It’s very rare these days to get a job without going through some sort of interview process, whether it be over the phone or in a boardroom with two or three panelists grilling you about your skills and expertise. It’s a process that most professionals have accepted and have also probably spent countless hours preparing for.
But how did the job interview come about, and how effective are some of the most common methods that businesses continue to rely on today? As we start to see some companies adopt unusual hiring practices and others rely on outdated methods that result in bias, there is no consensus (but many opinions) on what businesses need to do to make their hiring processes effective.
The history of the job interview
There is no unanimous account on what constitutes the first interview. The interview can be traced back to the WWI era and the industrial revolution. In 1917, Robert Sessions Woodworth, a psychologist who taught at Columbia University, developed what is believed today to be the first personality test. The test, known as “Woodworth’s Personal Data Sheet,” was designed to “identify soldiers prone to nervous breakdowns during enemy bombardment in World War,” according to an article in the History of Psychology. In 1921, Thomas Edison reportedly created a written test because he was suspicious of college graduates.
Throughout the years, job interviews have taken different forms, particularly as technology has evolved. We now have robots that screen résumés, machines that make job descriptions more inclusive, and companies that conduct interviews via text message.
Every company has its own interview practices, but there are common methods that are used again and again. Many of these methods were developed with a sound goal in mind, but companies often don’t use them for their intended purpose. Here are five of those interview practices.
1. Behavioral questions
Most people who have interviewed for a job have probably been asked some version of “tell me about a time when . . . ” This is what’s known in the HR world as a “behavioral question.” According to the Society Of Human Resources Management, these kinds of questions are based on the assumption that a candidate’s past performance or experiences can predict their future behavior and performance.
There are several problems with this assumption. Author and Wharton professor Adam Grant pointed out in a 2018 blog post that these kinds of questions reward those with richer experiences, many of which aren’t necessarily in the candidate’s control. For example, if you ask a candidate a question about a time they’ve dealt with conflict, Grant wrote, the person who faced the most dramatic conflict will probably give a better answer.
Michelle Armer, the chief people officer of job search platform CareerBuilder, says that behavioral questions can also unintentionally punish candidates who weren’t successful in their past. “If they haven’t been in the right role, then they haven’t had the opportunity to grow,” she points out. “In this tight labor market, you should be interviewing for potential instead of past results.”
Jeff Kreisler, editor in chief of behavioral insights platform peoplescience.com, says that behavioral interview questions “benefit those who are good at storytelling.” Kreisler says that while this might be an important quality in a sales role, it is less relevant in a role like software engineering.
2. Brain teasers
Some employers like to ask curveballs and hypothetical questions. Elon Musk reportedly has asked candidates the following question: “You’re standing on the surface of earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” Delta Airlines has apparently asked candidates, “How many basketballs would fit in this room?” A prospective employee at Apple was once asked, “If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors?”
Kreisler says that these outside-the-box questions can work well if they’re intentionally designed, but that businesses that use these just for the sake of making applicants uncomfortable aren’t doing themeselves any favors. Fast Company contributor Laszlo Bock, cofounder and CEO of Humu and Google’s former head of people operations, told the New York Times in 2013 that “brainsteasers don’t work. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”
3. Assessing for culture fit
A company culture can make or break a business, so it’s no surprise that companies care a lot about finding employees who understand (and thrive) in their culture. However, as psychologist and Fast Company contributor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic pointed out in a previous article, many companies’ practice of judging for “culture fit” ends up inviting bias into the hiring process.
Kreisler notes that a challenge that a lot of organizations face is in defining their culture. Many don’t take the time and resources to invest in cultivating the culture they want. Leaders also don’t spend time educating employees nor do they train them to make an objective “culture fit” assessment when they’re interviewing candidates. Armer says, “I think that it requires a significant amount of training at every level.”
When companies fail to do this, Chamorro-Premuzic said that interviewers ultimately rely on “gut feeling,” which can unintentionally translate to the interviewer determining whether or not that person is like them. If a company was homogenous to begin with, and its high performers share similar traits when it comes to age, gender, race, experience, and technical expertise, hiring for “culture fit” will most likely lead to more homogeneity and less diversity. “There’s a reason why culture and cult have the same root,” he wrote. “A strong culture inhibits both demographic and cognitive diversity. It’s always easier to manage a large group of individuals when they are all the same. This is the ultimate excuse for getting away with bias when hiring for culture fit: the inability to create an inclusive culture and leverage the benefits of people who are able to think differently.”
4. Relying on personality tests
Woodworth never got the chance to use his data sheet. (According to the New York Times, the war ended by the time the test was fully developed.) Yet, many companies continue to use personality tests when hiring. The tests are generally designed to take subjectivity out of the equation. They are supposed to assess how an individual’s skills, attributes, and tendencies align with the role they’re applying for and how they might fit into an existing team.
But despite the intentions of the personality test creators, many companies don’t use them effectively. I’ve previously reported on the downsides of relying on these assessments. Some companies use the results as a justification for an individual’s career progression (or lack thereof). It also incentivizes applicants to “game” the test so that they get the result they think hiring managers want. Even though these tests are supposed to eliminate bias, personality tests can introduce bias if a hiring manager erroneously believes that certain traits are necessary for a position. They might miss out on candidates who don’t have those traits but who would otherwise be good for the job.
Armer says that using personality tests effectively requires a lot of expertise and that the hiring manager or even HR personnel might not be equipped with the knowledge to use the personality test as it is intended.
5. The unstructured interview
Some companies prefer to conduct interviews with no structure or set questions in mind, treating the process like a conversation. They might ask candidate A one set of questions and ask candidate B another.
Kreisler notes that while this setting can be effective in specific circumstances, like a one- or two-person startup, unstructured interviews invite the person interviewing to rely on their gut reaction. Research shows that how well a candidate performs in these interviews is not an accurate indicator of future job performance. Humans are also hardwired to be overconfident in their decision-making abilities, which means that leaders (and hiring managers) tend to make mistakes in terms of figuring out when they should rely on their gut.
Armer says, “You need the structured question in order to properly evaluate all the candidates against one another. . . . I think when people say they prefer unstructured interviews, they [really mean that] they want a relaxed atmosphere. But when you get too relaxed, you lose that rigor in that decision-making. I don’t think they mean any harm by that. With unstructured interviews, you may inadvertently bring bias into the process.”