Many job interviews go something like this: The hiring manager gets a feel for the candidate by asking a series of open-ended questions. What’s been your biggest challenge at work? What do you like to do for fun? Tell me about yourself.
The interviewer lays out the questions in whatever way they see fit. There’s no script for what should be asked or in what order.
This is what researchers call an “unstructured interview” and it’s a popular way to hire. But studies show these kinds of interviews don’t actually predict candidates’ success on the job.
In fact, the typical unstructured interview has the lowest correlation between performance in an interview and eventual performance on the job, said Siri Chilazi, a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s women and public policy program.
“The first piece of advice that I give to organizations is either ditch the interview, which none of them are going to do, or reduce the importance of the interview. Add other types of assessments like work sample tests,” Chilazi said.
When managers have the freedom to shape the interview process, too many end up picking candidates who remind them of themselves. And when the majority of people in power in corporate workplaces are white and male, those hires tend to be white and male, too. To make hiring fairer, managers need to limit the influence of subjective biases by questioning their own assumptions about how to determine who is the best candidate.
Here are four simple but effective ways to rethink how a job interview should go:
1. Don’t rely on open-ended questions to assess people’s talent.
Unstructured interviews are generally useless because we’re wired to create meaning out of people’s answers, even when those answers are not related to the job.
In a study by researchers at Yale University, interviewers were asked to predict students’ grades after conducting unstructured interviews. The students purposefully gave random answers to the questions, but the interviewers still said they felt confident they’d learned a lot about each student and could accurately predict their grades.
The researchers believe that this excessive degree of confidence results from our susceptibility to “sense-making,” a desire to impose order on events so strong that we will make up stories to explain random sequences.
“If you’re asking people different questions, how can you really calibrate their answers fairly?”
In fact, even when interviewers were told the answers were random in a separate experiment, the majority still reported feeling like a random-answer interview was better than no interview.
The study concluded that impressions from unstructured interviews can drown out information that is actually valid. “Our simple recommendation for those making screening decisions is not to use [unstructured interviews],” the researchers wrote.
To better design an interview, Chilazi said all candidates should be asked the same questions in the same order. “If you’re asking people different questions, how can you really calibrate their answers fairly?” she said.
The order matters because we hear information differently depending on when it comes to us. Chilazi gave the example of a candidate who performed so-so on the first three questions and aced the last two. “If you wait until the end of the interview to grade that candidate, your brain unconsciously is going to over-weight the last two questions and cause you to overall evaluate that candidate over-positively,” she said.
Critics might object that sticking to a script can make the whole process robotic. But telling candidates upfront what you’re doing can alleviate the awkwardness. Chilazi suggested the interviewer can easily say, “In order to be as fair towards all candidates as we can, we ask everyone the same set of questions, so I’m going to stick closely to the script. After we’re done with these questions, you’re welcome to ask me anything you’d like, and that won’t be part of the formal evaluation.”
2. Don’t assume everyone on your hiring team understands what a good question and a good answer is.
To keep subjective judgments like “not a good fit” from entering the hiring process, diversity and inclusion consultant Jennifer Tardy said managers need to keep interview questions tied to the value a candidate brings to the job, “meaning what knowledge, skills and abilities can they bring to this role to meet the minimum qualifications.”
Consider as well what new perspectives the candidate offers the company. “How can they help to increase our collective spectrum of perspectives?” as Tardy put it, because that can “make the organization more competitive” by “filling some of the blind spots.”
Before interviews even happen, she said, the hiring committee needs to come together to ask themselves, “‘What does a good answer look like? And what does an answer that’s not aligned to our organization, what does that look like?’ And [make] sure the whole interview team understands that before going into the interview.”
Employers also need to train interview teams on how to give relevant, meaningful and specific feedback on their candidate choices, she said.
“No one is allowed to walk away from the interview team saying, ‘Oh, this is not a good fit.’ That doesn’t help anyone,” Tardy said, adding that the right way includes being specific on what requirements the candidate did and didn’t meet.
When computer consulting firm Appirio redesigned its hiring process, each team received an interview guide particular to their area of the business so that interviewers would ask questions based on attributes relevant to the job instead of whatever questions they liked best. Appirio reports that standardizing the process led to greater job candidate satisfaction in surveys and increased the race and gender diversity of staff hires.
3. Get rid of group interviews so people don’t unfairly influence each other.
Make sure interviews are done one-on-one. The pressure of groupthink makes it very difficult for two people to come to two independent assessments of a candidate if they conduct the interview together.
When evaluators do conduct interviews together, they unconsciously try to analyze what the other interviewer is thinking about the candidate, interpreting cues like whether their colleague is taking notes or nodding along with the candidate, Chilazi said.
It’s also important to have interviewers submit their scores independently so they’re not influencing each other’s choices.
4. Don’t rely on an interview to tell you if a candidate is capable. Look at samples of their work.
Instead of questioning the candidate about their skills, ask them for samples of their work ― or set them some sort of task that is designed to mimic the job as closely as possible.
For example, if you’re evaluating someone for a technical position like an engineer who needs to know how to code, “instead of interviewing them about how they code, have them just code a couple of sample problems,” said Chilazi. That’s an evidence-based way to reduce interviewing biases, she said.
And a more reliable way to hire someone who can succeed in the job you hired them for.