‘Armchair psychology’ doesn’t make for good hiring choices

Too few interviewers receive proper training and even fewer are conducting structured interviews

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? Would you answer a sturdy oak or a flexible willow? A job candidate’s answer usually depends on which answer she thinks the interviewer wants to hear.

The problem with such informal, non-structured interview questions that vary from candidate to candidate is that too many people know how to answer these esoteric questions. And invariably, these types of questions don’t reveal whether or not the candidate is appropriate for the position, says University of Toronto professor David Zweig.

Structured interviews

In a structured interview, the interviewer asks each candidate the same questions in the same order and rates them objectively. “In the end it’s just a matter of adding up the scores to see who comes out the highest,” says Zweig.

A good structured interview is one that is developed from a job analysis, says Zweig. The questions will be designed to identify skills relevant to the position and should be behavioural or situational in nature.

A behavioural question asks the candidate for an example of what she has done in the past that demonstrates a particular skill, while a situational question asks the candidate what she would do in a hypothetical situation.

A structured interview requires anchored ranking scores, says Zweig. The interviewer needs to know how to rank a candidate’s answers on a scale of one to five. To do this, he must know what the ideal answer looks like (a five) versus a mediocre answer (a three) or a poor answer (a one or two).

Most people know what types of questions to expect in a non-structured interview and can prepare for them ahead of time. “They tell you nothing about the candidate,” says Zweig. “There’s no way to differentiate between bad applicants and good applicants.”

Zweig, a professor of organizational behaviour, recently published a three-year-long study, co-authored by University of Calgary professor Derek Chapman. They surveyed 592 interviewers from more than 500 Canadian and international organizations about the degree of structure used in interviews.

The study shows that trained interviewers are more standardized and formalized in their evaluation processes, Zweig says. They employ more sophisticated questioning strategies and are more consistent in their questioning practices. The study also identified four key factors to a structured interview: evaluation standardization, question consistency, question sophistication and rapport building.

One-third of interviewers received training

Structured interviews have shown to be eight times better than unstructured interviews at predicting whether or not a candidate will be good at her job, but only one-third of interviewers surveyed received any interview training, says Zweig.

“Even then, the type of training they received was more likely to be on issues of a legal matter, for example the types of questions they can’t ask, and not so much on how to conduct a structured, behavioural interview,” says Zweig. “The majority of people reported being very confident about their ability to pick the best candidates for the jobs, even though the majority of them were using unstructured interviews.”

This is a false sense of confidence, he says, stemming from the belief most interviewers have that they’re “armchair psychologists” and able to instantly and accurately sum-up a candidate’s potential.

Non-structured interviews lead to bias

Unfortunately, that belief often leads to the use of stereotypes in making hiring decisions, which can lead to interviewers falling into the “similar to me” effect — hiring candidates who are like them in gender, race and background, says Zweig.

Structured interviews minimize the influence of these biases by giving the interviewer a quantifiable score at the end of the process so he can accurately and fairly compare candidates.

Structured interviews are more difficult to conduct and therefore they require proper training. “That’s where HR has to play a critical role,” says Zweig. “They must be responsible for training those people on how to conduct interviews properly. HR must be doing the job analyses, identifying and creating behavioural interviews, creating scoring keys and training people on how to do it properly.”

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