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Bringing Objectivity to the Interview Process October 3, 2019

by Matt Walker

We all remember that grueling exercise known as the SAT. It was three hours of test-taking on a Saturday morning designed to provide college admissions departments a common reference point for assessing applicants. While some might debate its worthiness given cultural and socioeconomic factors, asking high school students common questions to test aptitude and skills should, in theory, provide objective data for decisioning.

Unfortunately, not all important life decisions employ objective measures that allow apple-to-apple and orange-to-orange comparisons. A case in point is the job interview process.

Here, applicant appearance and personality introduce an immediate element of subjectivity, often creating a halo effect that influences, positively or negatively, all aspects of an applicant’s credentials. Add to that a tendency among hiring managers to allow interviews to be free form in nature, that is, unscripted, and it readily becomes apparent that a more objective basis for making hiring decisions is needed.

Toward an Objective Process

Let me start by saying that eradicating all subjectivity is virtually impossible. After all, it’s part of human nature. That being said, there are steps hiring managers can take to insert more objectivity into their candidate interviews.

Develop a List of Questions – and Use It

Hiring managers first need to develop a list of questions specifically designed for the position being filled. Then, they must consistently use these questions in every candidate interview. In building this list, it’s important to assign a rating scale, whether A to F or 1 to 5, to rate applicant responses to each question. Last, it is essential to assign ratings while conducting the interview.

Recall that recruiters perform a first cut on applicants, assuring that those who are offered an interview possess the requisite education and experience for the position. Hiring managers – and the questions they compile and ask – should seek to take a deeper dive on these qualifications, for example, how well a programmer really knows java.

Beyond expertise-related questions, I recommend that hiring managers include a well-phrased question or two designed to elicit other types of information. I further recommend that hiring managers consult with human resources in phrasing these questions so that no illegal boundaries are crossed.

A question such as, “Is there anything you can think of that would prevent you from working a full-time, fast-paced 40 to 45+ hour a week job every week?” could uncover issues that might require an applicant to miss work more often than the occasional sick day. Here, an applicant might identify the need for an alternate work schedule due to childcare responsibilities or request the ability to telecommute because of transportation issues.

Another good question is “What do you know about our company?” An applicant’s response will often provide a good gauge of interview preparation and level of interest in the position. If the response is “I don’t know anything” or reveals a very weak grasp of what the company does, then your company likely is not at the top of this candidate’s list. If the applicant has a meaningful response, then he or she probably has done some research due to interest in securing the position.

Create an Overall Scorecard

Creating a matrix where applicant names, individual score on each question and total score in rank order facilitates side-by-side comparisons. I find a spreadsheet with a sorting capability to be invaluable in rank ordering.

The scorecard not only readily distinguishes the top candidate in terms of assigned ranks but also assures memory – or the primacy-recency effect – doesn’t sabotage those interviewees who came somewhere in the middle of many interviews or simply was not that memorable. It’s easy to forget. That’s why real-time ratings and a scorecard are invaluable.

About Scoring

Scoring is by no means a perfect remedy, and hiring managers will often encounter a situation where they want to hire the second-highest-ranked candidate rather than the first. My advice is to reflect and identify the undocumented factor prompting that desire. Perhaps, it is an ancillary, but important, skill that came up in one interview but the hiring manager didn’t think to include it within the standard interview questions. In opting to hire the lower ranked candidate, hiring managers must be prepared to justify the rationale behind deviating from the scorecard. Of course, if the hiring process includes a second round of interviews, then it is possible to determine directly whether the higher-ranked applicant also possesses that skill.

Beware of Commonalities

Consider the following scenario: The hiring manager loves to sail and the office décor includes a picture of a sailboat. A job candidate enters the office and immediately comments on the picture, adding it’s a favorite hobby. The two spend the next 15 minutes talking about sailing.

While conversations like these tend to create a relaxed atmosphere for both parties, always remember the only commonality sought in the interview is the ability and passion to perform the work. In building teams, diversity is not only important but also a common characteristic of the most successful teams. (See my blog “Diversity and Competitive Advantage.”)

Benefits of This Approach

Ultimately, the goal of any employment interview is to find the candidate who is the best fit for the position, not someone the hiring manager wants to befriend. The best fit is the individual who, as evidenced by the responses offered to a consistent list of position-related questions, will complement and advance the team in place.

Matt Walker is a Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist at Electrosoft Services, Inc.

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