Why It May Be Wiser To Hire People Without Meeting Them

When the economy finally turns around, you'll start hiring people again. You'll sift through dozens of impressive-sounding résumés — who knew there were so many VPs in the world? — and bring in the standouts for the critical final stage: the interview. You'll size them up, test the "culture fit," and peer into their souls. Then you'll make your decision. This is the Official Hiring Process of America. And it ignores, almost completely, what decades of research tell us about how to pick good employees.

Here's the reality: Interviews are less predictive of job performance than work samples, job-knowledge tests, and peer ratings of past job performance. Even a simple intelligence test is dramatically more useful.

Most of the time, it's not easy to suss out the true value of interviews, because we don't hire people who do poorly in interviews. But in one study, reported by psychologist Robyn Dawes, a unique situation emerged that allowed the value of interviews to be assessed. In 1979, the University of Texas Medical School interviewed the top 800 applicants and scored them on a seven-point scale. These ratings played a key role in the admissions decision, in addition to the students' grades and the quality of their undergraduate schools. UT admitted only those students who ranked higher than 350 (out of 800) on the interview.

Then, unexpectedly, the Texas legislature required the medical school to accept 50 more students. Unfortunately, by the time the school was told to admit more students, the only ones still available were the dregs of the interviewees. So the school admitted 50 of these bottom-dwellers, who'd ranked between 700 and 800.

Fortunately, no one at the school was aware who were the 700s and who were the 100s, so fate had created a perfectly designed horse race between the good interviewees and the lousy ones. And the performance difference? Nada. Both groups graduated and received honors at the same rate.

Well, sure, you scoff. The dregs might do fine in the coursework, but a good interviewer picks up on social skills! So once the dregs started working in a real hospital, where relationships matter, it would become abundantly clear who was Meredith Grey and who was Quasimodo.

Nope, didn't happen. Both groups performed equally well in the first year of residency. The interviews correlated with nothing other than, well, the ability to interview.

With so little proof that interviews work, why do we rely on them so much? Because we all think we're good at it. We are Barbara Walters or Mike Wallace, taking the measure of the person. Psychologist Richard Nisbett calls this the "interview illusion" — our certainty that we're learning more in an interview than we really are. Dawes points out that in grad-school admissions, interviews are often taken as seriously as GPA. The absurdity, he says, is that "you and I, looking at a folder or interviewing someone for a half-hour, are supposed to be able to form a better impression than one based on three-and-a-half years of the cumulative evaluation of 20 to 40 different professors."

Imagine if baseball GMs, in recruiting potential players, ignored past batting statistics and instead had a beer with players at Applebee's to test their culture fit. That's what we're doing by betting on interviews.

So, instead, figure out whether candidates can do the job. Research has consistently shown that one of the best predictors of job performance is a work sample. If you're hiring a graphic designer, get them to design something. If you're hiring a salesperson, ask them to sell you something. If you're hiring a chief executive, ask them to say nothing — but reassuringly.

In the process, you might be surprised. For instance, the head of marketing for an environmental nonprofit — call her Elizabeth — needed to fill a marketing-director position. One candidate in particular — call her Marge — stood out. Marge had come recommended by a board member, and she had more than 20 years of experience. Even better, when Elizabeth called in Marge for an interview, the two of them immediately hit it off. "She was somebody I could see being friends with," Elizabeth says.

Then came the test. Elizabeth had created a simple, timed writing test, inspired by a couple of actual writing projects that were on her own to-do list. She was almost embarrassed to ask Marge to do it. (Twenty years of experience!) But when the test was over, Elizabeth was shocked by the samples of Marge's work. "They were awful," she says. "I never would have known in a million years from her résumé, or from meeting her." The job went to Roger, who aced the test. Unsurprisingly, he's aced the job, too, Elizabeth reports. (Question: Would your company have hired Roger?)

Giving job tests might be the easiest competitive advantage you ever acquire. While your competitors hire friendly people whose "biggest weakness" is "working too hard," you'll be discovering the true stars.

To read more of Dan & Chip Heath's Made to Stick columns on FastCompany.com go here.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath have re-released their best-selling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, featuring new content such as how to unstick an idea.

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13 Comments

  • Stephen Pohl

    The military has highly developed testing for skills and appitude. They are task and result oriented.

  • Kelly Magowan

    Thank you - a great and thought provoking post. I particularly like the term "interview illusion" This is a topic we have indirectly been blogging about on the Six Figures Blog http://blog.sixfigures.com.au around the fact that most people hire people they like and don’t hire anyone who is better than them. As you have highlighted this, coupled with the fact that most interviewers are not well trained, and that too many don’t factor in assessments or objective tools to balance out the largely subjective process which is interviewing!

  • Ben Baldwin

    In hiring, there's a term for quick judgement, called the "halo effect." It refers to the impression someone leaves when they first meet that person, if that person has something in common with them, they're attractive, they can pronounce their name, they like them, etc.

    The problem with this snap judgement is that it can accidentally anchor an interviewer's opinion about an interviewee - often inaccurately.

    This is why some leading companies, like GlaxoSmithKline, are using validated personality assessments for their sales hiring. The twist is that they perform these predictive personality assessments BEFORE interviewing any candidates ... even before they review applicants' resumes (resumes are also inherently biased).

    I'm actually on a mission: to make the science of predicting employment success accessible to all people and all businesses. My company was founded on the above approach and we've been busy patenting our model, which seems to be winning lots of business from both Fortune 500 clients ... even small business.

    We need to help resolve this issue, so the right people make it into the right jobs - for the sake of employers' success and people's mental health and well being. Everyone wins.

    Ben Baldwin, Co-Founder
    ClearFit.com
    http://clearfit.com/

  • Loraine Antrim

    Agree with all the collective wisdom thus said, but let's add a web 2.0 twist to the interview discussion.
    A lot of business is virtual these days: voice mails, conference calls, Telepresence and video conferencing. Based on what point you are in the interview process, testing the candidate's ability to communicate powerfully and effectively in a virtual world should be one of the criteria considered.
    Set up a group con call or video conference, ask the right questions, and see how the candidate's messages resonate virtually. Can you "hear" passion, enthusiasm, conviction? Does the candidate's empathy and competence come out in his/her vocal presence? This could be especially compelling for technology companies that transact business in the web 2.0 world.
    Using web 2.0 collaborative technologies as an indicator of communication ability might be an additional tool in the interview process.

    Loraine Antrim, Co-founding Partner
    Core Ideas Communication
    http://thecxomindset.blogspot....

  • Stanley Patterson

    My experience is validated by by this article. Some people possess relational and communication skills that fit them to the interview setting and set them apart from others who lack such skills. Though I have continued to use it, I've chosen to be less dependent upon the interview as a primary determinant in choosing who to hire. If I were to pick one most dependable indicator it would be voice (not written) referencing of key individuals with whom they have worked or under whom they have studied.

  • Kelly Blokdijk

    It always amazes me how much weight is placed on interview "performance" vs. actual competencies. In previous human resource management roles, I dealt with countless poor on-the-job performance issues that were shocking to the hiring managers. They would always tell me how well this person interviewed and how they "clicked" and impressed everyone. Yet, once there doing the job, an entirely different situation emerged. I've always believed that interviewing is only one aspect of the candidate screening process. Even as a career coach, helping clients learn how to present themselves well, I have not always been effective at practicing what I preach. Interviewing is a very subjective part of the hiring process. Both sides tend to put on their best act, but that doesn't guage what happens next. One example from when I was hiring for one of my own direct reports confirmed this for me... There were at least three final choices. After much consideration, I went with the person that interviewed the worst, because I got a sense that there was some underlying talent there that even if it wasn't portrayed as smoothly in our interview, would be useful for the team. That person turned out to be bright, hard-working, well-liked, ambitious and just an overall good choice.

    --
    Kelly Blokdijk
    TalentTalks | Creating a Voice for Talent

  • Glory Borgeson

    The results of testing are just one dimension of the hiring process. As I reflect on years of selecting people for various types of roles, and then consider whether the results of tests for the particular role/field would be enough, I have to conclude that the tests would not be enough.
    Especially considering when several people test similarly (and have other factors in common), I must meet them to consider other levels of "fitness" for the role/job.
    This requires moving into an intuitive state (on my part). If you are familiar with Myers-Briggs, you will know what I mean. When you are the interviewer, you must move from 'sensing/facts' into a more intuitive place to see/hear/understand things that are not uncovered by tests, resumes, or even by interviews at the surface.
    I continue to practice this today with clients -- it is truly one of the most helpful, time-saving, money-saving skills to gain. While some people are born with the ability to mete out people and circumstances that are a "good fit," others need to learn it.
    Years ago, when I did interviews of candidates for my department (not HR, but for actual co-workers), there were a particular set of interviews I was not asked to perform. They hired a man (he was 23; I was 28 at the time) who, while performing well in school, on test, etc. (and who was adequate at his job), he was a brat. He was just an awful co-worker to have on our team. I would have caught that in the interview, had I been asked to do his interview.
    So.... I, for one, will not stop meeting/interviewing people myself. The tests are not enough!

    --
    Glory Borgeson
    http://www.borgesonconsulting....

  • Glory Borgeson

    The results of testing are just one dimension of the hiring process. As I reflect on years of selecting people for various types of roles, and then consider whether the results of tests for the particular role/field would be enough, I have to conclude that the tests would not be enough.
    Especially considering when several people test similarly (and have other factors in common), I must meet them to consider other levels of "fitness" for the role/job.
    This requires moving into an intuitive state (on my part). If you are familiar with Myers-Briggs, you will know what I mean. When you are the interviewer, you must move from 'sensing/facts' into a more intuitive place to see/hear/understand things that are not uncovered by tests, resumes, or even by interviews at the surface.
    I continue to practice this today with clients -- it is truly one of the most helpful, time-saving, money-saving skills to gain. While some people are born with the ability to mete out people and circumstances that are a "good fit," others need to learn it.
    Years ago, when I did interviews of candidates for my department (not HR, but for actual co-workers), there were a particular set of interviews I was not asked to perform. They hired a man (he was 23; I was 28 at the time) who, while performing well in school, on test, etc. (and who was adequate at his job), he was a brat. He was just an awful co-worker to have on our team. I would have caught that in the interview, had I been asked to do his interview.
    So.... I, for one, will not stop meeting/interviewing people myself. The tests are not enough!

    --
    Glory Borgeson
    http://www.borgesonconsulting....

  • Jonathan Washburn

    Interviews are crucial to evaluate fit within the team. Establishing a strong and positive culture is perhaps the most important thing to building a company, and you cannot assess culture fit through a resume or work samples.

  • Bill Catlette

    Whoaa! The major premise seems to be that interviews shouldn't be used because most hiring managers lack interviewing skills (true). Most people, even most MD's lack surgical skills, too, so...

    Work samples, valid tests, and references should all be part of the mix, but let's not kick interviews out of bed because absent training/practice they make us uncomfortable and we're not very good at doing them.

    Bill Catlette
    co-author, Contented Cows MOOve Faster

    P.S. The best way to work on your interviewing skills AND recruit some great people is to continue doing it every day. Don't wait for the economy to pick up, when your skills are even rustier and everyone is fishing in the same pond!

  • Ned Roberts

    An interview is a sample of behavior. So is a resume. An exeptional interviewer can draw accurate inferences from those samples. Rare and exceptional. In general, the Heath's are right about the problems with interviews. However, simulations and work samples can also be misleading - their effectiveness depends on how accurately they represent the job. Typically, higher level positions require a somewhat complex constellation of competencies that are tough to simulate. A marketing director not only has to write, but to gather product data, work with other functions, etc., etc.. Roger might have done great with the writing, but bombed in other critical areas. Marge might have been great in those other areas, and done well writing under less stress. So what do you do? Four things. 1. Develop candidate pools before you need them, based on professional associations, networking, and so forth. 2. Develop simulations that accurately reflect the key elements of the job. 3. Pair managers with great interviewers. 4. Make a hiring decision with cognizance of the strengths and potential issues with any new hire. OK. Maybe 5. Take time to properly orient the new employee to the organization.

  • John James O'Brien

    Anyone who has ever been burned by someone s/he hired will find some resonance in this premise. But given that all interview processes are not the same, drawing a conclusion on interviews in general is questionable. Of course it is ludicrous to hire someone because she adds the right sense of humour to the team mix, or he has a tie that speaks of good connections (yes, that's a real case). IMO, any interview process that does not focus on competencies that relate to relevant aspects of the post are little more than lotteries. As a candidate, the practice provides insight to a host of organisational problems that likely lurk beneath the surface.