and off-the-cuff responses.
  • Less pressure. Candidates are generally less apprehensive and nervous, and the interviewer might get a more accurate assessment of candidates who under-perform because of their anxiety.
  • Superior documentation. Because speed interviewing occurs in a single place and time, it’s easier to get interviewers to document their decisions on a simple form. Even if speed interviews don’t prove to be more valid (accurate predictors) the process forces consistency, which almost guarantees that the interviews will have a higher reliability (consistent treatment over time).
  • Perfect assessment isn’t always necessary. Some jobs do not require “perfect” initial assessment because if a weak candidate slips through, they will be quickly identified during new-hire training or as a result of their weak on-the-job performance. This is often the case in call centers or retail service. As a result, speed interviews can add great value because even though they don’t always select top performers, the process quickly screens out obvious turkeys and individuals who just don’t “fit” your corporate culture.

Potential Problems

There are problems associated with any form of interviewing but especially with speed interviewing. The first is the possibility that snap subconscious judgments will lead to discrimination.

Second, these interviews don’t get any in-depth or technical information from the candidate and there is literally no time for the candidate to ask questions (which may impact their interest in the firm).

Third, the noisy interview room can make it hard for interviewers to hear and focus on their current candidate. Finally, many managers and those in HR firmly believe that the most accurate assessments are made slowly.

Three Tips to Remember

If you are bold enough to try an assessment strategy that leverages speed interviewing, here are a few key lessons to keep in mind:

  1. Just like driving, learning to thin slice any activity takes practice, and initial efforts are likely to only yield success between 55% to 60% of the time.
  2. While it is possible for the subconscious mind to discriminate, the likelihood of occurrence can be reduced by completing the speed-interviewing process blind (i.e., candidates sit behind an opaque screen).
  3. Once candidates are assessed, the process can and should convert to selling them on the job, (i.e., customer servicing them).

Final Thoughts

Although anything associated with “dating” invariably makes HR people nervous, it’s important to realize that advantages to speed interviewing make even lifelong skeptics like myself reconsider my initial thoughts about the process.

I suggest you try it and compare the results to your traditional interviewing process. You might just find that the ROI is higher than you initially thought possible.

Peter Drucker once said that companies get it wrong 2:3 times. With a failure rate like that, tossing a coin would be a more effective measure! Be bold, try new things, and rely on the data.

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