What’s Wrong With Interviews? The Top 50 Most Common Interview Problems

What’s wrong with corporate job interviews? Pretty much everything.

Interviews are the second most used and “flawed” tool in HR (right after performance appraisals). They are used and relied on around the world for hiring, transfers, promotions, and for selecting leaders. After studying and researching interviews for over 40 years, I find it laughable when people think they can become interview experts simply by conducting a few of them.

Despite their many flaws, the purpose of this article is not to tell you to stop using interviews. Instead, the goal is to make you aware of the things that can negatively impact the results of an interview. My premise is that if you encounter these problems and you understand their causes, you can take steps to avoid or minimize them.

A Complete List of the Top 50 Most Common Interview Problems (split into five categories)

A) The 15 most critical problems that can occur with interviews

  1. Some things should not be measured in an interview — few start an interview with a list of the things they want to assess. Many things just can’t be measured accurately during an interview including: many technical skills, team skills, intelligence, attitude, and physical skills. Giving them a work sample or test is often superior.
  2. Using historical information to predict the future — interviews cover what happened in the past. Unfortunately, “the way you did something yesterday” simply wouldn’t work in today’s “new normal.”
  3. Interview questions are not directly related to the needed skills — most questions and “solve-this-problem” scenarios are developed independently and are not tied to a specific “required” skill or knowledge. There is no script or plan to ensure the right things are covered so that interviewers don’t just make up whimsical questions.
  4. Inconsistent questions — there is no interview question script prepared for most interviews, so that the same questions are not asked of each candidate, which causes serious comparison and reliability issues.
  5. No weights — interview questions are frequently not “weighted” or prioritized, so minor questions receive the same weight in the final rating as the most important ones.
  6. No scoring sheet — there is no scoring sheet to ensure that interviewees are rated consistently on the same factors. Many final decisions are made based solely on memory. Scoring sheets forces the interviewers to make their decision based solely on the factors on the scoring sheet.
  7. No agreement on good answers — almost universally, interviewers asked questions without first determining what is a weak, good, and great answer. As a result, the exact same answer will get different “scores” from different interviewers.
  8. Interviews are inherently misleading — the basic foundation of the interview is based on the premise that during the interview, candidates are acting normally and are telling the truth. This is unlikely because most candidates are scared to death before, during, and after interviews.  The interview situation is by definition “unreal” and words often should not be taken as proof. It is not “the job” and therefore what happens during the interview might not be representative of what one would actually do on the job. The goals of many interviews are unfortunately focused on finding faults in the candidates, as opposed to finding their positive aspects.
  9. Saying what they want to hear — interviewees frequently provide the answers that they believe that the interviewer wants to hear, rather than the most accurate answer. Interviewees frequently lie or omit key facts; unfortunately, interviewers do the same.
  10. Non-job related factors influence decisions — numerous subjective factors like body language, accent, height, handshake, dress, and coming late may distract from a focus on the answers provided. Because of stereotypes, demographic factors (race, sex, age, national origin) may also impact the results.
  11. Practice makes perfect — preparation changes interview results. So if you think you are getting spontaneous answers, be aware of the thousands of Internet articles, sample questions, and videos that can super-prepare candidates for anything. Individuals who have not been in a job search for a long time might be rusty in their interview skills. While unemployed candidates that have recently gone through numerous interviews could benefit from their extensive practice and do better.
  12. Your specific interview questions may be known in advance — in addition to generic questions, with the use of glassdoor.com, be aware that whatever specific questions your firm has asked in the past (and their answers) are likely to be posted.
  13. Behavioral interviews have inherent weaknesses — behavior interviews rely 100% on candidate-provided (and possibly exaggerated) descriptions of how they handled a problem in the past. Also be aware that they may have acted that way because of cultural rules and constraints that would be completely different today, at your firm. Extrapolating forward on how they would act six months from now, even though they have long since changed, and in your unique culture/environment can be misleading. Asking candidates to describe how they “handled” a certain situation has some serious inherent problems. First: what the candidate is describing to you may have happened, but you can’t actually know the extent of their contribution to the described action. Second: if their verbal descriptions or their delivery happens to be clumsy, their accomplishments will likely be underrated (even though they actually did what they described). And third, in our current fast-changing world, you might not even want them to act the same way.
  14. Lack of future view — most interviews and all behavioral interviews focus on the past but whoever is hired will be working in the present/future. Most interviewers fail to ask candidates to forecast the future and to provide an outline of the plans that they will use to identify and solve upcoming problems.
  15. Not hiring for “this” and “the next job” — hiring managers can be shortsighted. They frequently interview and hire based 100% on their own short-term needs. Companies should hire individuals for both “this” and a future job but most interview questions are not designed to assess future competencies that will be needed in their next job in the company.

B) Problems with the interviewer

  1. The interviewer — the sex, age, and experience of the interviewer dramatically impacts their assessment of any candidate. If the person they are interviewing is different than them, the result will also be different. All too often, interviewers act like they are junior psychologists and may make snap but inaccurate judgments about candidates.
  2. Bias and prejudice — some interviewers have biases or make stereotypes that eliminate individuals for nonbusiness reasons.
  3. Interviewers are not trained — almost everyone assumes that interviews are easy and don’t require training. Managers only receive cursory training and don’t know the pitfalls that can lead to bad interviewing and hiring results. Because “mystery shoppers” are not used, HR has no direct way of knowing what might be happening during an individual manager’s interviews.
  4. The interviewer has arbitrary knockout factors — many interviewers seem to arbitrarily make up subjective “knockout factors,” which prematurely and often unfairly screen out qualified candidates. Many of these knockout factors are based on personal prejudices.
  5. Interviewer fatigue — after many interviews in a row, the interviewer is tired and their judgment weakens.

C) Common interview process errors —the actual design of the interview process can cause many problems.

  1. No structure — the less structure, the less reliable are the results. Using the same structure around the globe may be a problem because local cultures and laws vary.
  2. The timing — the time of day that the interview was held has an impact upon its results because of the energy level of interviewers and interviewees changes. Someone that has gone through five back-to-back interviews will perform differently than someone who had a break. And because multiple candidates are involved at different times of the day or on different days, it makes accurately comparing interview results that occurred at different times or days difficult.
  3. The length of interviews varies — interviews are often very short, making realistic assessment difficult. And due to time and business pressures, managers often eagerly make snap, first-impression decisions, which can be inaccurate. Comparing candidates who had interviews of significantly different lengths is also difficult.
  4. The order of the interview — If you are the first among all candidates in the interview process, you’re less likely to be hired then if you are the last candidate. Unfortunately, where you appear in the order of interviews impacts your odds of success.
  5. Consistent location — even the place where the interview is held (if it is not consistent for all candidates) can influence the candidate’s assessment (i.e. lunch interviews produce different results than conference room interviews).
  6. Interviews are held in person — This makes them expensive, because of the use of an interviewer’s time. Also requiring an in-person interview means that many working people simply won’t show up. Advances in technology now make it possible to hold inexpensive live video interviews over the Internet. Live video interviews and telephone preliminary interviews can save both travel costs and candidate time without impacting quality.
  7. Travel fatigue — often interviewees are flown in for the interview the night before and jet lag makes them underperform. Interviewers can suffer the same issues.
  8. Selling is limited — not enough time is spent during the interview selling the candidate, so those with multiple choices might not accept.
  9. Skills demonstrated in the interview are not required for this job — interview scores tend to vary based on the candidate’s interpersonal and communication skills, but this particular job might not require even average interpersonal skills. Thus some jobs (i.e. receptionist, salesperson, and recruiter) lend themselves to being assessed through interviews, while for some other jobs (like programmers, artists, and meter readers), interviews may be horrible predictors of the candidate’s on-the-job success because they work alone.
  10. Panel interviews — panel or group interviews are often intimidating because of the number of people in the room hurling question after question at the single interviewee. Often an assumption is made that panel interviews reduce the chance of bias or prejudice, but that is not automatically true if the team leader is powerful and successfully encourages others to share their bias. Candidates can also become frustrated when “the wrong person” asks a question (for example, when an HR person asks a technical question and a technical manager asked a question that should have been asked by HR).

D) Psychological issues and problems —if you study the research on interviews, you will find that there are many psychology-related issues.

  1. Looking for reasons to reject — often interviewers spend almost all of the time trying to find a reason to reject the candidate, and as a result, they miss the candidate’s positive aspects. In some cases, negative responses are given twice the weight, so a candidate can be mentally rejected after a single error.
  2. Halo Effect issues — often the evaluator is overly impressed by one or more personal characteristics (i.e. great looks). And they mistakenly assume that everything about the candidate is positive because of that single exemplary factor.
  3. Recency comparison (the contrast effect) — if an interviewer has several bad interviews in a row, the next person who performs much better may be inaccurately rated as outstanding, simply because they are so much better than the recent poor performers. The reverse effect is also possible.
  4. Personalities come across differently — shy, nervous, and slow people can be assessed poorly even though the job does not require speaking up or boldness.
  5. Fooled by enthusiasm — some interviewers are so smitten with candidate enthusiasm and passion that they fail to accurately assess other important job requirements.
  6. “Fit” assessment — many managers use interviews to measure an individual’s fit with the team, job, or corporate culture.  Unfortunately, there is little evidence that untrained managers can accurately assess “fit” in 60 minutes. In addition, if innovation is being sought, individuals who do not “fit” may instead be the correct hire. Often candidates who are “just like me” (the interviewer) are automatically given higher ratings even though the job does not require someone “just like you.”
  7. One-way conversation — unfortunately, many interviewers spend more time talking then listening during interviews.  Most interviewers don’t leave equal time for the candidate to ask questions and to present information that they want to present, which can frustrate them, and then limited information is used to make the decision.
  8. “Too perfect” performance — occasionally interviewees with a lot of experience interviewing (often from HR) get extremely high ratings but they are rejected because they are “too perfect” and the evaluator assumes that something is wrong (cheating).

E) Legal issues

  1. No accuracy check — the validity or the predictive ability of interviews are not checked by later on comparing whether those who received high interview scores turn out to be top on-the-job performers and vice versa. Interviews are a test, according to the EEOC, but most firms do not formally validate interviews or individual questions. The reliability of interviews is also not assessed.
  2. Illegal questions — it’s not unusual for illegal questions to “pop out.”  It’s also possible for candidates to inadvertently volunteer illegal information.
  3. No written record — because most interviews are conducted without being taped or even with a written record, there is little evidence (should legal or EEOC issues arise) as to what actually occurred or didn’t occur during interviews. When notes are taken, the unfettered handwritten notes taken by interviewers can be embarrassing should they see the light of day in a court proceeding.
  4. Language, cultural, and disability issues — interviewees who normally speak a different language may be slower and may provide less precise answers merely because of language or cultural issues. Disabilities that affect speaking may impact scores, even though accommodation may be required and speaking is not a major job requirement.
  5. Icebreaker issues — the interviewer may offer an icebreaker story or joke that may be inappropriate or illegal. It may negatively impact the responses from the interviewee.

F) Candidate-experience related issues — most candidates either hate of fear them. Further angering or frustrating candidates may cause you to lose top candidates, hurt your employer brand, or even harm product sales.

  1. Candidates are forced to lie to their boss — because most interviews are held during work hours, currently employed candidates coming to an interview are essentially forced to lie to their current boss as to why they are away from their current job.  This can cause them to prematurely drop out of the hiring process.
  2. Uncertainty and being kept in the dark — abuse of candidates occurs when managers keep them in the dark about the interview process and what is expected during it. They are not told what will occur during the interview and what skills will be assessed. In addition, they are not told who will be there during the interview, the role of each interviewer, and who will make the final decision. Failing to educate the candidate may cause them to under-prepare in key areas. Candidates also get frustrated when they are left in the dark and not given feedback about where they stand after an individual interview or after the process is complete.
  3. Candidates are given no input — the interview process and whom they will interview with is determined by the organization. However, top candidates should be asked for their input, who they need to talk to, and what information they need in order to make their decision. Because without this information, they may drop out or reject your offer.
  4. The number of interviews for each job — “death by interview,” which is where an excessive number of interviews over many days wears out a candidate. There is also death by repetition, when candidates during multiple interviewers get frustrated when they are asked the same questions over and over because interviews by different managers are not coordinated.
  5. Scheduling difficulties prolong the process — when multiple candidates are brought in for interviews, the time that it takes to schedule all of these interviews almost always stretches out the hiring process to the point where most top candidates will be lost because of the long time delay.
  6. Managers act inappropriately during interviews — sometimes interviewers act inappropriately by taking phone calls during interviews, canceling and rescheduling interviews, appearing disorganized, or even asking illegal or silly questions. Such behavior is disrespectful but it may also scare away the top candidates. Candidates often say they rejected an offer because of the way that they were treated during the interview process.
  7. Ghost interviews may frustrate — in order to meet legal requirements, external interviews are often held even though an internal candidate is already preselected. This wastes candidate time and adds to the frustration.

In my experience, most interviewers have a cavalier attitude toward interviewing. That is partly because they will never know if a major mistake was made and a top candidate was never hired. However, if you 1) study and fully understand the potential problems; and 2) have some empathy for what the candidates are going through and how much they will suffer when rejected, the quality of interviews will automatically increase.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips. Please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and to subscribe to his weekly article on Aggressive Recruiting.

As seen on ERE Media on 1/30/2012.

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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