Shootout at the Not-OK Corral: Comparing Various Interviewing Techniques

Let’s have a no-holds-barred interview shootout. Winner takes all. But first, the fine print. Let’s establish the selection criteria. For starters, we must recognize that the interview process has multiple objectives. Certainly, assessing candidate competency is one aspect. Assessing candidate motivation is another, and in many ways it’s more important even than measuring competency. Too many interviewing methods ignore what is clearly the dominant trait of all top performers: motivation to excel at the work required. Recruiting the candidate is a third objective of the interview. This means demonstrating to the candidate the professionalism of the company, highlighting the leadership and management skills of the hiring manager, and presenting the job as a positive career move. Most interviewing approaches suggest doing this after the formal interview is completed, when they then instruct the interviewer to “sell” the candidate. If the people who write and sell these interviews systems ever had to recruit a top person, they’d know that by then it’s too late. The other key (and never discussed) aspect of the interview is who is being interviewed. The assumption is that the same interview can be used for entry-level or senior management positions, and everything in between. For purposes of this wild-and-wooly shootout, we’ll divide the common interviewing techniques into a few broad groups. As you review these descriptions, see which best describes the one used most often in your company. The Unstructured Superficial Interview This type of interview skims the surface, asking a lot of questions but not gathering much information about the candidate. Since the superficial questions change for each candidate, it has very little predictive value. Candidates are generally judged on presentation skills, not performance. When you judge candidates based on skills (the resume being the primary selection device determining who was interviewed) and personality, there is a tendency to hire people who are partially competent and partially motivated. The partially competent aspect comes into play because the candidate’s skills and experiences weren’t evaluated against real job needs. The partially motivated aspect occurs because the candidate’s motivation wasn’t really evaluated. When managers complain about a candidate’s work performance with the excuse, “But the person said he would do the work,” you’ve experienced this problem first hand. There is also a tendency to overpay if the person is a “wow!” candidate ó one who makes a great first impression and is poised, confident, etc. In this case, the hiring manager tends to quickly go into sales mode, talking too much and learning even less about the candidate. This puts the bargaining strength in the candidate’s hand. Overall, this type of interview will result in a good hire in about one in four cases, but it’s all random luck. Worse, the best candidate is rarely hired. (Email me at if you’d like to discuss the actual Hunter and Schmidt research on this.) The Structured Superficial Interview Just by asking the same irrelevant questions of everyone, you’ll do far better than asking different irrelevant questions. Adding structure to an interview is an important element of interviewing design. The real benefit here is to increase objectivity. The number one reason for bad hiring decisions is the tendency for managers to make emotional decisions based on invalid information. This includes things like first impressions, personality, style, and similar soft traits. My estimate is that about 30% to 50% of all hiring mistakes are made due to lack of objectivity. Even a bad structured interview will prevent many of these. This type of interview will minimize major hiring mistakes and improve to one in three the likelihood that a good person will get hired. Sometimes this will even be the best person. The Structured, Not Superficial Interview A good structured interview consists of conducting a comprehensive work history review for all candidates. When this is combined with proactive techniques to reduce interviewer bias, interviewing accuracy can increase significantly. The work history itself reveals trends, consistency in work habits, areas of specialization and excellence, and potential problems. If you ask about recognition received at each job you’ll also gain a quick sense of where the candidate fits on the weak to top performer scale, since top people get lots of recognition throughout their careers (e.g., promotions, bigger raises, bonuses, awards, better assignments, etc.). Asking a few situational questions can also help add insight into thinking and planning skills. The more relevant this is to the job, the more value this type of question has. For example, asking, “What type of animal is most like you?” is less useful than asking a candidate how he or she would go about solving a job-related issue (e.g., “How would you handle this type of customer?”). The latter gets at job-related thinking skills, which have been shown to represent about 25% of overall performance. In general, this type of structured interview ó especially when interviewer bias is controlled ó will improve hiring results to better than 50/50. In addition, the person selected will often be the best, since first impressions have not influenced the selection. The Behavioral and/or Competency-Based Interview The typical behavioral event interview relies on the STAR interviewing technique. In this case, the interviewer asks the person to describe a specific trait, e.g., team skills, by having the candidate give an example of a relevant situation, define the task, describe the action taken, and describe the result. If the behaviors and competencies are accurately determined by a detailed job analysis, this technique can help improve overall interviewing results. But this type of interview does nothing to help the recruiting process. In some ways, this approach can even be misleading for a couple of reasons. First, past behavior is NOT a good predictor of future behavior if the job is different. For example, someone showing initiative in one job might not show initiative in another for a variety of reasons: different boss, different team, different culture, different type of work, or different circumstances. Another related problem is that most interviewers don’t probe deeply enough to find out the cause of the behavior. This type of interview does, however, improve overall interviewing effectiveness, since it increases objectivity, and it does give insight into core behaviors (the most important: initiative and team skills). This type of interview is more valuable for lower-level positions. Research shows that when combined with a work history review, a behavioral interview is about 60% to 65% effective in predicting on-the-job performance. However, this means it’s 35% to 40% ineffective ó and even less effective for higher level or more complex jobs. The Performance-Based Behavioral Interview This is the interview methodology I’ve been advocating for the past umpteen years. It combines the best of all of the above interviews into one simple-to-learn methodology. The key to controlling interviewer bias is to measure first impressions at the end of the interview. When managers are required to compare their initial reaction to the candidate to an objective assessment of first impressions at the end of the interview, emotions are held in check. Conducting a comprehensive work history review in the beginning of an interview adds structure and insight. By getting candidates to describe their major team and individual accomplishments at each job, it’s far easier to compare competency and motivation to actual job needs. In essence, the STAR behavioral interviewing methodology is used multiple times within each accomplishment. Digging deeper is the key to success here. It allows the interviewer to better understand how a combination of behaviors and competencies were used to achieve actual results. This way, changes in behavior and personal growth can be observed over time as candidates mature and develop. The key to making this type of interviewing methodology work is the use of a performance profile (which describes what that person needs to do) rather than a traditional job description (which describes what the person needs to have). Overall, this type of interviewing methodology is about 75% to 80% effective in predicting on-the-job success. This is primarily attributed to a direct matching of a candidate’s competency and his or her motivation to handle real job needs. In addition, top candidates are easier to hire without paying unnecessary salary premiums, since they can quickly see the opportunity and stretch in the job by the types of fact-finding questions asked. (Download a copy of my recommended performance-based interview to try it out.) If you add a test of mental ability and some type of validated personality profile after the interview, you’ll be able to increase the overall predictability of any of these interviewing methods. To minimize hiring mistakes even more, combine this with rigorous reference checking and a background check. Since I’m the judge here, there’s no question in my mind about what is the best interviewing approach to use. However, if you’re making lots of hiring mistakes, the problem might not even be due to bad interviewing. It could be lack of enough good candidates being seen. When hiring managers are forced to settle on less-than-qualified people, their first reaction is that the interviewing process is flawed. More often than not, the problem is really weak sourcing. Under these circumstances, managers just don’t have any choice as they mutter to themselves and hire the “least worst” person available. That’s why hiring needs to be seen from a strategic rather than a tactical perspective. Being strategic means understanding the cause of the problem before implementing a solution. Good interviewing skills won’t help bad sourcing. So to win this shootout, you first need to figure out what you’re aiming at.

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Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).