The job interview is the first hurdle to that key element of the American dream: gainful employment. Yet for many, the process is rife with pitfalls, for both applicants and managers alike. It would be pleasant to believe that this world is one in which the process is always fair, always takes place using the ideal format, and always employs the perfect questions for the situation, but needless to say, this is not always the case. Instead, one finds that the opportunity for unconscious or subconscious discrimination against minorities is prevalent, that the four different types of interview processes are not always well known by managers, and that ideal questions take a great deal of time and effort to develop. The interview process vitally needs attention paid toward all three of these areas.
As a manager performing the interview process, it can easily be seen that the most important issues to avoid during interviews are the ones which can be foreseen to have potential legal ramifications, such as those related to discrimination. Indeed, the legal potholes that surround the questions asked during interviews are such that a failure to be aware of the possibility of appearing to discriminate unfairly could be extremely costly for the company in case of a potential applicant later choosing to pursue litigation based on perceived wrongs. Though it has become quite popular in business circles the United States of America to criticize some sort of recently arisen litigious society, in truth such troubles seem to be so deeply embedded in the system that their reach extends fairly far back: “This review indicates that (a) the interview is highly vulnerable to legal attack, and one can expect more litigation in this area” (Avery, 1979, p. 736). More modern studies confirm that this bias toward interview litigation has continued throughout the decades, as in Singer and Sewell (2006), who found evidence of “age discrimination in selection decisions” complicated by a “lack of external validity” for the decisions made (p. 135). That subjects of this research study would make hypothetical hiring decisions based on age rather than ability is troubling to say the least, and yet it is often difficult for managers to be aware of internal biases toward or against a given identifiable group of people. Without question, sensitivity training can hardly help but aid managers in at the minimum becoming aware of their own subconscious knee-jerk reactions to potential applicants based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with the position, such as apparent age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so on and so forth. Truly, in the area of discrimination as in many things, awareness is both the first step and the key to managing troublesome issues.
The primary four different interview processes of which every manager should be aware are the situational interview, the behavior-description interview, the unstructured interview, and the panel interview. Each method, of course, comes with its own pros and cons. The first technique, the situational interview, is perhaps older than some might think, for though the perception that such a style of interview has only come into vogue in recent years can be heard, Latham et al. (1980) describe it succinctly in their work from quite a while ago: “The incidents are turned into interview questions in which job applicants are asked to indicate how they would behave in a given situation” (p. 422). The upside of this type of interview is that it relates directly to the job at hand, not some previous position the applicant may have held. However, the downside is that the applicant is speaking in hypotheticals by definition; this style of interview is less grounded in reality than, say, the behavior-description interview. This variety, also well known in the field of business, relies not on hypotheticals but on actual past experience, asking for examples of given situations such as dealing with conflict. The advantage is that the answers will be reality-based, but the disadvantage is that applicants, through no fault of their own, may not be able to come up with examples on the fly. In some ways, for this very reason, the unstructured interview is sometimes superior, for its casual nature yields more fluid from applicants. However, its usefulness has been called into question: “In fact, structured interviews produced mean validity coefficients twice as high as unstructured interviews” (Wiesner & Cronshaw, 1988, p. 275). Clearly, an absence of validity is troubling for the unstructured interview as a method. Yet the unstructured interview still triumphs over the panel interview for seeing the applicant in a relaxed environment similar to that of day-to-day work; the panel interview, by contrast, brings up images of academia in a bygone era with its formality of one applicant being judged by a full table of managers—the “panel” in question. Still, despite its intimidating aspects, the panel interview is an efficient way for multiple staff members to interact with an applicant at once without the need for multiple interviews to be scheduled. Though no one interview technique can be considered superior to others, when it comes to formulating hypothetical interview questions, the behavior-description interview is the technique that fits most easily.
Effective interview questions are most easily formatted in behavior-description style, for in the absence of specifics, situational and panel interview questions are hard to devise, and an unstructured interview by its very nature would be less likely to use pre-formulated questions in the first place. Thus, the five interview questions proposed, all of which focus on being open-ended to allow the applicant to show more of their nature by talking longer, are: (1) Tell me about a time when you felt over-committed and what you did about that. (2) How have you dealt with difficult coworkers (and, if relevant, clients) in the past? (3) What have been your greatest challenges to staying on-task in the workplace, and how have you worked around them? (4) Tell me about a time when you found your work under-stimulating and how you dealt with that feeling. (5) In the past, when you know you have done good work, how have you gone about ensuring that your work was recognized, and how well do you feel that strategy worked? These five questions are for the most part slightly unconventional, yet without stepping on any toes around the area of discrimination, they all manage to address workplace challenges that are rarely discussed in interviews.
To perform a truly effective interview, more must be done than merely avoid an actively bad, discriminatory interview; in addition, the right type of interview must be chosen and the right questions must be asked. Rather than asking general questions about strengths and weaknesses, the questions proposed address real areas of concern around how potential employees handle over-commitment, boredom, attention and focus, and avoiding resentment by making sure accomplishments are recognized. If more managers used questions such as these, workplaces would surely function more productively. In the end, that is all any manager wants.
Arvey, R. D. (1979). Unfair discrimination in the employment interview: Legal and psychological aspects. Psychological Bulletin, 86(4), 736-765.
Latham, G. P., Saari, L. M., Pursell, E. D., & Campion, M. A. (1980). The situational interview. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65(4), 422-427.
Singer, M. S., & Sewell, C. (1989). Applicant age and selection interview decisions: Effect of information exposure on age discrimination in personnel selection. Personnel Psychology, 42(1), 135-154.
Wiesner, W. H., & Cronshaw, S. F. (1988). A meta‐analytic investigation of the impact of interview format and degree of structure on the validity of the employment interview. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 61(4), 275-290.