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Justin Weinhardt, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.
Justin Weinhardt, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Why unstructured job interviews are a waste of time Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

An acquaintance recently landed a new job with an engineering firm following a casual conversation at a coffee shop with a recruiter and a manager. Their conversation, touched on a mutual love of music and a culinary debate, but very little of the interview actually focused on previous experience or skills. He was offered the job, yet the company had no idea how he would perform as an employee.

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This situation is not unique. Human resources professionals and hiring managers are assessing – or rather not assessing – the skills of would-be employees using an ineffective interviewing tactic, namely unstructured interviews.

Today, the unstructured interview is among the most popular interviewing techniques. It gives the interviewer the freedom to ask potential candidates a range of questions in the hopes of discovering a special talent or personality trait, that could otherwise be missed in a more formal interview with its prescribed set of questions.

However, it also relies on the interviewer’s intuition to judge personality fit and job performance. Time and time again, though, researchers have proven that the unstructured interview is the least effective method in predicting the success of a job applicant, for numerous reasons.

With no set questions, the information collected is not always valuable since the questioning tends to digress. In the end, you have varying responses from each candidate, making it difficult to accurately draw comparisons. Finally, interviewers are often wrong about their intuitive judgments. Although you may believe your gut feeling becomes more attuned with experience, there is no evidence to support this.

The fact is that it is extremely difficult to predict a candidate’s job performance. However, the use of general mental ability tests, combined with personality and integrity tests, work samples and structured interviews will more accurately help you to select the best-of-the-best candidates. This will give you the basis for a successful hire and an edge over competitors using unstructured interviews.

Compare apples to apples

First and foremost, always use structured interviews – asking each candidate the same questions in the same order. Is this approach boring? Maybe. But it is also up to twice as effective at predicting job performance. This type of interview gives all applicants an equal opportunity to prove they are right for the job. It is reliable, can be replicated, and is relatively quick to complete. Bonus: Because you have a consistent interview procedure to compare all job applicants, you are protected against legal liability. If you need help, the Public Service of Canada website has an excellent resource to help develop structured interview questions.

Sample skill sets

Do not simply trust that applicants can do the job; have them demonstrate their abilities. During the interview process, have candidates complete a work sample so you can assess their skills. Just as you would likely not hire a photographer without first seeing examples of work, do not hire an employee without first assessing the skill set that you are acquiring.

Test integrity, not intuition

Instead of relying on your intuition, use personality and integrity tests (computerized or paper and pencil) to get reliable and accurate information about your candidates’ personalities and attitudes. The most valid measurement of personality is the Big Five Model, which looks at five key traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Researchers from the University of Calgary have also developed a competing model of personality called HEXACO, which measures a factor called honesty-humility. This factor has been linked to a number of positive workplace behaviours such as pro-social behaviour, ethical behaviour and organizational citizenship behaviour. While no personality test is perfect, these two are both more reliable measures of personality than the popular but problematic Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, whose accuracy at measuring personality has been questioned.

When all else fails, check for smarts

The best predictor of job performance is also one of the most expensive and controversial selection methods – general mental ability. Commonly referred to as IQ, general mental ability is the best predictor of job performance. This is one of the most established facts in organization science and is consistently true across all jobs.

However, testing for general mental ability is costly and time-consuming, and tests can exhibit cultural, ethnic and gender differences. If you choose to go down this path, choose wisely. The Society for Human Resources Management has provided a full report about using intelligence tests and their potential adverse impact, and provides a great overview of intelligence tests in employment settings.

Justin Weinhardt, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). He is an expert in human resources and organizational psychology, and has a particular interest in understanding how motivation and decision-making change over time.

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