Interviewing

As commonly practiced, the traditional job interview is flawed. Alongside the recognised problems of bias and confirmation, lies the fact that we are cueing candidates to give us the answers we are looking for. Indeed, this may explain some of that bias: we provide more prompts to those we feel affinity with.

I don’t know if you have come across the phenomenon of cold reading. Derren Brown provides an excellent definition and illustration in Tricks of the Mind. It can appear that mediums and clairvoyants possess an uncanny, even occult insight into your private history. In reality they are reading your reactions by starting with broad, generic statements and then homing in as they see how you respond.

“I sense that someone in the audience is separated from a loved one…” Woman at the back looks up. “Yes, madam, I’m sensing a male, your father or” – no reaction – “brother… Yes, your brother.” They don’t look particularly sad. “I’m sensing they are still with us? Yes. But distant. Af… Am… Aus… Australia. You are missing your brother in Australia.”

In a typical job interview, your candidate is the medium and you are the mark. “I sense that someone on the panel is seeking a confident, self-starting team builder with experience at cross-org… no, cross-cultural working.”

Throughout a typical interview you are unconsciously prompting, confirming and guiding the candidates you want to succeed. If you are selecting for interpersonal empathy (or second sight), all well and good. If you are looking for other skills and characteristics, not so much.

It gets worse. Not only are you guiding in the moment, but the chances are you have structured the entire enquiry to give you the answers you are looking for. If you ask someone to “tell me about a time when you successfully built a team” or “managed a difficult conversation”, they will reach back into their memory and give you an example. It doesn’t mean these behaviours are characteristic. Most of us can find, adapt or embellish a single example of any behaviour from our career. It tells you absolutely nothing about how we typically behave.

Assessment centre exercises are usually more accurate than traditional interviews but can suffer from a similar challenge if not carefully designed. Almost anyone can force themselves to play nicely once during a group exercise with other candidates. It doesn’t mean they do that regularly during normal work, when no one senior is looking or when under stress and pressure. A well designed assessment centre therefore tries several different angles on the same characteristic.

To guard against cold reading, you have to reduce the feedback and responses you give candidates. This is very hard – people are usually nervous at interview and we all want to put them at their ease. We want people to succeed. Begin with warmth but then adopt a professionally neutral tone. It may be simplest to tell them exactly what you are doing and why. Resist the urge to nod, smile, finish their sentences, agree, glance knowingly at fellow panelists or digress into a ten minute lecture about how you handled exactly the same situation. If you must prompt, try neutral phrasing like “tell me more”. By all means give feedback at the end of the interview, of course, after you’ve completed the evaluation phase.

This may be an area in which new technology will offer advantages. Remote video interviews should allow fewer cues and pre-recorded ones no cues at all. You need to be ultra clear with your questions however.

In terms of the overall structure. Try to avoid “give me an example of x” type questions altogether. You do want detailed narratives of critical incidents but what you are interested in is what the candidate offers unprompted. If you spend 15 minutes listening to the high point of their career and they never mention the contribution of a single other person, you know something valuable about their attitudes to teamwork.

When I worked at Hay Group, they favoured two broad questions: “Tell me about a time when you felt particularly effective at work” and “Tell me about a significant challenge you faced at work”. They would often get candidates to talk for 30 to 45 minutes about a single incident with minimal prompts only to keep the narrative extended and focused.

The job interview already has a bad rep. This is well deserved. It is hard to imagine accepting someone without interviewing them but from design to conduct the traditional interview is saturated with cues that invalidate its accuracy. It’s like sitting an exam with the answers posted on the wall and the invigilator whispering clues.


As an aside, the relationship between management constructs and conjuring tricks or mystical paraphernalia is worth exploring. Management is still a craft and, with honourable exceptions, vulnerable to pseudoscience. For another recent example of this concern see Matt Hood and Neil Gilbride’s discussion of “bunkum and divination” in Schools Week, March 23rd. What is of interest to me is the enduring attraction of these oracles and auguries. They must be fulfilling a very deep need.

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