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Interview Best Practices

What kinds of bias happen in interviews?

Of the various ways we select new talent, interviews can be particularly laden with unconscious bias and susceptible to snap-judgments that get in the way of selecting the best person for the job. In fact, researchers believe that interviews are a valid predictor of job performance only 35% of the time. Common kinds of unconscious bias likely to show up during an interview include “affective heuristic” and “confirmation bias”.

Affective Heuristic

describes our tendency to evaluate someone based on initial cues like appearance or body language or attitude and use those superficial criteria to make a conclusion about their character or potential job fit. Psychologists and sociologists have proven over and over our tendency to select individuals who are like ourselves—we connect more easily with persons with whom we share an alma mater or neighborhood, and in turn, may misinterpret those clues for how someone will perform in a job. The malicious inverse is that when we don’t recognize someone as reflecting our personal framework, we default to stereotypes and unconscious biases to make unfounded conclusions about their character.

Confirmation Bias

This is when we take those heuristic-based snap-judgments and then spend the interview seeking out information that supports that notion. Help yourself side-step this unconscious bias by asking all your interviewees the same questions in the same order. Don’t skip any questions, and never cut an interview short. You can also keep at the forefront of your mind the criteria specified as most important for job performance when the requisition was opened – this criterion is reinforced when you score the interviewee following the interview and summarize your feedback.

What are some best practices for interviewing?

Interviews are incredibly easy to mess up—every interaction between you and a candidate subtly skews your sense of who they are. All too often when it comes time to make our decision of “Would I like to work with this person or not?” we are thinking more on what we have in common with the person than how their skills align with the needs for the job.

The good news is that researchers have compiled a workaround list of interviewing best practices. And even better news is that TalVista makes it easy for you to stick to those best practices:

  1. Define a role’s competencies before you review any candidates
  2. Rank those competencies based on priority so that you can use a weighting system to assess each candidate’s fit
  3. Create an interview template where the questions you ask a candidate map directly back to those competencies
  4. Split those questions up among your interview team ahead of time so candidates’ don’t get asked the same questions over and over
  5. Use the same interview plan for each person you interview so that you’re following roughly the same format and covering the same ground with each interviewee
  6. Have each interviewer score the competency they were assigned using the pre-established weighting system. This way every interviewee is held to the same baseline

What is competency-based interviewing?

Competency-based interviewing is best practice interviewing. A phone call or in real life conversation with a stranger is subject to all sorts of bias. When it comes time to size up a person’s fit for a job, we’re thinking more about how a person made us feel than how they might perform in the role.

Years of understanding human evolution and fight or flight responses tells us that it’s unlikely we’ll ever learn to curb these unconscious gut-level leanings. Instead, relying on competency-based interviews is the best antidote to the implicit bias entrenched in every decision we make.

Practicing competency-based interviewing is simple, and TalVista does it for you:

  1. Define a role’s competencies before reviewing any candidates
  2. Create an interview plan that maps to those competencies
  3. Score each candidate on the same baseline of competencies

What interview questions should I avoid?

HR manuals and popular blog posts are great references for interview questions you should never ask—are illegal, all are bad at predicting job performance. These include:

  • Are you married?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • What is your religious affiliation?
  • What is your race or ethnicity?
  • Do you have a disability?

Simply put, making a hiring decision based on marital or parenthood status (including future plans!), religion, race, ethnicity or disability is illegal. So just don’t go there.

But you probably already knew that. In addition to those, below are five less commonly deplored, but equally bad, interview questions that you should avoid.

“How would you rate your ______ ability?”

Whether it’s leadership or technical skills, research shows that people from underrepresented backgrounds in a particular field tend to underestimate their true ability. Shelley Correll at Stanford University, for example, found that men assess their math ability higher than women who perform at the same ability level according to grades and test scores. So avoid asking candidates to rate their own abilities; chances are, they’re not very good at it.

“What are your interests?”

While many believe that people whose interests match the content of their jobs have higher job performance, research suggests this is true only to a very limited extent (a rigorous meta-analysis found that the correlation between interests and job performance is only 0.1). Here’s why: Interests influence which kind of careers people try to enter. But once individuals pick a job or career, the quality of their job performance is determined mostly by their mental ability and certain personality traits, like integrity, not by their interests. So stop wasting time trying to suss out whether a candidate is so passionate about accounting because he blogs about it on weekends. The truth is her ability to learn new skills will be more predictive of future job success.

“What is your favorite coffee/beer/fitness activity?”

Questions about personal preferences that have nothing to do with core job competencies should be avoided like the plague for several reasons. First, there is a mountain of research showing that interviewers already commonly suffer from “similar-to-me” bias. That is, interviewers are more likely to select a candidate for a job if they have similar demographic characteristics, regardless of actual qualifications. Like many biases, “similar-to-me” bias is unconscious and therefore difficult to avoid. Don’t make selecting the right candidate for the job even more difficult because you’re unduly swayed by a mutual love for ultimate Frisbee.

Another reason to avoid these types of questions is that they may signal certain social class norms that can alienate some qualified candidates. One job description asked applicants to be prepared to pick and defend their favorite coffee brand. I’m sure the question was meant to be a silly ice-breaker. But it also sent a sign that employees at this start-up can afford, and value, a cup of $6 single-origin Kirinyaga Peaberry coffee from Kenya. Not all candidates will share that value. And, most importantly, it’s probably not relevant for job success.

“Have you ever participated in a political demonstration?”

While this question is timely and would probably make for an interesting discussion among friends, it’s not appropriate for a professional job interview. Discriminating against a job candidate based on political affiliation is forbidden, so avoid questions that can be interpreted as trying to ascertain political beliefs.

“Have you ever been arrested?”

In some states, like California, employers are only allowed to ask applicants whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, not whether they’ve ever been arrested. Since people who have been arrested are often cleared of any wrongdoing, it’s unfair for employers to discriminate against individuals who have been arrested. (And, going quite a bit further, a recent studyfrom Harvard and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst questions the common belief that convicted felons are bad employees. Based on a sample of thousands of military employees, the study found that those with felony criminal backgrounds were actually promoted faster through the ranks and more often made it to the level of sergeant than recruits who weren’t offenders.) If you are concerned about an applicant’s’ integrity—a characteristic that has been shown to be a reasonably good predictor of job performance—ask specific questions that directly evaluate that quality instead.

Why do I get a template of interview questions and scoring to follow?

An interview is an information-gathering session made up of verbal and nonverbal exchanges between you and the interviewee. Because it’s hard to make a complete character and skill assessment of a stranger in just one hour, our brains rely more on those non-verbal, gut-level cues and feelings to determine whether we want to work with this person or not. Because of this, interviews risk becoming more a reflection of who you are than who the interviewee is.

If we’re really connecting with someone, we may ask soft toss interview questions the candidate can easily skate through; and when we’re not getting a good connection with someone, we may ask curveball interview questions to subconsciously prove they wouldn’t do well in the job.

Because of this, structure is critical to an effective, unbiased interview and TalVista helps you follow a single interview template for everyone you interview.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of a structured interview template in sidestepping bias by studying interviews with pregnant women and individuals with physical disability. Structured interviews and pre-assigned templates help us get less distracted by extraneous cues and instead surface the most important information needed to synthesize about a candidate.

Here’s the three key strategies of structured interviews:

  1. Revisit most important job-related hiring criteria immediately before or as you work through the interview
  2. Follow an interview template: Ask the same questions of everyone you interview, in the same order
  3. Rate everyone quantitatively on the same criteria using a standardized evaluation form

Why should I write notes and observations during an interview?

Recording your interview notes has two key benefits:

  1. You are more likely to apply the same structure of evaluation to each candidate which increases accuracy and reduces bias
  2. If you complete a feedback form with your interview notes during and immediately following an interview, there’s less risk that your busy schedule (or sheer procrastination) will keep you from completing that feedback form.