Structured Interviews: An Easy Upgrade For Your Hiring Process

Nov 7, 2002

During a conference session about assessment at last month’s ER Expo in Atlanta, it became apparent to me that while many companies are using some form of assessment to help select employees, most are unwilling to invest in technology that requires them to alter their existing recruiting process, particularly given current economic conditions. While this means that many companies are avoiding the adoption of tools that require an overhaul of their entire process, many seemed to be asking, “Are there any less expensive, short-term strategies we can use to make our existing recruiting and selection process more effective?” This question led me to begin thinking about strategies that would allow companies to leverage the benefits provided by the use of a solid assessment methodology without requiring an expensive sea change in their recruitment process. While there are a variety of ways to accomplish this goal, in my mind the one that offers the most bang for the buck, without rocking the boat, involves making upgrades to your interview process. Specifically, I feel that replacing your existing interview process with one that utilizes structured behavioral interviews is an extremely cost-effective way to add tremendous value to any employee selection process. What We Know About Employment Interviews There is no doubt about it, the employment interview is hands down the most popular way for organizations to evaluate the suitability of an applicant for a given job. Think about it: has anyone in the history of hiring ever gotten a job without participating in some type of interview? I seriously doubt it. There are several very good reasons for this. First and foremost, interviews represent the human element in the hiring process. When making an important decision such as bringing an outsider into the “family,” there is a basic human need for us to take a test drive, to kick the tires and look under the hood. Secondly, the face-to-face (or voice-to-voice in the case of a phone interview) contact provided by the interview is the only opportunity to evaluate the more sensory-oriented aspects of a candidate, such as their ability to communicate and their interpersonal skills. Thus, the interview is an experience that is difficult to duplicate by any other means. The unfortunate part of this is that, despite its ability to fulfill some innate human needs that are critical for our decision-making process, the traditional employment interview does a lousy job of accurately predicting which applicants are best suited for a job. This may sound like crazy talk to many of you, but it is an honest truth that is based on statistical facts. At the end of the day, the sole purpose of the interview is to make predictions about a candidate’s suitability for a given job and how well they will “fit” within the environment provided by the organization. While some people may be adept enough interviewers to make good predictions, when you aggregate across all of the interview predictions made by all the interviewers in an organization, the laws of probability and the truths of statistics will catch up with you, I promise! Here’s the proof. Years of research into the interview process suggest that the accepted validity coefficient (i.e., the accuracy) of the traditional (unstructured) employment interview is between .10 to .20. In non-geek speak this means that, across the board, interviews predict an applicant’s actual ability to do the job with only between 1% to 4% accuracy, suggesting that between 96 and 99% of what it takes to effectively perform a job is not being measured by your employment interview. Why Is This So? There are several reasons why the traditional employment interview is not effective as a predictive tool. All of these center around the fact that traditional interviews are very subjective and devoid of any real standardization. This is a problem, because effective prediction requires the use of reliable tools that provide accurate and systematic measurement of human elements that are directly related to job requirements. In more specific terms, problems with the traditional interview can be traced to two major types of errors that are inherent in the process.

  1. Errors of content. This type of error has two main sources. First of all, traditional interviews often fail to utilize questions that are directly linked to job requirements. While questions such as, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Why do you want to work for our organization?” may elicit interesting information, the answers they elicit are hard to map directly onto the critical competencies that define job performance. Secondly, lack of structure in interview content often means that different interviewers will ask different questions of different applicants. This means that applicants are essentially being evaluated using different information, making it very hard to compare apples to apples.
  2. Errors in process. The process surrounding the actual questions asked in an interview is also a critical aspect in determining its effectiveness. Failure to use a standardized process ó in which all applicants are evaluated using the exact same criteria, and in which there is some process for using information elicited from the interview to make final ratings ó will greatly reduce the effectiveness of the interview as a predictive tool. This is because failure to provide structure of process leaves the door wide open to bias, stereotypes, and other various kinds of errors associated with the subjectivity inherent in the interview process. This is a problem because the effectiveness of the interview process hinges on the exclusive use of job-related information to make decisions. Furthermore, the more subjective the evaluations that result from the interview process, the less legally defensible an interview process will be.

There Is Hope Once these major shortcomings of the interview were identified, a movement arose centered around retooling the interview to eliminate errors of content and process. The main outcome of this movement was to create a tool that fulfills the human elements satisfied by the interview while at the same time giving it some predictive teeth. This goal was achieved by doing two things. First of all, it removes errors of content by creating interviews that:

  • Use formal techniques, such as job analysis, to define job performance and to create questions that have direct links to these critical aspects of job performance.
  • Ask the same (or very similar) questions to each interviewee in order to ensure that the same basic information is collected from each candidate.
  • Use questions that require interviewees to discuss their past behaviors in situations that are similar to those they will face while performing the job for which they are interviewing.

Second, it removes errors of process by creating a procedure that requires:

  • Rating each interview question individually and combining information from multiple questions when making final ratings
  • Using rating scales that provide clear, job-related anchors
  • Having interviewers take detailed notes for each question
  • Using multiple interviews to assess each candidate
  • Providing extensive interviewer training

Making the above changes will result in the creation of a bionic tool known as the structured behavioral interview. Structured behavioral interviews have been shown to be much more effective than traditional unstructured interviews. Research has shown that interviews that use both structure and behaviorally-based questions have validity levels ranging from .35 to.60. This means that these interviews are able to predict job performance with between 12 and 36% accuracy. While this may not seem like a lot, it represents a gain of about 10 to 30% efficiency over traditional interviews. When translated into monetary terms, such gains can easily represent millions of dollars in savings for an organization that makes even a hundred selection decisions per year. Now for even more good news. Research has shown that structured behavioral interviews can add additional predictive power above and beyond that provided by other types of assessment, such as personality and ability tests. This means they tap a completely different aspect of job performance and thus make an excellent compliment to assessment tools. In terms of an easy and quick upgrade to your hiring process, it also means that if you do decide to add assessments later on down the line you will get even more mileage out of them due to their ability to provide unique prediction beyond that gained from the interview alone. Pulling the Switch-Out Since every organization already uses some form of employment interview, the idea of upgrading to a structured behavioral interview should have universal appeal. Even if you already have a structured interview process, you should consider adding the behavioral component, as it really does go the extra mile towards predicting job-related performance. Most importantly, adding a structured behavioral interview does not require completely retooling your selection process, purchasing expensive software licenses, or ramping up complex enterprise systems. All you have to do is perform the appropriate groundwork to identify the constructs you want to measure, construct the interview tool, and substitute it for your old unstructured one. As long as you take the necessary precautions to ensure that best practices are followed when developing the interview and its accompanying ratings scales, and that the information gained from the interview is used correctly, the switch will pay off handsomely. Choosing an Interview Tool There are a variety of options to consider when it comes to adopting structured behavioral interviews. One choice that needs to be made is whether to buy an off-the-shelf product or build your own tool. There are a variety of off-the-shelf structured interview tools available. While these represent a cheaper and faster solution, the lack of customization means that you may sacrifice the ability to measure aspects of job performance and specific behaviors that are unique to the way the job looks in your organization. Another option is to hire a consultant to help you create and validate your own customized interviews. The decision of whether to build or buy should be dictated by several factors, including timeframe, the job or jobs in question, your existing selection tools and processes, and your budget. You’ll also need to decide what level of technology and delivery format you wish to use. There are three main choices here:

  • The traditional paper and pencil format. Interviews delivered in the same manner they always have been. The major choice here involves doing interviews face to face or via the telephone.
  • Interviews generated as a byproduct of web-based assessment. Many vendors offer structured interview generation tools that link directly to their products. That means that online assessment results will include an interview that actually targets the weak areas that are exposed via the assessment process.
  • Fully automated online interviews. One company, BDT, offers a fully automated online interview tool that allows applicants to be interviewed using a structured behavioral interview anywhere at any time.

No matter what vendor or delivery mode you end up deciding on, there are five must-haves when it comes to any structured behavioral interview product:

  • They must use job analysis to create behaviorally based questions.
  • They must use a standard set of anchored rating scales.
  • They must provide some form of validation evidence.
  • They must provide extensive training for interviewers.
  • They must provide some way to objectively translate ratings made for each interview question into one final overall evaluation of the candidate.

In summary, if you are looking for an easy upgrade to your existing process that will provide results but won’t rock the boat, consider replacing your existing interview process with a structured behavioral interview.

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