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How We Fool Ourselves Into Bad Hiring

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”  ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Hiring the right person is not easy. No matter how much we’d like to think otherwise, good hiring is more art than science; and like many art forms, creative approaches abound.

A few weeks ago I happened to come across a Glassdoor tweet, linking to an article about the ‘hardest’ interview questions out there. Curious, I clicked through, and was involuntarily overcome with an acute episode of eye-rolling, due to the fact that by ‘hardest’, the writer actually meant ‘senseless’. I was further irritated to note that a former employer of mine was represented on this list, dutifully reported by the poor, unfortunate souls who had been subjected to this nonsense and lived to tell the tale.

Many of us will have encountered the “creative” interviewer, whether we’re surprised to find them sitting next to us in the middle of an interview with a prospective employee, or even worse, sitting across from us, evaluating our potential. For those who have not had the pleasure, you should be aware that you’re missing out on gems like these:

“How do you fit a giraffe in a fridge?”

“Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck sized horses?

“How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?”

“How many ways can you get a needle out of a haystack?”

“A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?”

But Why?!?

I’ve long had my own opinions about why some interviewers swear by these questions (because I certainly know some who do). It might be the lack of a clear picture of what they’re seeking in a candidate, a general discomfort with the interview format, the need to make themselves feel smarter than someone else, or a misguided belief that this type of question reveals some deep, otherwise hidden truth about a candidate’s tendencies. All of these might convince someone that asking whether a lion or tiger would win in a fight will produce the best data to support a hiring decision. But generally, I think it’s fair to say that unconventional interview questions serve as a kind of ‘interview kabuki’ that obscure the real decision-making criteria being applied: the interviewer’s gut feeling about the people they’re assessing.

So, for the sake of argument, why is that bad? It’s a fair question; there are lots of very senior and successful people that I’ve encountered who rely on this approach to hire people, and some prominent academics (like Malcolm Gladwell in his best-seller Blink) present evidence that split-second, ‘gut’ decisions based on our intuition are just as accurate, if not more, than what we consider to be well-supported, logical choices. So why care if our organizations hire people based on an individual’s intuition?

Mostly Because We Suck

The short answer is that we (as humans) completely suck at making hiring decisions based on instinct. And interviews are all about instinct, even when we tell ourselves they’re not. A recent LinkedIn post from Adam Grant explained the inadequacy of interviews thusly:

“Interviews are terrible predictors of job performance. Consider a rigorous, comprehensive analysis of hundreds of studies of more than 32,000 job applicants over an 85-year period by Frank Schmidt and Jack Hunter. They covered more than 500 different jobs— including salespeople, managers, engineers, teachers, lawyers, accountants, mechanics, reporters, farmers, pharmacists, electricians, and musicians—and compared information gathered about applicants to the objective performance that they achieved in the job. After obtaining basic information about candidates’ abilities, standard interviews only accounted for 8% of the differences in performance and productivity. Think about it this way: imagine that you interviewed 100 candidates, ranked them in order from best to worst, and then measured their actual performance in the job. You’d be lucky if you put more than eight in the right spot.”

Of course, if you want further evidence of the ineffectiveness of creative, unstructured interview questions, look no further than the masters of Big Data. As noted in a several recent articles, Google has admitted that it’s infamously challenging and often abstract interview questions are not at all helpful in the quest to hire the best.

“Google has admitted that the headscratching questions it once used to quiz job applicants (How many piano tuners are there in the entire world? Why are manhole covers round?) were utterly useless as a predictor of who will be a good employee.”

“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time,” Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, told the New York Times. “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

Yikes. Let’s hope the companies on that Glassdoor list are taking lessons from Google’s admission, because despite this disconcerting news, all is not lost. Adam Grant also notes in his article than interviews can at least be made to suck slightly less than they usually do in predicting quality of hire:

The good news is that interviews can be improved. Schmidt and Hunter found that whereas an unstructured interview only explains 8% of the variance in job performance, a structured interview explains 24%.”

Okay, so 24% is not a spectacularly confidence-inspiring number, but it’s a heck of a lot better than pretending that “What would you choose as your spirit animal?” will find you a winner. Thoughts?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. David McElhanon #

    Wisdom from Yogi Berra says “if you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up somewhere else.” Home runs are made by never taking your eye off of the ball. There are three basic performance models for staffing a position: those that can do a job, those that can’t do a job, and those that won’t do a job. The “can do a job” is the viable and successful option even though not all of the skill and experience requirements have been met (the potential and the right attitude exists). An applicant should also apply the same three performance models to the enterprise that invited them to interview. They should be interviewing an organization that can do the job of fulfilling their professional needs. The overall job of the enterprise is another discussion at a later time. The specific job of the enterprise at this moment is to determine the working relationship of this potential partnership based upon the interviewer’s knowledge of the organizational culture and expectations as well as the applicant’s personal needs of fulfillment.
    If both have their eye on the ball, this becomes a great opportunity to care for humanity through personal and collective efforts. If their eyes are off of the ball, they will find the giraffe in the fridge after the interview.

    August 7, 2013
  2. #

    Great post and that data is really useful, I am such a big fan of doing test and exercises and not just interviews. For me I don’t know how you can recruit someone, for example who has to write reports without seeing their work. Thanks for sharing!

    August 10, 2013

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