Too Much Information: Why I Don’t Trust Employment Interviews

I just finished reading “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell – a very interesting and clever book which poses the theory that we don’t need to process the whole story to actually grasp the “gestalt” of the story.

Of course, the real skill lies in knowing what information to consider and what information to ignore. While reading, I couldn’t help but think of how this concept of making decisions on thinner “slices” of behavior or information, applies to work practices. Is less information better? One case in the point: the employment interview.

When I think of all the business practices we openly malign (yearly performance reviews, for example) employment interviews have really escaped a fair share of deserved criticism. Why is this? Employment interviews have simply been a fact of work life – an accepted way of doing business. A true living fossil in the world of business practices.

I always thought the run of the mill interview did a pretty good job at doing what it was supposed to do – to evaluate a candidate for a job – until a class in selection systems in graduate school. There I learned an ugly truth. I learned that the validity of the standard interview as a selection device was quite low.

I was utterly shocked. While pondering what I had just learned, a classmate asked the obvious: “If the validity of the employment interview is so low, why do we still use them? The professor paused and then thoughtfully responded: “People by nature are hopelessly curious. The idea of making decisions about a candidate without speaking with them in person makes us feel uncomfortable, even at the cost of making our decisions less accurate.”

In other words, we just seem to want all of the extra information that can run us in the wrong direction. We resist evaluating a candidate based upon qualifications, tests and work history alone, even though those options may be a better bet.

There is a bright side, however. Researchers have investigated practices that help the employment interview do a better job. Of course, these practices attempt to keep decision makers on track and help them focus on the pieces of information that really matter. The practices are designed to limit the subjectivity of the interview process and idiosyncratic interviewer practices. You can read more about that here, if you wish.

You can use the time with a candidate wisely. Here are some key findings from past research, which you can apply in your organization to help avoid decision making errors that come with too much information.

  • Make sure you have the job description for the role finalized. Be sure it is accurate and up to date. Jobs will evolve and “reshape” over time, be sure that all of the current tasks and responsibilities are captured.
  • Utilize the job description to hammer out a set of meaningful questions. I would suggest a set of core questions about the job in question. Use “critical incidents” for the job as a basis for questions. These are behaviors that separate excellent employees from the pack.
  • Pose the same questions to all the candidates for a specific position. This allows a comparison of answers after all of the interviews are completed – a fascinating process.
  • Use behaviorally anchored rating scales to evaluate core areas of skill or knowledge. This process helps make ratings concerning candidates more straight forward. Learn more about that here.
  • Train interviewers to convey accurate (and realistic) information about the job and the organization. That way a candidate can decide if there is a real fit between person and job. If possible offer an RJP (Realistic Job Preview) before the interview begins.
  • Have more than one interviewer evaluate a candidate. A panel works well if you have the manpower. More than one view of a candidate can begin an active discussion about a candidate’s qualifications for the job in question.
  • Train interviewers to delay a decision until after the interview and all important candidate information is reviewed. A little time and reflection can go a long way.

Interviews aren’t going away – that’s a given. Let’s apply what we know about improving interviews and consistently move them out of a “fossilized” status.

About the Author: Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist, blending psychology and business for the 21st century. You can read her blog posts on The Blend. Reach Marla by via Twitter.

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  • Hiring is a human decision based on relationships, not statistics.  Gestalt and work-ethic are two very different things, and an hiring decision is a complex one.  I admire your push for fairness in the interview process but would like to hear more about the psychology behind the decision, from the hiring manager’s perspective.

    • That’s a great idea Chris. And funny you should mention that because I have a blog post in the works on that subject… the decision from different points of view.

    • Anonymous

      Here, here! I agree.  I provide interview preparation training all the time and regardless of the validity of it or not, interviewing is the one element that will continue to exist in the process for one reason– We do not hire robots, thus interviewing cannot be automated. While everything else will go to automation, I think there are other dynamics to consider than just “validity”. If I am a hiring manager, I would want to look that person in the eye and know who it is I’m considering for hire. Anyone can look good on paper and with the rising trend of people paying professionals to develop their resumes, why role the dice and not know who it is you are getting? While there may be some merit in the question of validity (because no method is perfect) it would be foolhardy to hire someone based on what they have on paper alone and not see them face-to-face.