“I once interviewed this young lady, highly recommended,” says management author Brigette Hyacinth, in a recent post on LinkedIn.
“Couldn’t answer a question properly being so nervous. I knew who she worked for and this person wouldn’t recommend someone unless they truly believed in them.”
Brigette says she asked some panel members to leave, in order to help the candidate – yet, she still struggled. But, based on the woman’s recommendations and job history, Brigette decided to hire her anyway.
“Within 6 months, she was one of my top performers,” she says. “The truth is interviews can be nerve-wracking. There is much more to a person that just passing / failing an interview.”
Sabotaged by nerves
Around 92% of us suffer from interview anxiety, and in most cases, the nervousness itself is the major problem. We just don’t know how we’re going to react under pressure.
And while moderate levels of anxiety can enhance performance, too much stress naturally impairs us. It’s very hard to think straight when you have super-sweaty palms, your heart is racing and you’re worried about your voice shaking.
Brigette is unusual, in that she was able to look beyond the stress experienced by her candidate. Most of us would equate a bad interview with a poor candidate (hence, the internet is brimming with articles on how to control your nerves at this critical stage).
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Anxiety can indeed cost you the job, which is madness when you consider quite how little bearing it has on performance overall. The most smooth-talking of candidates might make a terrible employee, and someone nervous might be hugely competent.
So, why are we so quick to dismiss people based on their reaction to this one random, and very stressful, event?
A flawed process
Even beyond nerves, studies show that there is very little correlation between someone’s performance at interview and how they do at the job. In other words, interviews aren’t a reliable way of gauging how someone will fit.
And yet, we still cling to the notion that interviews somehow give us a good idea of who people are. This seems to make sense – until you consider that our first impressions are formed from an unwieldy snowball of unconscious biases and implicit assumptions, most of which turn out to be wrong.
You might *think* you’re making a clear-headed decision based on someone’s skills, but actually your judgement is cut through with a string of tiny, snapshot falsities that you’re not even aware of.
This all adds up to a baffling system of prejudice that has very little to do with raw ability and experience. For example, if you’re tall, good-looking or speak with a low-pitched voice, you’re more likely to make a better impression. However, if you have bad skin, say the word “you” a lot or even if you just happen to be a woman, you may be at a disadvantage.
And because most of the judgements that underpin this process are unconscious, they’re particularly hard to keep tabs on.
The likeability factor
Another issue with interviews is that we tend to prioritise people we like over their qualifications and suitability for the job. One study found that pre-interview small talk and rapport building are more influential to job hiring than the interview itself.
On one level, this seems fair enough. Working with people you get on with makes everything easier, and it’s reassuring to gel with a candidate from the outset.
But again, this could be misleading. Given we make a judgement of someone in the first 10 seconds of an interview, the rest of the time is typically spent looking for confirmation of what we believe to be true – regardless of whether it actually is true (a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”).
“Based on the slightest interaction, we make a snap, unconscious judgement heavily influenced by our existing biases and beliefs,” says Laszlo Bock, who used to head up People Operations at Google. “Without realizing it, we then shift from assessing a candidate to hunting for evidence that confirms our initial impression.”
So, not only is likeability a poor predictor of performance, but also our understanding of that likeability may be flawed in the first place.
A new way forward
While unstructured job interviews – or “casual chats” – won’t be going away anytime soon, perhaps it’s time to reassess their significance.
For employers, this means throwing the rule book out on the traditional recruitment process.
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“One option is to structure interviews so that all candidates receive the same questions, a procedure that has been shown to make interviews more reliable and modestly more predictive of job success,” says Jason Dana, of the Yale School of Management. “Alternatively, you can use interviews to test job-related skills, rather than idly chatting or asking personal questions.”
It’s also worth putting more weight on experience and recommendations, as Brigette highlights at the beginning of this piece.
The job audition
There is another solution, too. Ron Friedman, social psychologist and the author of The Best Place to Work, believes another way to caveat the weaknesses of job interviews is to run a “job audition”.
Essentially, this is similar to a probation period – but in a shorter time frame.
“For example, if you’re looking to hire a sales rep, bring the candidate in for a few hours and have that person sell you and members of your team on your product,” says leadership expert Marcel Schwantes, in an article for Inc.com. “If you’re hiring web designers, bring them in and have them design a landing page for you.”
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Research shows that job auditions are far more effective than interviews in predicting whether someone has the skills and personality to blend with a particular culture.
So, what does all this mean for you, as a candidate? Well, if you’re terrible at interviews – take heart. At a time when companies are competing to be flexible and open-minded, the standard do-or-die interview is no longer valid.
The best kind of employers (i.e. those you ultimately want to work for) should be looking at more incisive ways of working out who you are, and what you bring to the table.