What’s a Job Interview Good For?

Not as much as you might think, according to recent research. Finding talent should have less to do with get-to-know-you rituals and more with identifying the needs an organization is hiring for.

Not long after I graduated from college, I went on a job interview. I did the appropriate research on the publication. I wore an appropriate outfit. I was (I think) appropriately personable and articulate. But a few minutes of conversation made it clear to both sides that my skills didn’t quite match up with the Web 1.0 content job I’d put in for. Then the editor asked one of those familiar job-interview questions that everybody rehearses: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

That’s when I knew I was sunk. I had an answer, but it hardly mattered—I wasn’t being asked a question so much as I was being told, “We’re going to do this perfunctory job-interview thing because that’s what the protocol calls for, and then we’re wrapping this up.”

Ditching candidate Q&As in favor of an informal chat to learn about the opportunity without being evaluated themselves.

Time has eased the sting of my crummy job-interview experience. But the cliche-ridden job interview appears to be built to last: According to Glassdoor, interviews, presentations, and other get-to-know-you meetings can eat up nearly 25 days of the average hiring process, with scant evidence that they’re useful predictors of job success. Just as the performance review process deserves a rethink, so too does the interview process.

That’s the argument that author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes in a recent Fast Company article, “What If We Killed the Job Interview?” He points to research that suggests that a job interview doesn’t improve a leader’s ability to predict future performance—it accounts for only a 4 percent improvement in that predictive ability. Interviews can be more predictive if they’re a little more rote (up to 13 percent, he writes). But most association professional gigs are the kind of white-collar work where the interview process is more off-the-cuff.

Chamorro-Premuzic identifies a couple of key problems with the interview process as we currently know it. First is that one of the leading arguments people give for all that interviewing—looking for a “good culture fit”—is something of a delusion. Too often, he writes, that’s an excuse “to justify hiring people from their own in-groups”—which is to say that interviews can often do more harm than good by encouraging bias.

Secondly, in the same way that testing well may only indicate a talent for taking tests, performing well in job interviews may only indicate a skill at the peculiar performative art of the job interview. Interviews are “exercises in ‘impression management,’ and there are big, individual differences in how well people handle that,” he writes. “The real question, though, is why we care so much about a person’s ability to display a desirable behavioral repertoire during an hour or so.”

Indeed, such exercises may do more to weed out introverts—who are so leadership timber—than identify a good “fit” for a job. Companies are spending more time looking at straightforward testing to identify leadership talent, which I think has the potential to be a boon for organizations. Though it can seem like a cold, calculated process, it’s also an opportunity for organizations to identify the specific skills they’re looking for instead of just promoting whoever “seems ready” and leaving other skilled internal talent lingering.

That same sensibility might be brought to the hiring process too. Chamorro-Premuzic imagines that in a scorched-earth hiring environment, an interview is free of any sort of formal vetting; better, he writes, to “just let candidates have an informal chat to learn about the opportunity without being evaluated themselves.”

Presumably, that’ll be enough to let you know if a potential hire is likely to shame your association during your annual bowling outing. I’m being a touch reductionist, but isn’t that what much of the interview process for? To simply confirm that there’s a well-adjusted human being behind that eye-catching resume and cover letter? Interviews and competitions and presentations can be useful for revealing how well skills on paper match up to reality. But only so much: After all, most people can identify that talented hire who aced the interview but who winds up crashing and burning in a matter of weeks.

None of which is an argument for killing the job interview, as Chamorro-Premuzic provocatively suggests. As with any relationship, you want to spend some time with the person you might want to spend more time with. But given how time-strapped organizations are, there’s also no reason to give the interview any more weight than it deserves. Be clear before you start what skills you need in your office, winnow down the resume pool for the people who’ve demonstrated those skills best, call them in to confirm your enthusiasm (and their’s), and make a decision. Everything else is just talk.

What do you do to make your job-interview processes effective and efficient? Share your experiences in the comments.

(crossstudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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