27th March 2015

Interview or Toss a Coin – Which is Better?

Observation 1: The Interview Process is not Science!

The process of interviewing someone as part of a selection process is not a science; there is no sure fire methodology that will ensure you will get a defined and guaranteed outcome from applying a certain input or stimulus.  The whole process of selection is about risk minimisation, where we seek to identify pros and cons that improve the probability of selecting the best right candidate. We believe there are four core elements to the selection process and in this article, we’ll address just the first one and come back to the others in future writings.

  1. The Interview – Useful but imperfect; I’ll talk about that below
  2. Reference Checking – Asking previous employers or colleagues about the person – also useful but also imperfect (everyone can seem to be the perfect employee in hindsight!)
  3. Psychometric testing – Science or voodoo?  It seems there is a wide range of views on this and it is a subject for another day
  4. Assessment – Role-plays, case-studies, In-basket simulations – also useful but also debated in terms of merit and practicality
  5. Background Checks (Police/Credit/Social Media etc.) – Useful too, though they can raise questions of relevance and privacy.

There’s no doubt that the best way of assessing a person’s suitability would be to get them to do the job and after a while decide if they are good or not.  Unfortunately this is generally not practical, cost effective, fair or probably legal in many cases.  Assessments can be a pretty good surrogate but are not always practical. Probation periods can be used for this too, but these can be costly and are a little unfriendly if you’re looking for a committed employment arrangement to start (have a go, we’ll see if we like you).

Observation 2: We trust the Interview too much!

The key consideration is how much weight we give to the interview, compared to each of the other selection tools. I suggest we give it far too much weight – particularly when we reflect on how imprecise the interview assessment is likely to be. Why is this? I think fundamentally we want to trust our own judgement above other inputs. We might not ignore contrary indicators, but my experience has been that recruiting managers might downplay these in preference for their own perceptions from the interview…let’s face it, we have a certain attraction to our own views!

Observation 3: The devil’s in the extraneous variables

The challenge when one person is seeking to understand another, with little or no prior knowledge of them or relationship with them, and in a fixed limited time frame, is that the perception of one of the other is significantly impacted by many variables, here are some…..

  1. Unconscious Bias. The deep rooted beliefs and values we all have and that inform our perspective. There’s plenty of argument on this too – but I think we can all acknowledge that we carry biases that we don’t consciously admit (or maybe even realise)
  2. Conscious Bias.  Some people do have ‘em! – I know, I know –   much of it is illegal and wrong and probably won’t show up on the surface, but it can exist and really influence judgement.
  3. Halo Effect. We like people who are like us (why not, we’re good people right?).
  4. State of Mind. We don’t perceive people the same way when there are different circumstances. If we are tired, stressed or distracted, we are less focused, thorough or objective than if we are rested, relaxed and mindful; this can impact our assessment of the person. The same applies for the performance of the candidate in the interview. We have all interviewed well (and badly) because of these types of factors.
  5. Environment. Is the location too noisy, too bright, too dark, and uncomfortable? This can impact focus and comfort and therefore perception.
  6. The Skill of the Interviewer. This interviewing thing can be a little harder than it looks, but not everyone believes that. It can be a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

So before we even start to ask interview questions we have potential for an unreliable outcome because of all these variables. So how do we reduce the variability?

We can devise methods and structures to help.

Solution: Restraining the Devil: Structure, Method and Mastery

There has been lots of good work done to develop methodologies that should enhance our ability to get the best possible result from an interview. Perhaps the most well-known and applied is the Behavioural Based Questioning technique applied in a Behavioural Event Interview. The logic being that “Past behaviour and performance is the best predictor of future behaviour and performance”.  No doubt we should all use these methods. When used effectively by skilled interviewers, the probability of getting a more objective and effective insight into the candidate is significantly enhanced. It also goes some way to eliminating many of the variables (but not all of them, and not all of the time). So this is all good…. but if the variables come into play, the effectiveness of these methods can still be jeopardised… so what’s the answer – just toss a coin?

Mastery – The Cook vs the Chef – The Secret Sauce?

Here is where I venture into shark infested waters. My hypothesis is that the solution to improving the reliability of the interview is the combination of two things:

  1. An effective, tested and proven approach (e.g. Behavioural Questioning); and
  2. The experience and knowledge of the interviewer

The skill is not in just asking the right question; it’s in extracting and interpreting the answer. The experienced interviewer doesn’t like or dislike, they observe and interpret. They can see a pattern of behaviour and responses that reflect similar patterns of successful people or those that have not succeeded. The right questions are really important, but simply asking the question and noting the answer may not be enough. Understanding the nuances and subtleties, the non-verbal cues, and broader context is critical. These skills are learned from experience – it can’t be taught.

A good example of this is the chef who no longer weighs his ingredients for special dishes – they just add by feel and test by taste. Following a recipe may give you or me a good result, but we are unlikely to be able to replicate what we ate in a restaurant.  We all know that a master chef will add excellence….because they know how, their experience has given them the mastery to know when it is right and when it is not. This in not intuition or gut-feel, this is learned mastery.  It’s the Secret Sauce!

Beating the Coin Toss – Managing the odds in your favour

The keys to effective selection are:

  1. Use as many of the selection tools as you can.  Each one incrementally improves the validity of the assessment process and the likely success of your selection.
  2. Weight the tools realistically. If you are or have a very skilled and experienced interviewer, weight the interview highly – if you don’t – don’t. (Remember interviewing is a bit like driving – most people think they are much better at it than they actually are – count yourself in that group!)
  3. Be objective. Accept what the data tells you – consciously work to avoid your biases

So if your only selection tool is the interview, if you don’t have a structured method, and you’re not very experienced, you may as well find a few people you like and toss a coin. It will have about the same odds of success and save you a bit of time (until you have to fix up what you have done!)

If you see the need to improve the odds in your favour and you’re not sure how to make it happen. Talk to your friendly neighbourhood HR Consultant, they can help. If you don’t know one and you’re in Australia or New Zealand we’d be happy to fill that gap… give us a call.

Greg Cox
Partner & Joint Managing Director

Categories: Uncategorised

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