The Utter Uselessness of Unstructured Job Interviews

Nigel Ravenhill

On April 8, The New York Times shined a mass media spotlight on a too-common experience that we help our customers avoid; unstructured job interviews fail to produce the outcomes companies expect. We absolutely agree; meandering chats about food, favorite Napa Valley varietal or Bucket List travel destinations should only happen after confirmation that the candidate actually knows how to, for example, generate 20 MQL sales leads per week or profitably manage a $3 million dollar Facebook ad budget. 

Unstructured Job Interviews Ensure Unfocussed Conversations

In his “The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews” editorial in the Times’ Sunday Review, Jason Dana, assistant professor of management and marketing at the Yale School of Management, referenced academic research that he and colleagues have been conducting for years. (A deeper exploration of the subject is available in Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 5, September 2013. The Society for Judgment and Decision Making).

Ignoring the misleading title of the Times piece – it should have been the same title we used – Dana pilloried the value of random conversations with candidates rather than interviews to which the interviewer arrives knowledgeably prepared. Some of his more important takeaways and tips include:

  1. Employers like to use free-form, unstructured interviews in an attempt to “get to know” a job candidate.
  2. Interview behavior is not indicative of future job performance.
  3. People have no trouble turning any information into a coherent narrative.
  4. The problem with unstructured job interviews is worse than irrelevance (in terms of future performance); they can be harmful, undercutting the impact of other, more valuable information about interviewees.
  5. 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.
  6. Use interviews to test job-related skills, rather than idly chatting or asking personal questions.

Structured Job Interviews are Critical

You have to continue to the penultimate paragraph to land on Dana’s suggested fix; prepare structured interviews to avoid meandering conversations covering topics like one’s favorite music, sports, the local traffic and the cafeteria food. What you should focus learning more about are the candidate’s experience, relevant skills and approach to solving the kinds of problems s/he will be faced with as a new co-worker. Dana ends with a sober understanding that he’s paddling against a current:

“Realistically, unstructured job interviews aren’t going away anytime soon. Until then, we should be humble about the likelihood that our impressions will provide a reliable guide to a candidate’s future performance.”

How Comeet Will Help You

What does this mean to you? If you are using spreadsheets or a recruiting tool other than Comeet, odds are that you are not following Dana’s “Be Prepared” recommendations. How do we know? It takes a lot of work to prepare for interviews. If you’re not a recruiter or hiring manager, interviewing is most likely absent from your job description. Therefore, you’re far more focussed on doing a good job in the areas where you’re paid to excel, rather than familiarizing yourself with the java developer you’re meeting tomorrow morning. This is human nature and employee behavior in most companies.

A Workflow that Ensures Meaningful Conversations

To avoid this fate, one of the key functionality areas we focussed on right from the beginning when building our recruiting system was the interview. What could we do to ensure that interviews were meaningful conversations and not random, miscellaneous chats? We knew it was vital to help everyone involved in hiring excel in their respective roles. For interviews and interviewers, this meant building a UX and UI that makes it relatively simple for recruiters, hiring managers and interviewers to have the kinds of structured job interviews Dana recommends.

Comeet’s interviewing interface includes everything necessary to prepare for, and conduct candidate interviews, then submit meaningful quantitative and qualitative feedback. Features and resources available to recruiters, managers and interviewers include:

  • Job descriptions
  • Hiring manager instructions (guidance for the hiring team)
  • Selection criteria (these are “must-haves” while these are “nice-to-haves”)
  • Candidate CVs and rich bios (supplemental info, portfolios, etc.)
  • Social media profiles
  • Question database (filterable by criteria such as job title, tasks, skills and expertise, etc.)
  • Pre-made question sets (including suggested “what we’re looking for” responses)
  • Question sets can be popular interviewing methodologies such as Performance-Based Interviewing
  • Evaluation scorecards (qualitative and quantitative assessment options)

Structured Job Interviews 101

In practice, the above features enable a painless and powerful sequence of events:

  1. Hiring managers describe their ideal candidate.
  2. Interviewers understand interview context and objectives, and know what to address (the question sets help keep focus) when meeting candidates.
  3. Evaluation options allow for interviewer feedback preferences.
  4. Hiring managers and management have a trove of information and feedback to make an educated and truly informed decision.

Unstructured job interviews are heavily influenced by charm and charisma, and the interviewee’s ability to converse and chat. They’re also good at allowing conscious and subconscious bias to cloud one’s assessment. In the same way that academic success is not a reliable portent for job success in most positions, neither is the ability to “crush” an interview.

To paraphrase Roman philosopher Seneca, “a successful hire is what happens when interviewer preparation meets a qualified and promising candidate.” In recruiting, the reward for preparation is learning as much as you can about a candidate’s ability to be successful in the position. You cannot do this if most of your candidate interviews are random conversations about music, Coachella fashions, the weather, sports or someone’s preferences at a food truck rodeo or craft beer festival. There’s a time for those kinds of conversations – just not when assessing whether s/he can actually do the job.