The Power of the Structured Job Interview

Category: Management/Leadership
Author Name: Jim McKay
Posted: 10-08-2017 05:43 AM
Views: 4714
Synopsis: Job interviews have traditionally been social in nature and heavily reliant on feeling and subjective perceptions. While these interviews are comfortable for many managers, they aren't very effective and open the door to potential legal trouble.  A much more scientific and effective approach is the structured interview - a system of interviewing that has saved organizations millions of dollars that once were lost to bad hires.

Interviewing job candidates is one of the most difficult and yet critical parts of a manager’s job.  Getting it right will mean an employee who contributes to the success of the organization for many years to come, however getting it wrong will cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars.  A mistake not only means the cost of hiring and training a new employee but a loss in time and productivity as well. 


The money sucking consequences of a bad hire are endless:


  • The time it took for the manager to interview, hire, and train the employee.
  • The time it took to discipline the employee.
  • The time it took to remediate the employee’s performance.
  • The lost time and productivity of the co-workers of the poor performing employee.
  • The time it took to correct the mistakes the employee made.
  • And on and on and on.


And, if that wasn’t enough to keep a manager up at night, there is the risk of violating equal opportunity laws which could cost tens of thousands in legal fees, judgments and fines.


More than ever, employers are turning to structured job interviews to mitigate risks in the hiring process.  In a nutshell, structured job interviews require asking exactly the same interviewing questions in exactly the same order and scoring the candidate’s answers with a pre-determined rating system.  This scientific method increases the likelihood of a successful hire and over time saves organizations the millions of dollars poor hires cost on a yearly basis.


The reason that structured job interviews work so well is both simple and powerful - they take the interviewer’s biases out of the equation.


Job interviewing has historically been about feelings.  Who hasn’t heard the phrase, I just had a feeling in my gut about her?  But where does this feeling come from?  We naturally like people who are like us and we naturally have biases and stereotypes that we have developed from our life experiences.  When we have a good feeling about a job candidate, it’s because she is comfortable and familiar and our life experiences have given us a bias toward her.  While this might feel good, it’s generally not very scientific and not a very good reason to use in a hiring decision.  When feelings are used, hires turn into gambles rather than scientific decisions based on the skills of the candidate.


Structured job interviews also dramatically reduce the danger of asking illegal questions.  When the questions are carefully pre-determined there is no chance to ask questions that violate EEO law unless the interviewer breaks from the script.  Additionally, using a pre-determined rating system based on job-related questions reduces the chance that the interviewer will base her decision on things like physical attractiveness or societal stereotypes. 


When the interview is complete and the candidate is rated, the number determined by the rating system will reflect job-related skills, performance, and potential.  The interviewer’s feelings will be trumped by the black and white number on the page.


The job Analysis


The first step in a structured interview is the job analysis.  If there is a detailed, up-to-date job description for the position, a lot of the work has already been completed.  However, if the job description is out of date, interviews will need to be conducted with managers, experts in the field, and high performing employees to confirm or amend the duties and responsibilities of the job and to develop a list of the competencies that are essential to each of those duties and responsibilities.


For example, a call center position may have the job responsibility of “effectively resolve customer complaints” and some the competencies listed for that responsibility may be “the ability to solve complex problems” and “having excellent interpersonal skills”.


The Questions


Once you have created a list of the essential competencies for the job, it’s time to write questions which will illicit the responses you need to rate these competencies.  The best way to accomplish this is through open-ended behavioral and situation-based interviewing questions.


Both of these question types have one thing in common.  Because they are opened ended and require more than just a one-word answer, there is a better chance they will result in a detailed response with lots of information.  Let’s look at each question type individually by going back to the core competency of “effectively resolve customer complaints.”


A behavioral interviewing question for this skill would sound like this…”Tell me about a time that you took a call from an angry customer and the steps you took to handle that situation?”  Behavioral questions ask the candidate to recount a real-life situation from the past.  A situation-based question would actually give the candidate a job scenario.  For example, “Let’s say you have just answered a call from a very angry customer that had just received a damaged product.  How would you handle this situation?”


Both question types have their advantages.  The success of behavioral interviewing questions stems from the fact that the answers come from the real-life history of the candidate.  The idea is that if the candidate demonstrated the skill in the past, they are likely to also perform in the same way in the future.  Situational questions give the candidate a specific situation and ask them how they would handle it.  The advantage of situational questions is that you can ask for answers about a situation, problem or task that is specific to your industry or company.


Behavioral based questions work best for skills like “demonstrates creative solutions to complex problems.”  A behavior-based question to determine this skill would sound like, “Tell me about a time that you took a call from an angry customer with a complex problem and how you resolved it while working within the framework of company policies.”


Just like with determining job duties and responsibilities and core competencies, the best way to develop structured interviewing questions is with a team of employees who are intimately involved with the position.  By working together, you can gather a list of specific events that might occur on the job and use these job-specific events to develop interviewing questions.  Because these events come directly from people involved with the position, the questions are more likely to uncover information relevant to the job.  


Core competencies should be assessed individually.  This means that if multiple competencies are assessed in one question, they should be assessed separately.  This compartmentalization will allow you to develop a rating system based on how the candidate answers.  As a team, you can decide what answers will receive what ratings.  By reaching a consensus and having it in writing, ratings become far less subjective.  Everyone who conducts interviews will rate based on the same criteria.


Additionally, follow-up or probing questions should be created for each question.  Oftentimes, candidates will not provide an answer detailed enough to properly assess the competency and will need a probing question to help them provide a more complete answer.  A list of acceptable probing questions for each specific question should be included in writing, so the interviewer stays structured.


While competencies such as interpersonal skills and communication skills can be assessed based on the interview as a whole, in most cases these competencies are better assessed through job related interviewing questions.  For most job positions, the interview is a uniquely stressful situation that may not accurately assess these competencies in the real world.


Answers and Ratings


While rating systems vary widely from organization to organization, there are some basic tenants that result in reliable scores that correlate to job performance.


1. Rating scales should use a clearly defined point structure.  This means that answers shouldn’t simply be rated on the interviewer’s perceptions, but on predetermined criteria defining a high, low or average score.


2. When evaluating multiple skills in one answer, those skills should have separate rating scales.  In other words, if you are evaluating technical expertise and interpersonal skills in the same question, then each competency should be rated separately.


3. Each answer should be rated during the interview immediately after the candidate has provided it.  This will eliminate the affect that future answers will have on the current answer and allow the interviewer to rate when the answer is fresh in their memory.  When moving on to the next question, the previous rating should be covered up to limit the affect it might have on the current rating.


4. The interviewer should take detailed notes about the answer.  The will allow the interviewer to back up the rating in the future and allow the interviewer to compare performance between candidates.


5. The final rating score for the entire interview should be determined by adding up the scores of all the questions, rather than by the interviewer’s impressions.


6. Interviewers should receive training on how biases affect ratings in interviews.  When interviewers understand their biases, it mitigates the affect they have on ratings.


Beware of the first minute


The first minute of an interview is fraught with danger.  Countless studies have shown that people make judgments in the first 10 seconds of meeting someone that color their impressions permanently.  Interviewers who fall prey to these impressions will spend the rest of the interview attempting to validate their beliefs by looking for ways to positively or negatively rate the candidate.  Unfortunately, these first impressions are made almost completely on biases and are totally useless in determining how a candidate will perform on the job.


This first minute is also when small talk occurs in an attempt to make the candidate feel comfortable before the interview begins.  As strange as it may sound, even small talk should be scripted.


Imagine this interaction:


Interviewer:  What beautiful weather we are having!

Candidate: Yes, it’s rarely this warm this late in the fall.

Interviewer:  I took my kids to the park yesterday and they were wearing t-shirts.  Usually, this time of year I make them wear coats.  Do you have kids?




How to Conduct a Job InterviewWhile this mundane conversation would be considered harmless in most situations, this interviewer has asked an illegal question that could be used to support a discrimination claim based on family status if the candidate is not hired.


Additionally, this interviewer’s ratings could be affected by having this information.  The interviewer may perceive employees with children as less likely to bring full dedication to the job.  While this belief has no basis in fact, the bias may cause the interviewer to subconsciously find reasons to support this belief and rate the candidate lower.  As a result, the accuracy of the interview has been compromised and a potentially high performing employee may be rejected.


A better practice is to have specific icebreaker questions that are acceptable for small talk at the beginning of an interview that eliminates the risk of asking illegal questions.


Ending the Interview


The end of an interview should be…you guessed it – structured.  Just like at the beginning of the interview, a lack of structure opens the door for potential legal issues.  The interview should be ended in the same way for every candidate.  Thank them warmly and let them know when and how they will be informed of the hiring decision.  Treat everyone the same.  Never make promises or hint about decisions.  Every candidate should receive the same respectful treatment and information regardless of how they were rated.


In Conclusion


To many people, the structured interview may sound cold and impersonal and honestly, they are right.  The traditional unstructured interview is often warm and friendly, but also inaccurate and ineffective.  The purpose of job interviews is to hire employees that will perform well on the job, not to make friends.  When the cost of a bad hire is conservatively estimated to be in the tens of thousands of dollars, organizations need to follow the practices that provide the best result and time and time again structured interviews have proven to provide it.

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