How Interviews Can be Too Much of a Good Thing

I was listening to a local radio show and the host and expert were talking about the rise in the number of interviews candidates are being asked to go through.  I didn’t hear any data to support this claim (perhaps it was given before I got into the car), but the conversation about interviewing, including call ins) caught my attention.  It was filled with all kinds of bad practices and assumptions about the interview process that can be easily addressed.  These included:

  • Lots of people should get to conduct their own interviews. The biggest issue here is that different interviewers are going to hear different information from the candidates.  Or, hear the same information, but interpret it differently.  This means that determining who did the best in the interviews can become a debating contest among interviewers rather than an evaluation of the candidates’ skill and abilities.  Having a panel of about 3 interviewers conduct a single interview will be more accurate in that everyone will hear and evaluate the same information.  Then any disagreements in interpretation can be based on the same set of data.
  • The more interviews, the better. Somewhat related to the above, there is only so much relevant information that a candidate can give a company.  One good structured (see below) panel interview will tell you what you need to know.  Everything else is costing you staff time with very little return on the expenditure.  The streamlining of the process also makes for a better candidate experience, which can pay off in the engagement of those hired and your reputation as an employer with those who are not.
  • Interviews are the best way to learn about a person’s skills and abilities. This may be true if your interview is well constructed, including:
    1. Questions are written based on reviewing the skills and abilities required for the job instead of using a “favorite” question.
    2. Candidates for the same job are asked the same questions.
    3. There is an objective scoring guide used to evaluate answers to the questions.

However, if your interview is more free flowing, then there are several types of techniques (such as ability tests, asking a person perform part of the work expected, and personality tests) which are much better.

I appreciated that the hosts mentioned that effective selection systems use other assessments in addition to interviews.  You should also remember that different selection tools measure different things and that interviews rarely can cover all of the skills and abilities required of many jobs.

The moral to this story is interview less and interview better.

Selecting the Go-Getters

There have been many words written about “quiet quitting” and people being more committed to work-life balance since the beginning of the pandemic.  Of course, trends do not include everyone, so while there may not be as many ambitious job candidates available as before (or you’d like), they are certainly out there.  The issue is how do you identify them?

It may be easier to identify those with strong work drives than before the pandemic.  This is because it has become acceptable for someone to say in a job interview that they aren’t interested in pulling long days/weeks.  Also, people are likely to feel less compelled to present themselves as having strong work drives on a pre-employment test.

This also dovetails with how best to select people who can work well in a hybrid environment. Among the skills and personal characteristics you would want to consider for hybrid employees are:

  • Time Management—what tools and experiences do they use to get things done when they control their own schedule?
  • Tolerance for Ambiguity—how well can they perform in a role where they will have to make some decisions on their own with incomplete data?
  • Communication—how willing are they to reach out to others in order to complete tasks and build relationships?
  • Work drive (since I mentioned it)—what do they view as the right amount of work? And, can they accomplish a lot in a short period of time?

There are no “magic” assessments for all positions and you want to create a selection process that meets the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics of the specific job.  Remember that differences in candidates are your friend when making hiring decisions.  If someone shows signs of not having the level of drive you need for a position, they have just done you a huge favor.  You just want to be sure that you have a valid way of recognizing it.

Candidate candidness about how hard they are willing to work can be a hiring advantage for companies that use valid tools.

Listen, Fairness in Hiring Decisions Makes a Difference

In previous posts I’ve written about how neutral hiring processes, particularly in selection instruments, can create more diverse workforces without negatively impacting performance.  The symphonic music industry has adapted this approach by having blind auditions (those applying for performance jobs play their audition pieces from behind a screen and without shoes).  I am sure they have done other things to promote diversity in the applicant pool as well.  This article reports that the New York Philharmonic has achieved overall gender parity.  This is not to say that unequal pay issues have gone away, but it does represent a milestone.  And I don’t think anyone is cancelling subscriptions because of it.

There are so many straight forward ways to ensure that your selection process is neutral and identifies the candidates who are most likely to be successful, including:

  • Check to see if your job postings are gender and race neutral.
  • Remove names and other gender/race information from resumes before they are evaluated.
  • Check each step or your recruiting and selection processes for adverse impact. Don’t put your head in the sand!  You cannot tell if you are reducing adverse impact unless you track it.
  • Conduct a validation analysis of each step of your process. Check to ensure that your (human or AI) processes for evaluating resumes, assessments, and interviews are predictive of performance.

Unbiased and valid approaches to hiring go hand-in-hand.  The symphony industry has moved from some orchestras not letting women to even audition to the best known one in the US having an unbiased process without a lowering of quality.  If they can do it, so can you.

When Should You Stop Using an Assessment?

I’m guessing that you would not expect me to write about discontinuing the use of a pre-employment or pre-promotional assessment.  But, there are instances when it is appropriate to do so.

For instance, the National Football League (NFL) has decided to stop using an intelligence test that they had been using for years to evaluate new players.  I have written about the league’s use of the test before, so I won’t rehash the arguments about it here.  However, its reasoning for not using it any more really comes down to:

  1. They did not feel it was predictive.
  2. It led to a poor candidate experience (which, to the NFL means bad publicity).
  3. And those are two very good reasons not to use a test.

Another reason to discontinue the use of a test is when knowledge, skills, abilities, or personal characteristics (KSAPs) required of a job change.  At some point, administrative assistants stopped typing pages of documents, so a test of how quickly someone could manipulate a keyboard no longer made sense.  Changes in customer dynamics can impact KSAPs as well.  When working with a call center client, our validation data showed that personality tests that predicted performance for those taking phone calls were not effective for those who took customer inquiries via e-mail or chat.  This led to a change to how the tests were scored depending on the open position.

This does not mean you should automatically drop using assessments because a job changes or has converted to WFH from an office position.  However, knowing that for many people WFH is the new normal, it may be time to see if the work has really changed and the if that impacts the KSAPs.  If the status quo has held, you have your answer.  If there are some changes, then another validation study is likely in order.

The use of assessments, like many HR procedures, tends to take on a life of its own.  Once they are in place, there is a lot inertia (we have always done it this way) keeping them there.  It does not have to be that way.  A good job analysis and validation study can help you modify your testing tools so that you get high value from them.

Taking Mythology Out of Resume Screening

Ah, so much for the summer blogging break.  I have so much to say about WFH and the delta variant whiplash.  But, that is for another time.  What I have been thinking about lately is how there is so much available talent (people looking for work and to change jobs) and what employers are doing about it.

Typically, this kind of environment is great news for companies that are hiring.  That is not entirely the case now because, since there is so much employee movement, job candidates seem to have the upper hand in terms of salary and WFH flexibility.  However, employers do have a lot of options as well.  The only problem is that some are over playing their hand.

Case in point is the use of resume screening software.  Don’t get me wrong—this type of tech is something that companies need to use.  It is an efficient and objective way to go through resumes.  However, as this article (thanks to Denis Adsit for sending this my way and the link requires a subscription) points out, employers are likely missing out on lots of good candidates.  It is not because the algorithms don’t work.  It’s because they filled with untested assumptions that are provided by hiring companies.

It is amazing how many myths companies have about who they hire.  For instance, each time I have done a validation study in a contact center, line managers insist that previous experience is a plus.  And each time the data does not support that assumption.1  If you attempted to validate similar assumptions, I am sure that you would find that fewer than 50% were actually good predictors of performance.

When these myths are plugged into resume screen algorithms, they help to screen out people randomly.  This means that you have fewer resumes to read, but it also means that the ones you are reading are not better or worse than the ones you don’t.

Another problem with the data companies give to the algorithms is that that the choices are draconian because they are used as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down screen.  A better approach would be one where certain elements are given points (again, based on a validation study) and a cut-score is used.  For instance, let’s say that your algorithm selects out people who have had more than 3 jobs in 5 years.  You might be missing out on people who have several other very attractive things in their resumes.  And you would potentially be interviewing people with fewer attractive things on their resume but stayed at a job for 5 years.  Is that one thing really such a deal breaker at this stage of the process?

The other hurdles that companies place in front of candidates in the algorithms are unnecessary educational requirements.  I’ve written about this before, so I won’t get into again here.  However, if you are going to validate other assumptions about what is predictive of success on resumes, you should do the same regarding educational requirements.  This will widen your pool and likely lead to an equally, if not more, qualified pool and one that is more diverse.

Resume screening software is a very useful tool in pre-screening resumes.  Like any other computer program, they are only as good as the data that goes into them.  By ensuring that what you provide the algorithms is based on fact rather than myth, you will get a lot more out of the screens.

1 If anything, my experience shows that for contact centers, the opposite is true—those who worked in them before do worse in the next job.  Why?  Well, if they were good at the job, they would not have made a job change in the first place.  Also, there is a lot of unlearning that has to go on when training veterans on the customer management software.

Removing Unnecessary Employment Barriers

Let’s play some DE&I trivia!  As many of you know, the landmark case in employment discrimination is Griggs v. Duke Power.  But, what was the aspect of Duke Power’s hiring that got them into court?

If you said their use of pre-employment tests, you’d only be partially right.  The decision was also based on the use of discriminatory educational requirements (in this instance, a high school diploma).  Interestingly, after that tests got a bad name, but companies continued to use school credentials with little or no problem.

As the US economy and culture pushed more and more students towards college, racial disparities in educational attainment have persisted.  Yet, companies rarely questioned whether asking for high school or college degrees for certain jobs really gets them better candidates.  In some cases, this requirement is a classic “like me” bias?

Of course, the only way to see if a high school or college degree is necessary for a job is to conduct a job analysis and compare that knowledge, skills, and abilities with a high school or college curriculum.  Yes, I want my surgeon to have an MD, thank you very much. Far too often companies have used degrees as a de facto job requirement without ever thinking about its impact on organizational performance (are we turning away qualified people?) or fairness.  This is particularly true in IT where there are many self-taught people in the field.

Due to a confluence of factors, some big companies have rethought their use of degrees as qualifications.  Besides this leading to potentially more diverse hiring, it will also save them money (but be an economic boom to the new hires).  Whether it would lead to less college enrollment and lower higher education costs is certainly possible.  More importantly, it would lead to a paradigm shift of associating all white collar jobs with college degrees.

One can argue that getting a college degree shows tenacity and commitment over a long period of time.  And I would agree.  But, there are other ways to show this as well.

Change only comes when we do things in a different way.  And solutions to long term problems often require big actions.  Removing high school or college degrees as job qualifications when they are unnecessary removes a significant barrier to employment for racial minorities that could have an impact at your company.

Hiring For and Developing Resilience

I frequently hear clients talk about how they need to hire people who are resilient.  When I press them on what that means to them, they come up with words and phrases like:

Bends, but doesn’t break.

Learns from adversity

Performs well under stress

Doesn’t take work setbacks personally

These things are all true and part of the personality trait Emotional Stability, which can be a good predictor for some jobs.  But the aspect of resilience which gets overlooked, but can be equally important for employee selection and development, is sociability.  While the stereotype of the resilient person as one who swallows his/her/their emotions and hunkers down, there is scientific evidence that we build resilience when we reach out to, and accept help from, others.

This is useful in selection in that it can alter the types of tests that we give and what we look for in responses to interview questions.  For instance, when asking, “Tell me about when you had to meet a tight deadline,” an answer like, “I reached out to my team and asked how they could help” shows more resilience than, “I put everything aside and worked by myself until I completed the assignment.”  This additional dimension is useful in interpreting validated personality tests as we can then look for people who score high on Emotional Stability and willingness to work with others.

For development, we can teach people the power of reaching out to others during difficult times.  For managers, this means offering assistance to those who are struggling rather than waiting for them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  For individual contributors, this requires a message that reaching out to others when you need help builds resistance and is not a sign of weakness.  Of course, these messages require reinforcement by senior management so that they become part of the culture.

To see if resilience is a key part of jobs at your company, you can do the following:

  1. Conduct a job analysis.  Whether you use surveys or interviews, you can gather data about how much stress or pressure feel people feel in their jobs.
  2. Find out what effective resilience looks like.  During the job analysis, have people describe critical incidents where resilience was (and wasn’t) shown.

This data can be used for selecting future hires by:

  1. Sourcing a validated and reliable instrument that measures Emotional Stability and willingness to communicate with others (and other tests which measure important aspects of the work as found in your job analysis). 
  2. Administering the test(s) to incumbents.
  3. Gathering measures of how participants are performing on the job, including resilience.
  4. Analyzing the data to see if the measures of Emotional Stability and communication are correlated with measures of resilience and/or performance.
  5. Using the results to screen future candidates.

The job analysis data can be used for developing employees by:

  1. Sourcing or designing training materials that address the critical incidents described in the job analysis.  The more behavior/role playing in the training, the better.
  2. Gathering measures of how participants are performing on the job, including resilience.
  3. Conducting the training and gather feedback from participants.
  4. Measuring performance, including resilience, after enough time to see the impact of the training.
  5. Making adjustments to the training material based on the feedback and performance data.

Note that in each case you are seeking to demonstrate the impact of improving resilience in your organization. Just as importantly, you are establishing its importance in the company and taking steps to weave it into your culture.

Let Your Exit Interviews Leave the Building

One of the most intuitively appealing HR concepts is that of the exit interview.  If we only knew what was going through the mind of those who chose to leave our company, we could fix our turnover problems.  The thing is that there is more than enough research data to show that exit interviews are not useful in predicting or fixing turnover.  Yet, just the other day, I got a newsletter e-mail from a reputable management publication with suggestions on how to make my exit interviews better.

Exit interviews are not effective for several reasons, including:

  1. Low response rates. There really is not an upside for the leaving employee to participate, so why go through the stress and confrontation?  So, whatever data that you get is unlikely to be representative of the people who leave.

  2. Lack of candor.  Most people who would be willing to participate are also not very willing to burn bridges.  So their responses are going to be more about them than your organization.

  3. What do you think the leavers are going to tell you that you should not already know?  If a particular manager has higher turnover than the organization at large, it is probably because he/she/they is treating people poorly.  You do not need an exit interview to figure that out.

It is the last point that deserves a bit more attention.  The biggest problem with the concept of exit interviews is that they are reactive, trying to put the horses back in the barn, so to speak.  To keep turnover down, organizations should be addressing those things that lead to turnover before they become significant issues.  Identifying and acting upon turnover requires a commitment to gathering data and acting upon it.  Two steps you can take include:

  1. Using turnover as a performance measure when validating pre-employment tests.  You can lower churn for many entry level jobs by understanding which people are more likely to stay in the position and use that information in screening candidates.
  2. If you think you are going to get good information from people who are no longer engaged with your organization during the exit interview, why not get it from those who still are engaged and more likely to be candid? When you gather employee engagement data through short surveys over time, you can determine what the leading indicators of turnover are.  It takes commitment to view surveys as a process rather than events, but doing so can provide a high level of insight into employee turnover.

There will also be macro-economic factors that drive voluntary turnover that organizations may not be able to impact.  But, as the light at the end of the COVID tunnel becomes brighter and companies return to new-normal staffing levels, it provides a fresh opportunity to be proactive in understanding turnover.  This is a better approach than relying on failed techniques of the past.

A View From the Other Side

As long as there are pre-employment tests there will be people who do not like taking them. That is fair—most people would like to get the job of their choosing without jumping through hoops or by going through some process which perfectly recognizes their unique (and superior) skills compared to other applicants. But, that is not the reality that we live in (or one that is fair to all applicants). But, we must be mindful of how those who take tests and go through interviews see them. We want their experience to be one that would encourage them to recommend others to apply at a particular company or use them when they are in a position to hire/promote others.

This article is not atypical of what industrial psychologists hear about tests. 

“The test was stupid.” 

“It did not measure skills or abilities that I would actually use on the job.” 

“I did not have an opportunity to show my true skills during the process.”

But, the author does more than complain.  He offers suggestions that he (and the singular is important, because the all of the comments on the article do not support his positions) thinks would improve the hiring process.  Listening to test takers who want to improve the process, and not just get a free pass, can lead to valuable improvements in your systems.

In my experience, the top 3 things that candidates want from a testing experience are:

  1. Convenience.  The industry has gone a long way towards this by adapting to mobile technology and shortening personality and aptitude tests.
  2. Something that looks like the job or their expectations of it.  Sometimes this means interacting with others rather than just solving a problem individually.  Or, answering questions where the process is as important as the answer (since many real life work problems have more than one solution).  When a portion of the assessment does not feel like the job, candidates are more likely to exit the process.
  3. Not feeling as if they are being “tricked.”  This can range from being asked (seemingly) the same question more than once on a personality test to impossible brain teasers.  While the former can have some statistical value, Google and others have found that the latter does not. 

Pre-employment and promotional testing is a zero-sum game.  Many people, due to the fundamental attribution error, are more than willing to fault the process than themselves.  That is fine and as assessment and interview developers and users, we should listen to them.

Can We Accurately Evaluate Leadership Before Someone Has a Chance to Lead?

In general, our personalities are pretty stable over our adulthood. Yes, we mature and big life events can alter us, but the building blocks of who we are as people are closer in stability to our eye color than our hair color.

This stability has been important to the science of employee selection. The underlying idea of giving any type of pre-employment or promotional test is that the knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic being measured is stable in that person for a given period of time so that it can be used to predict future performance. With skills, we assume that they will improve over time, so we look for those that a person has right now. For personality and cognitive abilities, we assume that a person will have those at a consistent level for many years and that these aptitudes can be used to develop specific skills, such as leadership.

When I conduct leadership workshops, I typically ask participants if leaders are born (e.g., do some people just have what it takes) or made (e.g., pretty much anyone can be an effective leader if given the right opportunities to develop). The conversation gets people thinking about what behaviors are necessary to lead (good communication, willingness to direct others, attention to details, etc.), which of those can be taught, and which cannot. Put another way, to become a professional basketball player, I can improve how well I shoot, but I cannot do too much about how tall I am.

But, what if we have the direction of trait to leadership wrong? What if the traits to become a leader don’t blossom until someone is given the chance to lead?

This study suggests that being promoted into a leadership position does change the conscientiousness factor of personality. Conscientiousness has been found to be a significant predictor of overall manager effectiveness. It’s an interesting idea in that it suggests that, for some people, we do not know if they have a sufficient amount of a trait that contribute to leadership success until after they become leaders.

As with all good research, it poses as many new questions as answers. For instance, were there increases in conscientiousness across the spectrum or only among certain groups (e.g., were there gains for those who already showed relatively high levels of conscientiousness, so the rich got richer)? Or, does it take a leadership experience to bring out conscientiousness in people who typically do not show it? Or, is leadership a tide that raises everyone’s conscientiousness?

Practically speaking, this is where the study has me thinking about assessing leadership:

1)  Putting a re-emphasis on using performance on temporary assignments that involve leadership as part of the selection process in promoting people into supervisory positions. 

2)  Validating responses on personality tests that are taken after a person goes through a leadership role-play exercise or situational judgment test.

3)  Re-thinking what aspects of personality indicate leadership potential (e.g., willingness to direct others and resilience) and broaden our list of things that are leadership skills to include some other aspects of personality (e.g., conscientiousness). We can then focus on selecting based on the former and training on the latter.

Some people have the right mix of attributes that allow leadership to come easily to them. As it turns out, some of those things become more apparent after a person has a chance to lead. This should encourage us to think about how we choose to evaluate leadership potential.

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