Improving Interviews and the Candidate Selection Process (Part 1 of 4)

Most selection processes cannot accurately predict probability of performance. In most cases, the process relies solely upon three basic elements, and each is a poor predictor of performance.

In my previous article series, entitled What’s Wrong With Interviews, I outlined dozens of things wrong with the way most firms approach interviews. Because many organizations rely on only three elements (with interviews as the foundation), it is essential that other elements improve the validity of the overall process.

Unfortunately, the two other elements used do not improve the validity of the process significantly, and are open to as much if not more bias than the interview itself.

The three elements most common in screening and assessment processes include:

  1. Resume screening. This element is full of risk for a multitude of reasons, the most blaring of which is that a majority of resumes contain “misstatements” about accomplishments and the scope of the role being described. It is also proven that a candidate’s amount of free time and “r?sum? writing ability” significantly alters the outcome, such that top performers who invest little time in preparing a resume are not always selected.
  2. Interviews. The previous article series covered this element in depth. Suffice it to say, no one likes this element and it is full of bias.
  3. Reference checks. These can be hard to get, faked by friends or colleagues, and offer limited information of value because of privacy concerns.

All of that said, there is way too much loyalty to the status quo or antipathy toward change among many in our profession to abandon this process. Given the fact that most everyone is going to continue to use this three-step process, I recommend that you add to it in order to improve the accuracy of the overall selection process.

There are numerous simple, effective, and easy-to-use alternative screening elements that can increase screening accuracy. If you are interested in trying something new, here are several supplemental screening elements that will make a difference, provided you have the courage to try them.

Actual Work Review

  • Ask them to show samples of their work. If you’re going to hire a filmmaker or an artist, you would obviously ask them to bring copies of their art and films. Use the same approach when hiring individuals who must complete sophisticated work, reports, or projects. This approach is a good supplement to interviewing because a candidate’s memory of their work is not always very good during an interview, and the high degree of nervousness is likely to lead to inaccurate or partial answers to your questions about their work. It’s much easier to assess quality when you have the work in front of you. Yes, there are some issues if the candidate’s current work involves trade secrets, so in those cases, ask them how they will go about solving your current problems.
  • Job content simulation. The best screening device is always to put the person in the job and see how they perform. Musicians are hired that way, as are actors, athletes, dancers, consultants, and cooks. In these fields, potential hires are given a tryout or audition in order to prove their capabilities. Put top candidates in the job, and when that’s not possible, ask finalists to perform the most significant job tasks. For most professionals, that means giving them a real problem that they will actually face in the first month on the job. You don’t necessarily have to expect the perfect solution, but you would expect them to follow all of the critical steps that your company expects. Obviously, there are some risks involved and maybe some safety concerns to consider. Ask your top performers what task separates the best from the average to create the mini job simulation.

Interview Prep

  • Contests. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! spearheaded the use of contests as a preliminary step in both attracting and screening technical candidates. Consider holding Internet or live contests to identify people with great skills, ideas, techniques, or solutions. Use this to identify people who can skip most of the preliminary skills assessments. Consider the top winners as finalists and go from there.
  • Written simulations. Another type of simulation that avoids the actual “touching” of equipment is a written simulation. Its advantage is that it can be done remotely, in a relaxed atmosphere, and without taking up a lot of management time. These are similar to the verbal simulations, except that the problem is presented in writing and the solution is also provided by the candidate in writing. Written simulations can give the candidate more time to answer, which is a superior approach in cases where the quality of the answer is more important than the process used to devise it. Another advantage is that both the questions and the answers are in writing, so documentation is never a question.
  • Pre-interview questionnaire. It’s important to gather information about a candidate’s interests, expectations, and preferences in order to help better determine whether they are a fit for this job, this manager, your culture, or your company. Use a written pre-interview questionnaire, which asks them to provide information related to their job preferences, career goals, how to best manage them, as well as their frustrations and motivators. In the questionnaire, ask them to force rank (using points that add up to 100) their technical skills, their people skills, their favorite job tasks, and their key motivators. Yes, candidates can try to guess what answers you want, but the process also acts as a wake-up call to candidates if they find that their top interests or motivators are not available in this job situation. A ranking system forces them to show, for example, whether they prefer teamwork or individual contributions. In some cases, it may also become a quick “first-cut” assessment tool to screen out a few candidates from the original interview pool.
  • Technical tests. These days, many technical tests (especially in the programming and engineering areas) are available online and can be completed by the candidate long before they come in for the interview. Most tests have already been validated, and since they are scored by the vendor, very low effort is required on the part of the recruiter. Be very careful with any test that measures attitude, personality, emotional intelligence, or other hard-to-validate characteristics.

Other Recommendations

  • Short-term or contract hire. Unfortunately, most organizations determine fit during interviews. Since interviews are not real work situations, this approach seldom works. If this is a key job and it is critical to ensure a great fit, consider a short-term hire. In this case, you literally hire the final candidate for a day or a weekend as a contractor or consultant. You can ask the candidate (if they are local) to work on a problem with your team on a holiday or during a weekend. I’ve found that it doesn’t take long to determine fit with on-the-job tryouts. This approach of working with the team also helps convince some skeptical candidates who are unsure about whether they want to work for you. If you are a little-known firm, once they get to know your team on a face-to-face basis, “selling them” becomes much easier. For non-local candidates, use this technique immediately before, during, or after industry events, where candidates and most of your team are likely to be in attendance.
  • Identify their decision criteria for accepting. If you know upfront what criteria the candidate will use to assess your job and your firm, it is easier to provide them with information in those areas. Before the interview, ask the candidate directly to list and weight their decision criteria. Once you know what makes a job a “great” job, provide the candidate with information in those areas. For example, if they like rapid promotion, you can provide them with the best-case scenario identifying the average and the quickest time that any new hire has been promoted in the last two years. If they want rapid learning, you can provide them with a list of the resources, courses, and mechanism you have for learning. The key here is to give them information on the things they care the most about so that they won’t accept a job and then later end up not liking it. Incidentally, by identifying their decision criteria, you can dramatically improve your chances of getting top candidates to accept. In fact, just knowing their decision criteria tells you a lot about the candidate and their expectations.

Next week: In Part 2, I’ll talk about how to improve interviews.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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