Image: still from The Devil Wears Prada. Image source.
The New York Times recently pointed out just how useless job interviews are — using the example of a friend that was given a job because her future employers were impressed by how composed she was after turning up 25 minutes late. Except that she had been told the wrong time by half an hour and definitely wouldn’t have been the composed type had she actually been aware. In this case then, the employer “would have been wrong to assume that her behaviour in the interview was indicative of her future performance at the job.”
Apparently this is a fairly widespread problem too. “Employers like to use free form, unstructured interviews in an attempt to ‘get to know’ a job candidate,” writes Jason Dana. The problem here being that “interviewers typically form strong but unwarranted impressions about interviewees, often revealing more about themselves than the candidates.” Surprisingly, this isn’t a new revelation either.
Way back in 1979, for example, the Texas Legislature required the University of Texas Medical School at Houston to increase its incoming class size by 50 students late in the season. The additional 50 students that the school admitted had reached the interview phase of the application process but initially, following their interviews, were rejected. It was later found that those students did just as well as their classmates in terms of attrition, academic performance, clinical performance and honours earned. In other words, the judgment of the interviewers added nothing of relevance to the admissions process whatsoever.
According to newer research conducted by Jason Dana and his colleagues, the problem of interviews isn’t only one of irrelevance. In fact, they found that “they can be harmful, undercutting the impact of other, more valuable information about interviewees.” Their findings were essentially that the subjective nature of interviews can skew predictions — in this case about other students’ grade point averages for the following semester.
Asking some of the interviewees to respond randomly, their key psychological insight here was that “people have no trouble turning any information into a coherent narrative. This is true when, as in the case of my friend, the information (i.e., her tardiness) is incorrect. And this is true, as in our experiments, when the information is random. People can’t help seeing signals, even in noise.” All of this is on top of the fact that an interview isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of someone’s overall skill set or day-to-day personality either.
So what’s the solution then? One option would be to ditch unstructured interviews and replace them with situations in which candidates receive the same questions. But given that the current free form approach is unlikely to go away anytime soon, Dana suggests that interviewers “be humble about the likelihood that our impressions will provide a reliable guide to a candidate’s future performance.” In other words, be wary of judging a book by its cover (or, in this case, its synopsis).
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