From science to practice

7 principles for conducting employment interviews
By Allen Huffcutt
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/03/2011

The interview process has always been an imperfect science. But in incorporating the following seven research-based principles, interviewers should find an improvement in the calibre of people hired.

Acknowledge the inherent difficulty of making judgments: Interviewers tend to have a reasonably high level of confidence in their ability to pick which candidates should be hired, particularly when they have past interviewing experience. However, outcome-based research indicates such confidence may be unfounded.

This is a reflection of the inherent difficulty of the interview process. Applicants spend a lifetime forming attributes such as knowledge, skills, abilities and personality tendencies, yet the interviewer has very little time to assess, evaluate and verify these.

Moreover, some applicants are reluctant to show these attributes in their typical state during an interview. Instead, they try to present them in their best possible form. And some candidates engage in tactics that are not directly related to the requirements of the position to enhance their standing — this can actually serve as a detraction.

Know as little about the candidate as possible: Of all the principles, this one may be the most counterintuitive.

Why would an interviewer not want to know a lot about a candidate before interviewing her? A three-step sequence of events often occurs when interviewers review candidate information beforehand, according to research by Robert Dipboye, chair of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla.

First, they form general impressions of the candidates. For instance, a candidate who graduated from a nationally recognized collegiate program would tend to be viewed more favourably than one who did not.

Second, during the interview, there is a tendency to shift from an objective, fact-finding mode to an “impression-confirming” mode. Interviewers show more positive regard, spend more time selling the organization and use fewer initial and followup questions with candidates for whom they have a positive pre-interview impression, according to studies. Third, the general impressions formed beforehand and often confirmed through selective treatment during the interview tend to have a fairly strong influence on the final interview ratings and outcomes.

Some might believe candidates with better credentials should be viewed more positively, so there is nothing wrong with reviewing candidate information beforehand. But an interviewer might not look deep enough to discover a candidate is not as desirable as her paperwork suggests. Conversely, it’s easy to discriminate against a candidate who does not look as good on paper but actually excels on the job.

If a small amount of information is reviewed beforehand, such as a degree that meets the minimal requirements, then these two sources of information remain relatively independent and have the potential to make unique contributions, according to researchers at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

In short, impressions and judgments should come from the interview itself and not from other sources such as candidate paperwork. HR managers can play a key role in the implementation of this principle by identifying the information interviewers actually need and ensuring they do not have access to the remaining information.

Avoid poor questions: Interviewers routinely ask questions that detract from the purpose of an interview. Many applicants anticipate questions such as “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and have prepared responses. Candidates who are totally honest in their responses to questions such as these could actually be at a disadvantage relative to those who give canned responses.

Interviewers should ensure each question relates directly to the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics associated with the position, based on a detailed job analysis.

Questions can also be developed from critical incidents, a form of job analysis where current employees or their supervisors are asked to describe actual scenarios where they observed someone in that position doing something that was very good or very bad.

Interviewers should also continually monitor the effectiveness of their questions. Even questions that appear to be directly job-related are not always successful. For instance, some questions may lead to canned responses or be particularly susceptible to applicant performance tactics.

Interviewers could consider using additional question types, such as those that ask candidates to describe a time when they displayed certain characteristics or indicate their response to a hypothetical scenario.

Use interview structure: Ratings from structured interviews have a much stronger association with job performance than ratings from more traditional interviews, according to several studies, and it generally takes between three and four traditional interviews to equal the accuracy of one structured interview, found researchers at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Interviewers should have a number of job-relevant questions at their disposal, to avoid any awkwardness or poor questions, based on research by Purdue University and the University of Houston in Houston, Texas. In terms of rating responses, leaving interviewers to make a general decision (such as to hire or not) does not tend to be as accurate as rating candidates along a set of clearly defined, job-relevant dimensions or rating the response to each question individually.

Avoid making early judgments: Researchers in social psychology have found a natural tendency for people to make evaluations of others quickly, even after only brief contact. An interviewer who makes a judgment early on may be using actual evidence but it is only a fraction of the total information available about a candidate.

Interviewers should appreciate this natural tendency and make a firm commitment to work on delaying their judgments. Like most skills, this takes time and practice so it might be useful for interviewers to think of themselves as investigative agents who do not arrive at a conclusion until every nook and cranny has been explored.

Watch for applicant performance effects: Candidates often engage in tactics designed to increase their standing with an interviewer. Such tactics include complimenting the interviewer or employer, overstating accomplishments and even outright fabrication, according to several studies.

This means people who don’t use these tactics are likely to be at a disadvantage even though they might be more desirable employees. A second danger is the wrong person may be hired, which can be costly to an organization.

The probability of candidates receiving a followup interview or a job offer rose from 31 per cent to 77 per cent if they used performance tactics, found researchers at the School of Business at Indiana University in Kokomo, Ind.

Interviewers should be aware of the extent to which candidates engage in such tactics and the potential influence they can have on the outcome of the interview.

Look for multiple sources of evidence: Based on the principle one piece of evidence is suggestive while multiple pieces of evidence are confirmatory, interviewers should strive to accumulate evidence for their judgments from as many different sources as possible, spanning multiple situations and multiple contexts.

This can mean, for example, asking about more than one instance where a candidate demonstrated initiative. These examples could come from different contexts within the same job, from other jobs and even from other settings (such as education, social organizations or hobbies).

Additional sources of evidence outside the interview could then corroborate the judgments and perceptions that arise from the interview, such as the resumé, references, psychological tests and other interviewers.

Any candidate can shine once but a consistent pattern suggests the attribute is truly one the candidate possesses.

By acknowledging their judgments are imperfect, knowing as little about candidates as possible, avoiding poor questions, using interview structure, avoiding making early judgments, watching for applicant performance effects and using multiple sources of evidence, interviewers should become more effective and improve the association their ratings have with performance on the job.

Doing so will require time and effort and an openness to change but research results suggest such an investment is worth it.

Allen Huffcutt is a professor and assistant chair of the department of psychology at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

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