Why I hate Interviews –
TLDR: Work together to righten unfair power bases!
I know that they are a necessity. I know that they are standard practice for any recruitment approach. I know that interviews are the basic foundation of first impressions, even if other interactions (such as CV’s or assessments) have been actively pursued and considered. I know all that, and I practice all that in my company’s approach to recruitment. I even advise others to ensure that they include interviews in their approach to recruitment – or that they actively consider the role that the interview is playing in the process of decision making.
And yet I hate interviews. In as much as I advocate for them, I also am fully aware of the limitations of this assessment instrument.
Wait. What? Did I just say, “assessment instrument”?
Yes, indeed I did. When looking at psychological tools and techniques, it can often come across as a touch surprising to see that interviews are on there – on the list – along with more obvious psychological acts. When considering the interview, we have to consider what kind(s) of information it is created for in extracting and eliciting from the interviewee. There is little doubt that interviews are used as projective tools – to glean an expectation of responses and actions that the person is likely to allude towards when asked specific kinds of questions. This implies understanding behaviour from answers and using that idea of behaviour to further expand upon behavioural expectations and actions. Sounds very “psychologicky” from that perspective, no?
Some may say, this is far-fetched. I ask then, what other point or purpose could an interview have that falls outside the boundaries of standard competency-based questions? The answer, I believe, is multifaceted, however I will focus on just three.
Firstly, and obviously most biased, is first impressions. Interviews are designed to provide the opportunity for first engagement. This gives us an exponential amount of information in a very short space of time – data of which is not merely related to content-driven answers. If that were the case, we would simply send through our construct-based or competency-founded questions and ask them to write an essay on each. Instead, we call in these people to see their answers. To see the way in which they respond to our prompts, pressures, and stress inducing questioning. The act of seeing pre-empts the act of experiencing. We want to experience the other person. Just like in speed-dating, we are feeling out what we see and superimposing that into a pre-conceived mould. We are feeling the vibe of the person, allowing our intuition to guide whether or not we can trust them, whether or not we can expect them to be responsible, accountable, take ownership, be energetic, be positive, stay controlled, stay focused, engage, differentiate, and all sorts of other intangible aspects of personality that we don’t fully gauge until we see it with all of our senses. First impressions can take up a minimal amount of time to fully suss-out, and yet they are the longest lasting – meaning that potential applicants often place too much pressure on themselves to perform in this category of the interview rubric.
The process of distinguishing first impressions, can therefore be quite a subjective and biased experience. Understanding one’s own biases, and the undercurrents of understanding the interviewees’ biases, are predominantly psychological acts. A psychologist can pursue an approach which is more objective simply by knowing that their training has invested in them a willingness to float judgment. This does not imply ability to float judgement – simply a more pronounced willingness to observe, take note, and apply as much objective judgement upon receiving a holistic impression. By knowing that this unconscious process is happening, one can more easily discern which decisions are marred or reinforced by first impressions
Secondly, interviews serve the purpose of understanding underlying intentions or motivations. The question most commonly asked is “why are you applying to XYZ?” This seems very obvious a question. And many would vouch for this line of questioning with the response that, yes, of course, you need to know that this person has honest intentions to join the organisation and serve its values and service features.
My question for this, however, is does it honestly make a difference? Think of the kind of person looking for a job. There are only a handful of reasons that can generate enough motivation to move from one place to another. It might be that the person does not have a job. In which case, yes, they are actively seeking employment. And what might his/her answer be to “why are you applying to XYZ?”. It will not be “because this is an awesome company and I see a lot of opportunities for me to add value” – as much as we wish the answer would honestly be that. The person is unemployed! They are seeking employment, and honestly so long as their minimum expectations are met (salary being the only real one at this point in time), they will work almost anywhere! Survival is a driver that not many people can override.
Then you have the person who is employed, and now gets asked the question “why are you applying to XYZ?” What kind of answers can we expect from this person? There is the honest answer – I hate my boss; we’re going to be undergoing retrenchments soon; I’m dreadfully unhappy with the current status-quo (often generated by the actions of the boss so quid-pro-quo aligned with answer number 1); the company is going under; I’m trying to boost my ego by making you realise how awesome I am and then denying you the chance to have me on your team; I’m not meeting my performance goals (because they are set at an unfair level / resources aren’t available for me to meet them so I’m being blamed rather than getting a bigger budget / favouritism means I’m being sabotaged / I’m not given any support in the department because I alienated my colleagues because I’m too competitive and now they want to destroy me etc.); and then maybe – just maybe – a favourable answer may emerge with “I’m bored and require a new challenge” (ie: my boss isn’t going to die any time soon and otherwise will stay put for the next 10 years which means I’ve hit a very hard glass ceiling – unless I’m willing to engage in murderous antics of which I’m obviously not (although I have considered the possibility)).
Of all of these answers, the candidate will try very hard to flatter the organisation and express how much they were honestly drawn to working there with good intentions of fulfilling their dreams. Unless you are Disney, Microsoft, or a few key other organisations the likes of which Silicon Valley can characterise, this is unlikely. As such, the interview gives the opportunity to enter into detective-mode and suss out the actual reason why a person is seeking out employment (nevermind employment at your company). This means delving into the psyche of the person and slowly painting a picture of their circumstances and them within those circumstances.
Lastly, interviews are not just an opportunity for the person to answer questions, but also for the person to ask questions. It is as much themselves interviewing others as it is them being interviewed. This is often not fully realised by candidates – and instead they revoke their own power and decision-making fact-finding because of the pressure to maintain “first impressions”, and hide “underlying motivations”. The short portion of the interview dedicated to asking questions becomes a quick exercise in “how much did this person analyse our website?” Instead of asking meaningful questions that may at times be a bit difficult for the interviewers to ask, the candidate instead goes for simple questions that they could easily answer based on the website’s (superficial) information. Some of these questions include things like: why did the previous person leave; what are the greatest challenges to achieving results at the organisation; what are the future expectations of the position’s longevity; what sustainable status is the organisation at; what are the positives and negatives of working for the boss; what kinds of conflicts arise most often in the team; how is performance approached at the organisation; how would you describe the status quo and interaction of employees and managers at the organisation – etcetera. By understanding the imbalance of power in interview circumstances, a psychologist should be able to right the imbalance somewhat by encouraging and engaging the interviewee around his/her thoughts and expectations of the role, and then willingly supplying some of the information that he/she may require making an informed decision.
These three explanations, I think, really explicate the psychological act of interviews. It is no wonder, therefore, that psychologists in the work place are expected to understand and appreciate the role of the interview – and also why the interview tool is used in other facets of psychological information exploration activities such as medico-legal work, exit interviews, and 360 degree analysis. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the interview is conducted in a rush, stuck in-between other meetings and other work tasks, and with only those available who absolutely need to be there according to company policy. How often is the psychologist included in the interview process? How often is HR the only one present to ask and record answers? How often are interviews merely a by-product of the recruitment process whilst remaining one of the larger decision-making inputs?
These questions, and their probable answers, may shed some light on why I hate interviews. But with reiteration of the question, I will try to refrain from rhetorical answers to illustrate my point. Simply put, the entire interview process is geared towards power in the hands of the questioner, while the questioned must dance around to maintain unsaid expectations and manage impressions. There needs to be an active bout of courage from the interviewee in order to take the small opportunity provided and flip the roles – ask questions that are meaningful, that will add to the context and data required to make a meaningful decision. In the same sense, the environment and the interviewers need to be open enough to give the gap that says “yes, it’s okay to ask us tough questions now that we’ve asked you a whole lot of tough questions”.
Interviews are not just about finding out if the candidate is right for the role and meets expectations. But also, just as importantly, for the candidate to find out if the organisation is right for them and can meet their expectations.
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I still think that interviews are an integral and essential part of the recruitment process. I don’t think that we give the interview enough of our attention and interest. And I think we need to concentrate on the kinds of structured questions that will give us the kinds of information that is truly meaningful to a decision. Don’t agree? Think I’m talking rubbish? Tell me more and we’ll talk!
Wonderwhiterabbit hopping off
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