When it comes to the question of how useful job interviews are for employers seeking to hire new talent, there’s a pretty big divide in opinion between laypeople and psychological experts. Most laypeople believe interviews — particularly open-ended, so-called “unstructured” ones — are a great way to get a better sense of who a job candidate is, and perhaps pick up on skills and characteristics that might not come across in a résumé or cover letter.
Many organizational psychologists and other researchers see things differently: They’re actually opposed to unstructured interviews. That’s because these are very, very “noisy” types of exchanges; humans aren’t great at forming accurate first impressions, and it’s very easy for the hiring party to be led astray by an interview. There’s some evidence, in fact, that, on net, unstructured interviews make employers worse at hiring the best candidates because they inject so much noise and useless-but-important-seeming information into the process.
The latest version of this argument ran in the New York Times last weekend: In a column running down some of the research on this question and arguing against unstructured interviews, Jason Dana, an assistant professor of management and marketing at the Yale School of Management, discusses one particularly telling experiment he and some colleagues conducted. In it, they “had student subjects interview other students and then predict their grade point averages for the following semester.” The interviewers were given the interviewees’ GPAs and specifically told that this was the single best predictor of future academic performance. They were also asked to predict the grades of students they hadn’t met, based only on their GPAs.
The interviewees effectively ignored the advice about using GPAs as a guidepost and put too much faith in their ability to divine their peers’ future grades from interviews. “In the end, our subjects’ GPA predictions were significantly more accurate for the students they did not meet,” Dana wrote. “The interviews had been counterproductive.”
It gets worse. Unbeknown to our subjects, we had instructed some of the interviewees to respond randomly to their questions. Though many of our interviewers were allowed to ask any questions they wanted, some were told to ask only yes/no or this/that questions. In half of these interviews, the interviewees were instructed to answer honestly. But in the other half, the interviewees were instructed to answer randomly. Specifically, they were told to note the first letter of each of the last two words of any question, and to see which category, A-M or N-Z, each letter fell into. If both letters were in the same category, the interviewee answered “yes” or took the “this” option; if the letters were in different categories, the interviewee answered “no” or took the “that” option.
Strikingly, not one interviewer reported noticing that he or she was conducting a random interview. More striking still, the students who conducted random interviews rated the degree to which they “got to know” the interviewee slightly higher on average than those who conducted honest interviews.
None of the interviewers even noticed this random aspect. Even when they were being given information that was garbage, they were convinced they could pull meaning from it.
Now, in the published research, Dana and his colleagues note that there might be useful nuggets contained in interviews; it’s just that people aren’t good at figuring out which ones they are. “It may be the case that for many screening decisions, there are one or two cues that are very important and could be garnered from nearly any interview (or without one), and that these cues predict better by themselves than the clinical judges who have access to them,” they write. “The substantial literature on interviews for employment screening, which already indicates that unstructured interviews are not particularly good, may thus even be overstating the validity of unstructured interviews.”
What’s likely going on is that interviews form a much stronger, more emotionally loaded impression than other, more useful information. You’re much more likely to remember interviewing someone than reading their résumé or cover letter; you’re much more likely to remember certain gut feelings, whether positive or negative. And the stuff you remember or react to probably isn’t the same as the actually useful cues Dana and his colleagues are referring to; you’re sort of taking a shot in the dark by assuming you can suss out useful information from an interview. And no matter how many times people are told that these gut feelings will very often lead them astray, it’s very hard to ignore them. People aren’t robots — it doesn’t feel right to make a decision like hiring based on cold, sterile-seeming criteria.
At the very least, however, Dana suggests that employers would be wise to adopt structured rather than unstructured interviews — that is, ask everyone the same questions in the same way, to snip out a bit of the bias and red herrings inherent to unstructured interviews. Or they should use that time for a test of actual job skills instead. That feels like sound advice.