Posted tagged ‘interviewing’

The art of interviewing

May 25, 2009

It is now many years ago since I was first interviewed as a job applicant. The interview took place in the office of the manager of the particular place of employment, and the only people attending were the manager in question and me. As I recall, it lasted for about five minutes. I don’t actually remember the questions he asked me, but I do remember that as I left the office I wondered what benefit he could possibly gain from the encounter, as none of the questions seemed to me to be particularly relevant to anything. Maybe one of the reasons why my memory is dimmed is because, just after the interview began, I developed this overwhelming urge to sneeze. Not wanting to blow germs all over the office, I tried (successfully) to suppress the urge, and it is this struggle with the sneeze rather than the substance of the questioning that I remember most vividly.

A few years later I was interviewed for the first time for a university job. This time I faced an interview panel, but was rather put off by the fact that one of them, an elderly professor, was visibly asleep throughout the entire occasion. I was asked rather general questions by the first two panel members, and amazingly detailed ones by the third – so detailed that at the end of each question I was totally at a loss to work out what exactly he wanted to know. I didn’t get the job.

I am now a very old hand at interviewing. Apart from the interviews that did or didn’t get me jobs, promotions or other benefits, I have been a panel member at countless interviews, and more recently the panel chair at many more. And over that period of time the process of interviewing has become much more formal, and much more process-driven. There are rules and regulations, and guidelines and handbooks. The casual unpredictability of interviews has now largely gone from the system, as has (on the whole) the risk of negligent discrimination in the process. Gone are the days, thankfully, when anyone would even think of asking female candidates about their family responsibilities.

But while we have swept away many of the misuses of interviews, I’m not sure that we really know what we want interviews to deliver or how they can be genuine tools for finding the right answers to our recruitment, promotion and similar questions. A little while ago I was asked to attend an interview panel in another (non-university) organisation. As the panel met, we were given a list of questions that were to be distributed amongst the panelists. We were told to ask the questions verbatim as written down and to ask no follow-ups. We then had to mark the answers according to set criteria and marking schemes. And finally we were told that the successful candidate would be the one with the highest marks, and that this could not be set aside. While in some ways I admired the clarity of the process, I could not see how it provided the panel with any real sense of who would be the best candidate, but more particularly I could not see why the panel was needed at all, since almost everything here was automated. The event took an absurd twist when the first candidate was visibly flustered, and when asked a gentle question by the panel chair he revealed he had been in a minor car accident on the way to the interview. He was put at ease, but before the second candidate was ushered in the panel chair made my jaw drop to the floor when he suggested that all candidates would now need to be asked about their experience in travelling to the interview, for consistency and fairness.

I have moments when I doubt the value of interviews. However much we standardise them, many panelists will find it hard not to be influenced in the end by their superficial impressions of the candidate’s personality, and interview outcomes can be quite arbitrary as a result. On the other hand, I don’t know of any selection method which is both fairer and reveals information that really matters. And so in the end what matters is that interviews are conducted intelligently and sensitively, that interviewers are trained in the process, and most crucially that candidates are put at ease. These guidelines used by Loughborough University in the UK seem to me to be sensible. My own practices in chairing interviews is to attempt to ensure that we are fair, that we are friendly, that we are on time (it is unacceptable, I believe, to keep candidates waiting for long periods), that we stick to relevant questions, and that we allow the candidate to talk (i.e. no long questions or monologues by interviewers).

I must admit that I am much less persuaded that it is a good idea to standardise all the questions and to remove any possibility for individuality or spontaneity, as is suggested by these guidelines. There must be  a middle way between the reckless abuse of the process that might have been more common once, and the one-size-fits-all standardisation that some now propose. In universities in particular an interview – like other processes – should not be stripped of its intellectual potential.