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Stop being deceived by interviews when you’re hiring

Don Moore, professor, Haas School of Business | February 13, 2012

The monthly job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has become an uneasy gauge for the American economy. There are lots of people scrambling for what positions there are, but we rarely reflect on how those people get picked, and whether that matching process could be made more efficient. I have long been fascinated by the ways in which organizations select people. Hundreds of studies reveal the profound limitations of the traditional interview. Interviews favor candidates who are attractive, sociable, articulate and tall. They also favor the manipulative candidates, or those who know how to make a positive impression even in a brief interview. But these candidates aren’t always the best job performers.

We all know of instances in which a poised, charming job candidate turns out to be a disaster on the job. It can be difficult for an interviewer to see past the appeal and flattery to predict how the person will actually perform once hired. The challenge of picking the best person is substantially heightened in the current difficult job market, in which advertised openings often receive hundreds or thousands of applications. It is time consuming to conduct so many interviews, but the bigger problem is that traditional job interviews are simply not very good at selecting the best candidates.

I invited each of the MBA students in my leadership class to interview two other students from class and predict which of the two would score better on the mid-term exam. Had they just flipped a coin, they would have picked the better performer 50% of the time. In fact, they predicted correctly 56% of the time. This result is consistent with the research literature on interview effectiveness: the unstructured face-to-face job interview is a poor predictor of subsequent performance.

Nevertheless, managers are consistently overconfident in their ability to identify the best candidates using a job interview. We cling to the fanciful notion it is possible to perfectly predict future job performance, despite overwhelming evidence against it. We all want to believe that we are good judges of character, yet we do not bother to collect the evidence that would be necessary to test that belief. Rather, managers rely on gut intuitions about whom to hire.

It would be better for firms, candidates, and the American economy if instead we hired those with the skills to be successful. To do that, organizations would have to figure out what really contributes to employee success and how to assess it. Fortunately, research has identified a shortcut. One skill that contributes to performance at most jobs is mental ability. Undoubtedly, intelligence is just one of many skills and abilities that facilitate job performance, and firms can improve their ability to predict performance by also considering other job-relevant abilities. But if you have to pick one, general mental ability is the one beneficial trait most consistently identified in numerous studies conducted over many decades of research. A test of general mental ability might be as simple as an online IQ test that could be completed in under an hour. Although high intelligence is not essential for every job, the evidence shows that it usually helps. Moreover, intelligence tests are cheaper to administer, simpler, fairer and less vulnerable to bias than the traditional job interview.

A simple intelligence test, combined with a structured interview, will provide the essential data for a vastly improved hiring process. Organizations should structure the interview by putting each candidate through the same sequence of questions asked by the same set of interviewers. Then interviewers should assess each candidate’s response to each question with some sort of quantified rating. These ratings should then be averaged for the interview and for the job candidate.

Using structured interviews and intelligence tests to select candidates reduces hiring managers’ flexibility to hire according to their gut instincts. That might be a problem if it means that they neglect the issue of a new hire’s fit with the culture, norms and values of the organization. But the truth is that the interview is often a lousy way to assess fit. If fit is important, the best approach is to determine exactly how fit matters and explicitly assess that using a structured test or structured interview questions.

Hiring decisions are among the most important any organization makes. That’s why organizations large and small owe it to themselves and their stakeholders to make this important decision based on a consistent process. While the American economy has seen amazing innovations and productivity growth over the last 50 years, there has been just about no innovation in hiring methods. The current economy provides American employers with a tremendous opportunity. The larger the applicant pool, the bigger the payoff to better hiring practices. Now is the perfect time to do some fundamental rethinking of how organizations select people.

From Forbes

Comments to “Stop being deceived by interviews when you’re hiring

  1. Excellent point. There is a very large bias against not “fitting in”, whether it be low charisma or skin reflectivity. For a sales job it’s fair but in a technical job useful people get Excluded, even if they retain enough communication skills to get by.

  2. Professor Moore, you need to push your analysis farther, especially in relation to your following observation:  ” Hundreds of studies reveal the profound limitations of the traditional interview. Interviews favor candidates who are attractive, sociable, articulate and tall. ”
    Evaluations of charm, personability, and especially attractiveness are *never* race-neutral, nor is a preference for height. As such, you need to address the ways in which race and gender enable–and privilege–some bodies, and not others, such that some people succeed in interviews and (thus in getting hired): reproducing both white/male privilege and structural inequality regardless of the conscious intention–or claims of colorblindness and post-racialism–of employers. 

    Moreover, IQ tests will not extirpate this bias, nor are they simply objective measures of intelligence: both because of the huge disparities in education in the US and because of the ‘stereotype threat’ research of scholars like Claude Steele. Your suggestion to rely less on interviews–because of the biases they reflect and privilege–is spot-on, but your recommendation for how to solve this problem actually reinforces the very race/gender bias that should have been explicitly addressed and analyzed in your post. 

    But you are right, manipulative interviewees–especially sociopaths who have the benefit of white male privilege such that their character flaws or dubious qualifications would be easily overlooked as they are given the benefit of the doubt by employers who perceive them as ‘mainstream’, ‘all-American’, and ‘like me/us’–can easily deceive potential employers:

    And this is all the more reason for you to be directly addressing the issue of race, gender, and other forms of ‘non-normative’ bias in hiring:

    The psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman showed more than half a century ago that preconceptions about race distorted human judgment and sometimes caused people to recall things that had never happened. Their best-known study mimicked the parlor game “telephone.”

    In this version, subjects who often included students were shown a now-famous slide depicting typical passengers in a New York City subway car. At the center of the image stand two figures: a black man dressed in a natty suit and a white man in shirtsleeves holding a straight razor.

    After being shown the slide, subjects were asked to describe it to others who had not seen it. These people then described it to others, who then passed on their descriptions as well. Those who had heard the story secondhand were then asked to recount it. More than half the time, the razor was said to be held not by the white man but by the well-dressed black man, who was sometimes described as brandishing it wildly.

    This country has changed considerably in the more than 60 years since these data were published. But the mental calculus that shifted the razor into the black man’s hand is still very much a part of the American scene. It comes into play every day in courtrooms, in city streets and especially in job interviews.

    appeared in the 2007 book “Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration,” by the PrincetonPeople who believed that racism was on the wane were mightily shocked by the research into the effect of race on hiring policies that  sociologist Devah Pager. After sending carefully selected test applicants to apply for low-level jobs with hundreds of employers, Ms. Pager found that criminal convictions for black men seeking employment were, in many contexts, “virtually impossible to overcome,” partly because those convictions reinforced powerful, longstanding stereotypes.

    The stigma of conviction turned out to be less damaging for whites. Indeed, white men who claimed to be fresh out of prison were just as likely to be called back for second interviews as black men with no history of criminal involvement. The young black men were best-case applicants — bright, well-spoken college students posing as high school graduates. But racial stereotypes prevented employers from seeing their virtues.”


    “Dr. Dovidio: The aversive racism framework suggests that a number of normal processes contribute to the development of intergroup biases. We generally see people in “our” group in a more positive light than people in another group. In our society, we automatically classify people by race. In addition, in our culture, whites have been associated with positive qualities (e.g., social and political power), whereas the media have fostered negative associations with blacks, linking them to poverty and crime. Consequently, most white Americans develop more negative feelings and beliefs about blacks.

    At the same time, we have also grown up in a society that says all are created equal and has fairness as a core value. We also know it is not good to be prejudiced.

    How do these conflicting forces get reconciled? At a conscious level, most whites embrace these egalitarian values in a very sincere way. But because of the basic, virtually universal, psychological processes that lead to bias, most whites also unconsciously harbor negative feelings towards blacks. Recent techniques, such as the Implicit Association Test (, demonstrate the pervasiveness of unconscious racial biases among white who say and likely truly believe that they are not prejudiced.

    This combination of being nonprejudiced consciously but possessing bias unconsciously produces subtle, rather than blatant, discrimination. Aversive racists typically don’t discriminate against a black person in situations where right and wrong are clearly defined. To discriminate in that situation would be obvious to other people and yourself; aversive racists don’t want to appear and don’t want to be racially biased. However, because of their unconscious negative feelings and beliefs, aversive racists will discriminate, but primarily in situations which right and wrong are not clearly defined or in which they can justify or rationalize a negative response on the basis of some factor other than race. Thus, discrimination that disadvantages blacks will occur, but in a way that permits the denial of racial motivations. Aversive racists have a good set of values; the problem is they’re not as good as they think they are.”


  3. The analytical presupposition here is that organizations want to hire the best candidate in a blind meritocracy. Unfortunately no organization (the University of California included) in America today is ethical enough to do so. Cronyism and corruption are far to rampant for your suggestions ever to be adopted, however they may benefit society in the long run. As with most prescriptive research, this is window dressing on a badly damaged house. Until you address the structural issues, not much else matters.

    • Indeed, hiring the best work performer is only one of many goals that organizations and their managers seek when making hiring decisions. They also seek employees who will be loyal to them, regardless of whether that is in the interest of the organization or its owners. But there is good reason to doubt that the employment interview is any good at predicting loyalty either.

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