[Dept. of Bad Advice] How You Can Interview Well. . .

Cover of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas S...

Cover via Amazon

. . . and Disregard Dan and Chip Heath’s How-to-Interview Recommendations


I think Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath is a really good book. Most of the Heath brother’s content is great, both in their book, as well as in their monthly column for Fast Company. But even Babe Ruth stuck out, and their interviewing advice in Fast Company  – Hold the Interview: Why it may be wiser to hire people without meeting them – is a real stinker.

As December signals the end of one fiscal year, and the impending start of  new fiscal year for many companies – and a time when headcount budgets get released for hiring authorization – it’s a moment for hiring managers to get focused about hiring talent that performs rather than talent that misses the boat.

The Heath brothers premise is simple: they cite examples where candidates who did well on interviews were no better than candidates who did poorly when it came to actual performance on the job. The also note – echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink – the number of times hiring manager-types (think Oprah) get fooled by personal interviews.

Their solution? Skip the personal interview and hire on things like “work samples (my edit: not a bad idea if done right) job knowledge tests, and peer ratings of past job performance. Even a simple intelligence test is dramatically more useful.”

So what’s wrong with their advice? Plenty.

Most interviewers – starting with the easy target first – are lousy interviewers. They are frequently poorly trained or not trained at all, don’t know it, and don’t do much to improve.

Some of the worst offenders are HR types who should know better and don’t: when I ran US recruiting at Barclays Global Investors – at the time the world’s largest asset management firm and now part of BlackRock – the worst offender was a global head of Training and Development, whose ideas and training methods were not only not based in any evidence or effective practices, but were compounded by being able to “require” all hiring managers to go through his “interviewer training.”

The research shows pretty clearly that hiring managers, along with other “panel” interviewers who are trained in effective behaviorally based interview techniques, do a decent job. For companies that choose to dedicate – or have ample resources – selection expert Ed Yager provides the following statistics (and note that I believe the testing he identifies is individualized to the role, not something off the shelf) :

A Comparison of the Predictability of Various Selection/Assessment Tools Statistical Correlation Predicting future performance

0%     – Flip of a coin

17% – Interviewing alone (some studies have found a negative correlation, i.e., random choice is more accurate) See Business Magazine, 5/15/09

26% – Personality testing alone

30% – After adding background checks

38% – Ability testing alone

54% – After adding personality testing

60% – After adding abilities testing

75% – Composite Behavioral Assessment interview + testing + simulation/audition

What does that mean for most hiring manager who may not have all the resources that Ed suggests? It means the following:

  1. Identify the key 3-5 (5-7 if you must) key job factors that drive performance in a role. This is not a job description. This is assessing (shadowing somebody is one of my favorite ways) to find out what it is that good performers actually do that drives performance. As an example, a computer designer at Apple Inc. and Dell Computer might have the same job description. Hunch is that what makes one successful at Apple differs in some significant ways from what makes someone successful at Dell.
  2. Figure out how you know when those skills are demonstrated and evidenced. Most hiring managers I know are focused on the right questions to ask. They should be focused on the behaviors / attributes / qualities that they’re looking to see displayed and evidenced. Figuring out how to surface the right question is a function of what you’re looking to find.
  3. Train people well – a panel of well trained people who know what they’re looking for beats a single hiring manager for effective hiring any day.
  4. Work samples and simulations are fine if they’re done well and are keyed to the critical success attributes. In the old days this was usually something like a typing test for someone whose job required effective typing skills as a main ingredient. While the law in the US requires that any tests be validated, few people actually do validate their tests. They pick up speed, but may also pick up legal exposure if they use tests (personality test, IQ test, work samples, etc.) without validation.
  5. Background checks are done well. Are the same behaviors you heard about in candidate interviews the same behaviors that references talk about when they describe candidates in prior roles?

Effective candidate assessment and interviewing doesn’t have to be a hard task. It’s one where a little thought, a little homework, and a little training can go a long way to effective hiring practices.