What are job interviews for?

What are job interviews for? Their predictive rate is lower than 50% which is worse than flipping a coin. They are made to look like they are objective, but they are not. They focus on the past activities, not the future potential. They reflect what we choose to say about our work experience and they are probably more suitable for some personalities and cultures. They are mechanical and overly structured. They favour what can be articulated verbally but are rubbish at picking tacit knowledge that contributes so much more to our productivity. They assume individual performance is solely attributed to the individual and not the wider factors. So what do they really achieve?

In the context of work where input and output are directly correlated – i.e. factory production lines – past experience might be a predictor as the factors can be controlled and linearly related. Is there a correlation between interview performance and job performance – well, they are two different tasks… unless, the job is about answering interview questions. With knowledge workers operating in more dynamic and complex environments I am not sure past experience is a good predictor, but then it depends on what it is we are trying to predict. Then there is a limit to what can be articulated verbally. For some of the tasks I did it’s difficult to articulate them in the interview, yet I could deliver them. Adaptability, creativity and learning becomes more important.

By their design interviews favour certain personalities and even cultural background. In my experience of interviewing, the Americans tended to do better as they were almost always better at articulating what they knew and less shy about their achievements. It’s trickier for the South-East Asians, who are less chatty and more self-effacing. That plays in favour of the former, yet that has not much to do with the job itself – especially where I had to recruit thinkers not speakers. The test of a surgeon is not in what he knows or whether he can articulate it, but whether they can deliver it. How do you gauge out thinking?

Worse, interviews are typically monologues, not dialogues. They feel like exams as they attempt to ascertain your explicit knowledge. Why interviews cannot be dialogues and dynamic? When we want to find out something on a day to day basis, it happens through dialogues. In my experience, I found many interview questions were disjoined from each other and there was no flow. Many questions asked are abstract and lacked context, so it becomes hard to relate. The problem is by articulating individual parts, I am not articulating how I managed the whole or the way I acted within the whole – that’s not typically searched for.

When the interviewer says I lacked ‘relevant’ experience they seem to presume that learning is not important. Managers typically want someone who start quickly. Suppose I can start quickly, but if I am recruited for a permanent role then so what? Learning and adaptability is more important in the long term. In my observation of learning languages people don’t improve unless they make deliberate effort. Those learning English in non-English speaking environment can be more effective than those less committed whilst living, say, in England.

Fundamentally, interviews suffer from the illusion of control. (A rule of thumb: almost every time when I act like I am in control I am probably deluding myself.) Many interview panellists come into it with the illusion of objectivity. Nearly every time I looked at a CV, I already warmed up to somebody, especially if I knew somebody who was applying and I liked them. The way interviews are done are often about who has control in the room – yet it probably stimulates more false positive results. A typical face to face interview has a desk and usually the panel is on the other side. This creates a certain power dynamic and it says we are not on equal terms. The order in which questions are asked – the interviewer asks most of the questions and in the end the interviewee asks questions also signals where control lies.

As an interviewer I am in charge: I choose whom I hire; I devise the questions, I invite the interviewee. This presupposes that I expect to hear certain things. In my experience, I saw many poorly phrased questions and many only encouraged noise. If the interviewee says beyond what we expect it can be difficult to appreciate that as it does not fit our box. So it becomes like a game of throwing darts. The prize goes to the one who answers the questions by articulating what I expect to hear rather than what I should hear. So in the interview contest the one who wins is not the capable but the performer.

Perhaps that explains why many career advisers urge us to smile, be confident, dress up, and all that creates a positive impression to make the interviewer(s) like us. At the end of the day, the real question we are answering in the interview is the one we do not articulate: ‘Did I like that person?’.


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