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Should you trust job interviews to bring in the best talent?

Aug 31, 2009 Business Daily, Management

“When researchers considered a meta-analysis – a broad study incorporating data from every scientific work ever conducted in the field – they found that there’s only a small correlation between first-date (unstructured) job interviews and job performance. The marks managers give job candidates have very little to do with how well those candidates actually perform on the job.”

Ori and Rom Brafman, Sway (2008)

The Brafman brothers have written a fascinating book about how we make decisions, and the unseen behavioural forces that ‘sway’ us away from logical thinking. One of these is the ‘diagnostic bias’. The world bombards us with too many variables and too much information. We are only able to make decisions by simplifying and inventing our own categories. We diagnose a situation or a person quickly, based often on experience. Or we tell ourselves that we have a great ‘instinct’, or ‘gut-feel’ for situations.

But more often than not our diagnosis is plain wrong. There is a price to pay for these mental shortcuts.

Consider the job interview. This is a staple of management practice: when you are considering hiring someone, you invite them to a relatively unstructured interview in which you pose some general questions like, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” or “What are your key goals in life?” What you are trying to do is gauge whether the candidate will “fit” with the company, or conforms to some preset notion of the “ideal” employee for the post.

And so we ask these banal questions and hope they will reveal some insights about the person sitting opposite. Of course, we imagine that we have a superior instinct for gauging whether the candidate is “right” – but mostly we’re just victims of our own diagnostic biases. CEOs are the worst at this, in my experience: they are convinced that they can spot a winner in a few minutes, but they are usually just looking for someone in their own image, or someone they don’t find threatening. In fact, many people who become ultimate leaders have a hard time equating success with anything other than their own personality types.

The reality is that first impressions can be totally wrong. You have just a few minutes to decide, and the applicants put on their best show, so it isn’t really surprising that we get swayed by many hidden things. Some people can just sell themselves better. And let’s never forget the tendency, much documented, for male employers to give an unspoken preference to a good-looking female candidate.

We are all swayed by many things: looks, appearance, dress sense, accent, name of university attended. Few of these things are likely to have any correlation to future success in the job on offer, but they are the things that affect the outcome. So watch out: you may tell yourself you’re being entirely objective, but you may be fooling yourself more than anyone.

So what should be done? Experts suggest that you should ensure you are placing as much weight on objective facts as you are on subjective judgement. Keep the open-ended questions to a minimum, and ask very specific questions about skills and experience. Test mental ability, and place applicants in exercises that mimic the work environment and the decisions they will actually have to make. Be as specific as possible on the attributes needed in the job. Have a trial period, or an apprenticeship, where an employee’s real performance can be evaluated.

Consider this: in 1984, the Portland Trail Blazers had the chance to pick a certain basketball player for their team. They overlooked him. Their selection technique told them to pick someone else. The name of the player they rejected was Michael Jordan.

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