Why job interviews don't work, according to a psychologist

A Japanese new graduate, who wishes to be called Shinji (R), speaks with a counsellor inside a compartment at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Labor Consultation Center in Tokyo in this April 8, 2010 file photo.

We automatically jump to all kinds of erroneous assumptions about a candidate from their appearance. Image: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Jacquelyn Smith
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For years and years, the standard method for vetting job candidates has been the in-person interview.

"But as it turns out, interviews are a disastrous tool for gauging potential," says Ron Friedman, a psychologist and author of "The Best Place To Work." "For one thing, it's because over 80% of people lie during interviews. That means the information you're collecting in an interview is suspect at best."

But even if everything you learned in a job interview was accurate, there'd still be reason to be wary, and it's because of the way our minds operate, he explains.

"We automatically jump to all kinds of erroneous assumptions about a candidate from their appearance," he says. "Studies show we view good looking people as more competent. We perceive tall candidates as having greater leadership potential. And we assume deep-voiced candidates are more trustworthy."

None of these evaluations are necessarily accurate, of course. "But here's the thing," Friedman says. "They affect the questions we ask during interviewers. And the way a question is phrased can make all the difference."

For example, if a hiring manager views you as being extroverted, they might say, "Tell me about your experience leading groups." But if they think you're shy or reserved, they might ask, "Are you comfortable leading groups?"

"Both questions attempt to gauge your potential, but they subtly shape your responses before you've said a single word," Friedman says. "And in most cases, they do so in a way that confirms my initial impression — which is typically wrong."

Friedman explains in his book that a good alternative — his "favorite technique that anyone can use to get a better read of a job candidate's potential" — is to create a job audition, rather than an interview. "Instead of asking a job candidate questions for an hour, design a job-relevant assignment that reflects the type of work the applicant will actually do, should they be hired," he suggests.

For example, if you're deciding on salespeople, have candidates sell you on your product. Or if you're hiring web designers, have them mock up a landing page. "This way your assessment is based on actual performance, not simply how charismatic a candidate is during an interview."

The problem is, he says, hardly any companies do this because when the time comes to fill a position, most managers are scrambling to fill a vacancy. "There's barely time to look through résumés, let alone design an assignment. That's why it's a good idea to have your existing team design assignments today — not after they've found their next position," he says. "This way you have an audition lined up when you need to make your next hire."

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