How to Leave the Interviewing Stone Age

Once upon a time, there were no human resources departments. Applicants were interviewed by managers and hired or fired on the job. For most employees, work was often simple and labor intensive. Not much changed as the need for workers grew, except management created a new department to process paperwork and administer benefits. As you can imagine, new employee skills were only tested on the job. Eventually, the “paperwork and benefits” department was assigned the tasks of placing help wanted ads and pre-screening applicants.

For the most part, applicants were still interviewed by managers and hired or fired on the spot. For most employees, work was still often simple and labor intensive. As you can imagine, new employee skills were only tested on the job. Throughout this time, interviewers’ primary objective was to screen out blatantly unqualified candidates (i.e., people they either disliked or who drooled on the paperwork) and forward them to the hiring managers. Without any special training or education, their interview questions sounded something like this: “Tell me about yourself. Why do you want this job? Do you have any relatives who work here?”

As you can imagine, new employee skills were only tested on the job. Time went by, and interviewers became more confident, often to the point of believing they were trained psychologists. The personnel department even creatively renamed itself “human resources.” Questions changed slightly and became something like this: “What color do you prefer? What is your greatest strength? If you could be an animal, which would it be, and why?” As you can imagine, new employee skills were only tested on the job. Nothing much changed except interviewers sounded sillier, and applicants read advice on how to fake well and get the job. But would anyone be surprised to learn that research shows that interviews are most predictive of future job performance only when they meet three criteria:

  1. The interviewer works from a competency-based document that outlines the skills necessary for job success or failure. This is not a job description and it is not a job evaluation band. It is a list of measurable competencies based primarily on interviews with successful job holders.
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  3. Interviewers have learned to phrase questions in such a way that answers are difficult to fake and examples are job-related. They have learned that past job behavior – not necessarily job performance – is a very good predictor of future performance. (Just like speed, strength, and reflexes are good predictors of winning at tennis.)
  4. Finally, each interview question must have a scoring guide consisting of desirable and undesirable answers. An interview is not a conversation to get to know someone. It is a verbal test. It has something to measure (required job skills), something to ask (structured questions), and a standardized answer key (right and wrong answers).

Structured interviews are usually called “behavioral” because they attempt to discover the specific behaviors associated with job performance. The assumptions, as mentioned before, are 1) if learning difficult information is an important competency for the future job; and 2) if the applicant says he or she learned in the last job; and 3) if the applicant can demonstrate that learning was successful; then 4) the interviewer can assume the applicant would probably be successful in the new position. What you should remember:

  • Interviews are tests and subject to all the conditions of a good test.
  • Job descriptions and job evaluations seldom provide enough information on which to base an interview.
  • Interviewing is not a learn-as-you-earn activity.
  • If skills are not accurately evaluated pre-hire, then the job will evaluate them post-hire.
  • Few people have the skills necessary to do a competent interview.

If you forget the above, remember that poor interviewing leads to increased turnover, lower individual employee performance, and higher training expenses.