Build or burn?

What are your weaknesses?

What makes interviewing such a hit and miss process?

Firstly, it’s a social interaction.  There are social aspects of meeting someone for the first time.  No one is at their ease.  So much is going on in terms of judgements, reactions, attraction or repulsion.  We’re probably unaware of most of it.  The social skills of both interviewee and interviewer will affect the conduct of the interview: such as an interviewer who fills much of the time doing the talking.  Often our judgement of a candidate’s suitability for a post is based on whether we found the social experience positive or negative.  It’s not necessarily a bad way to do things.  The person has to fit in, after all, but it’s a bit like mixing an unknown chemical with water: a lot of the time, nothing surprising happens but sometimes it goes bang.

The social aspects can be mitigated by panel interviews and designing scenarios, such as making a presentation, that mean the candidate meets lots of different people.  This works well but only if the most senior person involved is open to the opinions of others.

Secondly, it’s such an uneven game.  The information available to each ‘side’ is so asymmetrical.  The interviewee knows all the facts about their experience.  The interviewer, typically, knows only what is written on the resume and what the interviewer tells them.  References are no use and, anyway, success has a thousand fathers.  What about all the other people that influenced the outcome of an achievement?  The interviewer holds one big card – the job offer, all the other cards are in the candidate’s hands.

This is one reason, I suppose, why so many jobs are filled by processes other than advert and interview.  Companies prefer to make appointments in circumstances where they know more about the candidates, either promoting from within, or poaching people they know from other companies, converting temporary workers to permanent, or taking personal recommendations.

Thirdly, people are not at the best when being interviewed.  I don’t mean nerves.  Rather, interviewees are trying to make a good impression and fear the unvarnished truth will cast them in an unflattering light.  This means that otherwise honest citizens can sometimes be very economical with the truth.  It’s a crime most of us are guilty of.  Approach interviews like a detective, picking up clues and following lines of enquiry.  Adopt the approach of the political journalist who, when interviewing politicians, asks themselves ‘What’s this lying b*****d lying to me about’.  If that sounds against your nature, steel yourself.  It’s only an interview.  It’s an artificial process anyway.  Some of the most experienced HR people I’ve worked with – really pleasant people – I’ve observed get into character for an interview and ask the awkward question that I, being British, was too embarrassed to ask.  An interview should be a forensic examination of someone’s skills and experience, but if you don’t ask direct questions or leave avenues unexplored you leave yourself making judgements about people on intuition rather than evidence.

Fourthly, and compounding all of the above, people have no time.  The candidate probably hasn’t put as much time into preparation as they should, believing they can ‘wing it’ or that all they have to do is turn up and answer questions.  I’ve certainly sabotaged myself in this way many times in the past.  That’s the candidate’s problem.  The interviewer however is probably similarly under-prepared.  An interviewer too needs to time invest time in each candidate if they want a good result.  Few do.  There’s been many occasions, I confess, when I’ve not even read a candidates CV.  I’ve looked at a few headlines and relied on the feedback of others.  Recruitment is a business decision and yet we put a lot less effort into the process than we would other, less potentially damaging, investment decisions.  If you’re the candidate, it’s easy to tell if the interviewer hasn’t had the time to consider your interview.  They ask lazy questions designed to allow them to observe you while you’re talking and decide whether they like you or not.  To succeed in this type of interview turn it into a really interesting conversation, as if you both just met on the train.  Make them like you; save them the time of having to go into detail of your background.  Let them off the hook of not having prepared.

A way around the time constraint is to recruit a head-hunter; in effect, outsourcing some of your job to someone else.  That works perfectly well but, like any consultant, they can’t do all your job for you, there will still be a short list.

I have found interviewing one of the trickiest skills to master, probably because – for the longest time – I didn’t regard it as a skill to be mastered!  What changed my mind is the accumulation of observations on just how random and unpredictable the outcome can be.  Also, having made and observed too many bad selection decisions.

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