UK: The science of professional interviewing.

UK: The science of professional interviewing. - While it is not fair to say that gut feeling and chemistry have no place in the interview room, they should certainly take a back seat to planning and preparation.

by Judith Oliver.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

While it is not fair to say that gut feeling and chemistry have no place in the interview room, they should certainly take a back seat to planning and preparation.

Are you good interviewer? Chances are, if you've had no formal interview training but reckon you are a pretty good judge of character, then the answer is probably not. In untrained hands, interviews are a pretty useless selection tool, warns Angela Baron, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). 'To be honest, you might as well toss a coin as rely on a typical unstructured interview conducted by an untrained interviewer,' she states.

Studies, however, confirm that more than 90% of SMEs conduct interviews when recruiting. And a survey by Industrial Relations Services (IRS), suggests that almost 70% of employers still believe interviews represent the very best method of selection. Interviews seem to be here to stay.

Can they be made to be more effective?

If properly focused and analysed, interviews can be very effective, says Gareth Roberts, IPD-registered consultant and author of the IPD book Recruitment and Selection. 'Obviously, sitting down with a candidate for an unprepared chat and without a clear specification for the job being sought may not yield a particularly good result,' he suggests. 'But, if the interview is properly prepared, has a clear focus, and is undertaken by skilled people, then it can work well.'

Moreover, the majority of candidates expect an interview. An interview is a two-way process, which can help candidates formulate a realistic picture of what it would be like to work for your company, and vice versa.

Certain kinds of interview (in which the selector is geared more to responding to candidates' potential questions than asking questions) can prove effective in 'hooking' candidates.

Planning and preparation are the key components of good interviewing technique. Interviews should be held somewhere private, where it is possible to converse without interruptions or extraneous noises. Avoid extremes of heat, cold or light intensity. Indicate the candidate's seat clearly to him or her so that there is no confusion.

There is no golden rule about the appropriate number of interviewers for an interview. Research does not prove conclusively that panel interviews are more effective than one-to-one interviews. It is important, however, to involve the prospective candidate's direct boss at some point. However objective the interview may be, the chemistry between the new hire and his or her boss must be right.

Yet the most common interviewing mistake, says Baron, is to rely on 'chemistry' and gut feeling in preference to a well-planned, structured interview.

Most untrained interviewers favour unstructured interviews in which they pose their favourite questions, based on the application form, work history, aspirations, personal circumstances etc. The disadvantages of the unstructured interview are that it relies heavily on the ability of the interviewer, particularly in terms of assessment skills; it is inconsistent; difficult to control; and can too easily stray into areas of possible discrimination.

(See box for examples of questions to be avoided.)

Research proves that structured interviews are significantly more effective than unstructured ones. Structured interviews fall into two types: situational interviews and behavioural interviews. In the former, the candidate is asked to put him or herself into some hypothetical situation and asked how he or she would handle it: what would you do if ...? In the behavioural interview, the candidate is asked to recall specific examples from his or her past experience: what did you do when ...?

The advantage of structured interviews, whether situational or behavioural, is that they are a far more effective predictor of performance than the unstructured interview. Provided the interviewer has some training, structured interviews provide a 60% or 70% chance of making a good selection (compared to 50% for unstructured interviewing ), says Baron. Moreover, structured interviews are generally better perceived by candidates, who feel that the interview has been more relevant and thorough.

Prior to the interview, the employer should draw up an accurate job description and person specification, which outline the personal attributes, experience, skills and competencies required for the job.

It is worth remembering, however, that not all competencies can be explored by interview alone. The chances of making good recruitment decisions can be increased by adopting additional methods ranging from assessment centres to psychometric testing (personality tests). But, says Baron, any company can increase the predictive power of the interview by including a short, practical work test. Giving potential typists, for example, a structured interview plus a typing test increases the chance of recruiting an appropriate employee to 80%.

Preparing a person specification, conducting a structured interview and posing a work test are three practical ways to make interviews more effective.

One further practical tip, says Baron, is for the interviewer to undertake some interview training (offered by organisations ranging from the IPD to local TECs or Chambers of Commerce). 'Many employers make classic errors,' she says. These include: asking closed questions, which elicit yes/no answers; giving insufficient time for answers; making snap judgments; and losing focus.

It is important for the interviewer to maintain control of the interview, encouraging reticent candidates to provide more detail, or restricting the output of more garrulous candidates. Interviewers should bring interviews to a firm and decisive close, having checked that there are no gaps of information. Candidates should be invited to ask questions or offer any other information that has not been covered, which he or she thinks important.

The candidate should receive clear guidance on what will happen next.

Judging the candidate should not take place until the interview has been completed. As soon as the interview is over, the interviewer should take time to conduct an evaluation rather than stepping straight into the next interview. A scoring system, particularly one linked to competencies, will help enormously.

There is no need for a 'bad interview'. Following some key principles and adopting them as good habits will help improve interviewing effectiveness (see box) and make interviews more productive for all concerned.

BE PREPARED AND ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Do this

- Train all interviewers on the avoidance of sex bias.

- Issue written guidelines to the interviewers

- Be prepared. Have a check list ready to ensure you cover all the areas you want to and get all the information you need

- Relate questions to the job. Where it is necessary to assess whether personal circumstances will affect performance, discuss this objectively and avoid assumptions about marital status, children and domestic obligations.

For example, a proper question would be 'You will occasionally be required to work until 7pm at short notice. Will you be able to do that?' rather than 'What would you do about your child if you had to stay late at the office?'

Any questions intended to find out whether the individual can meet the needs of the job in hours, overtime, mobility etc, should be asked equally of men and women

- Base assessments, wherever possible, upon factual evidence of past performance, behaviour and achievements

- If possible, arrange for a candidate to be judged by a panel rather than by one person alone

- Take notes. No one has a perfect memory

- Ask open-ended questions using who, what, when, tell me more, describe, etc

- Record why each candidate was or wasn't appointed Review records of interview for possible sex/marital status discrimination

Don't do this

- Make decisions based only on impressions formed during the interview

- Rely on the facts rather than generalised hunches

- Ask any questions concerning: marital status, number/age of children, spouse's employment, parents' occupations or potentially discriminatory questions such as: Do you have a partner? Who do you live with? Do you suffer any 'female ailments'? Are you planning to get engaged or married? Are you pregnant? Do you intend to start a family?

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