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From Both Sides Now: The Employee Interview--the Great Pretender

Allan H. Church

What is one of the first things you think of when you meet someone new? The length of time that direct eye-contact is made? The level of attractiveness of the person facing you? The personal style or taste in outerwear? For me, all first impressions (and most re-acquaintances as well) are subjected to the "handshake" test. Thanks in large part to the efforts of my parents to educate their son in the ways of the "firm--not too hard, not too soft, and not too long" hand-to-hand greeting in preparation for that first meeting with an admissions officer or that first job interview, I now apply the "handshake" test to everyone with whom I come in contact (assuming I shake their hand, that is). While I would clearly be exhibiting a bias (not to mention being foolish) if I were to truly believe that the type of handshake offered translates to anything remotely related to job performance or effectiveness; this is, in effect, comparable to the myriad of individualistic and idiosyncratic criteria that people, and especially managers, use throughout the employee interviewing process to make judgments about a candidate's suitability to the task.

Almost everyone has had at least one interview with a prospective employer in his or her life (if you haven't, I'd sure like to know why!) and can attest to the peculiarities of the process. There always seems to be some off-the-wall question, perception of a hidden agenda on the part of the manager, or fear that one didn't put one's "best foot forward" during the interview. Moreover, many of us have had experiences on the other side of the hiring process as well. It is quite disheartening to realize after a long protracted interviewing and screening process, for example, to learn that employee chosen for the job is either (a) leaving for another position that he or she REALLY wanted but was settling for yours in the meantime or (b) far less competent and effective than they "seemed" during the interviews. The use of this terminology, of course, highlights the very problem with many typical interview methods--they don't work all that well. Many people dread them for these very reasons. Moreover, individuals on both sides of the interviewing fence are constantly seeking advice on how to improve their chances for a successful outcome (i.e., get hired by the best and hire the best) and avoid the host of biases and potential pratfalls that can accompany these methods. And yet, the employee interview is probably one of the single most widely used "techniques" in organizations today and has remained relatively unchanged for decades.

Rather than pontificate further on the subject, I decided to let some experts take a crack at exploring the issues inherent in the interview conundrum. Thus, the questions posed for this discussion were as follows:

Despite all the problems and biases inherent in the interview process:

  1. Why do managers continue to use employee interviews as one of the primary mechanisms and determining factors for personnel decisions in organizations?
  2. Why do I/O psychologists continue to focus their research efforts on improving the interview process, when the results from these studies and models do not appear to have had a significant impact on the general practice (i.e., as experienced by the average manager or employee) of interviewing in organizations?
  3. What can practitioners and managers do to make the interview a more valid and reliable methodology, and/or translate research findings into everyday practice?

The first contributor to this discussion is Philip Roth, Associate Professor of Management at Clemson University. Phil's comments are direct and to the point regarding the whys and wherefores of the interviewing process.

Question a: I think multiple reasons exist. Here are a few. 1. Managers believe that interviews are valid predictors of job performance and McDaniel et al.'s (1994) meta-analytic research with 100+ studies and many thousands of subjects seems to suggest they are often right, with corrected validities of .33 for unstructured and .44 for structured interviews. Overall, it appears that interviews are more valid than previously thought. 2. Many managers are convinced that "I'm a pretty good judge of character." Thus, even if most interviews are not particularly valid, THEIRS are. 3. Interviews allow managers and practitioners to look at social skills that are not apparent on resumes by college students and many applicants. For some reason, many managers believe they are pretty good judges of character (e.g., Medley, 1992). In general, however, I don't think they are especially adept at judging personality variables in the interview. In fact, I think clinical psychologists probably have a hard time doing this and they are trained to make these assessments. 4. Managers believe they are not as likely to be sued (either that they do not believe the same legal standards apply to interviews as tests or that applicants take interviews a matter of course and are less questioning of them).

Question b: Several thoughts on this one. 1. The question implicitly assumes that the reasons we do research is to have it utilized by organizations (and this is one reason), but we as scientists also have a goal of understanding and improving hiring processes regardless of use by a business community that can be either (at times) uninformed or faddish. 2. To some extent, I disagree that there is no effect. Lots of big organizations are turning to behavior description interviews. Procter & Gamble, First Union Bank, and Coopers & Lybrand (a Big 6 accounting firm) are all examples of firms using structured or semi-structured behavioral interviews. 3. Management attitudes block development of interviewing; most managers don't understand that interviewing is a skill. There is an implicit theory that business people know how to interview as soon as they are promoted to manager or recruiter (humorously put, the interviewing fairy appears and bonks you with the magic interviewing wand). Thereafter, one "knows" how to interview and needs no training. 4. Many managers believe that unstructured interviews are better gauges of personality and, hence, better predictors of performance than structured interviews. Structured interviews suppress the emergence of applicants' personality (e.g., Medley, 1992).

Question c: 1. Spread the word that it is a skill that needs to be developed with training. This may begin to change the mental set that people spontaneously learn interviewing through a visit from the interviewing fairy. I would suggest training that incorporates the opportunity to practice asking either situational or behavioral questions and the opportunity to get feedback (e.g., videotaping). Add a little bit about legal issues in the interview and you should have a pretty solid training program. 2. Structure them! Roughly 70% of interviews are still unstructured. 3. Use behavior description of situational developed interviewing questions.

Gerald Ferris--a professor of Labor and Industrial Relations, Business Administration, and Psychology and Caterpillar Foundation University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--provided the following argument for the continued existence of the interview system based in large part on the notion of flexibility and freedom. He also addresses the ever elusive issue of "fit."

Question a: I believe the employment interview enjoys widespread use (and will continue to) as a human resources staffing decision-making tool, for several reasons. First, the interview provides managers a considerable degree of flexibility in their decision-making process, in contrast to testing and assessment instruments, for example. Fundamentally, I think managers have a strong interest in maintaining freedom and flexibility, and react negatively to procedures they feel are rigid and constrain their flexibility. This feeling probably stems from their perceived need to be able to respond to dynamic work environments, which are changing in a number of ways today with respect to human resources issues. A number of authors have written about the de-jobbing of organizational America, whereby the job as we know it will cease to reflect the most appropriate way to package work. In its place, we will focus more on fluid roles and rotating/changeable responsibilities as we allocate human resources among new and evolving project clusters.

If, indeed, we see such notions transpire, then it seems that the quality of staffing decisions will be at least partially a function of managers' ability to assess "fluid fit" of a candidate with a future scenario of changeable work demands. It is difficult to see that a particular assessment device would be flexible enough to add meaningfully to such a prediction and decision. But the interview will probably be the principal tool employed. We already see organizations focusing on hiring for fit, values, culture, etc., which suggests we are already making efforts to acknowledge that we need more flexible alternatives to the more rigid hiring processes for specific (and implicitly unchanging) job requirements. However, there remain challenges to the use of such approaches. A critical issue is that we quite often see little if any attempt to define what is meant by fit. Instead, managers or recruiters who employ such criteria frequently resort to such definitional attempts as "Well, I can't articulate it, but I'll know it when I see it." In fact, Tim Judge and I tried to make sense of the "elusive criterion of fit" in a recent article on the interview (Judge & Ferris, 1992), which suggested that leaving such criteria undefined can pose problems for both the candidate and the organization. One aspect of this problem is that if fit is allowed to remain vague and ambiguous, it can be manipulated through active impression management efforts of job applicants to exercise control over interviewer decisions.

I believe a second reason for the continued use of the employment interview by managers is their genuine belief in their ability to make better decisions than can result from the use of testing and assessment devices. Many people believe themselves to be excellent judges of human character, and managers and recruiters who have interviewed a lot probably feel that way more than most. So, it is often a hard sell to convince these people that there are superior alternatives to interviewer judgments.

Questions b and c: I think it is quite appropriate for I/O psychologists to continue to focus research attention on the employment interview. For example, to the extent that active efforts by job applicants to influence interviewer ratings go on, we need to know much more about the dynamics of such processes, and what the boundary conditions are. This is an area of interview research that has been largely ignored until relatively recently. Also, we do know some important things from prior research on the interview that can be of use to managers. The use of situational interviews to create realistic contexts in which to observe simulated job behavior can be a quite powerful and effective tool, and I see increased use of such approaches in organizations today. Finally, I also think we see much less of the free-floating, unstructured interview approach today and more of an effort to restructure the content. Structured formats can have a favorable effect on reliability.

All in all, the interview has been with us for many years, and it shows no signs of reduced use. The realization that managers and recruiters in organizations will never stop using the interview, and that it will remain the most frequently used human resources staffing tool, should be reason enough for organizational scientists to continue their efforts to develop a more informed understanding of this important process.

Moving to the external consultant's view, Elaine Pulakos--currently Director of Personnel Decisions Research Institute's Washington DC office--echoes and further elaborates on a number of the points raised above. The primary focus of her comments, however, are on the lack of practical application and impact that much of our research efforts in I/O psychology (including interview research) have on contemporary organizations.

Question a: To put it simply, managers "like" interviews--they provide an opportunity to "sum up" job applicants in person. Many hiring officials are unwilling to extend employment offers without such face-to-face contact. In addition, most managers feel they are good interviewers, often having their own set of "pet" questions and evaluation criteria they are convinced identify the best applicants for a job.

Of course, the I/O literature shows that typical, unstructured interviews have poor validities, and many managers are not particularly good interviewers. Managers are frequently surprised to learn about interviewing research results; most do not realize there are problems with interviews. Unfortunately, even when confronted with this information, many managers discount it--the research literature "must be based on other folks who don't know how to conduct good interviews." Thus, managers like interviews and think they are good selection devices. This is why interviews are used extensively to make personnel selection decisions.

Questions b and c: The issue of why we keep doing empirical research is separate from the issue of why this research may be having less impact than it could. As industrial and organizational psychologists part of what we do is to conduct research that results in the creation of new methods and improvement of old methods for making effective personnel decisions. The research should continue.

The issue of the impact of our work is troubling, and it is not limited to employment interviewing; it is a pervasive problem that affects the field of I/O psychology as a whole. I/O research is not well packaged for, or marketed to, the "average manager or employee" in organizations. Managers do not read JAP, Personnel Psychology, or other outlets for I/O research. Corporate personnel read Fortune, Forbes, Business Week, the Wall Street Journal, and similar publications. Some organizations are astute or lucky and "happen upon," an I/O psychologist to guide and inform them about effective human resources practices. Many (perhaps most) others rely on getting their information from popular publications or large business-oriented consulting firms, within which I/O psychologists are not well represented.

Another more specific problem concerning the impact of our interviewing research is that the interviews I/O psychologists often recommend (i.e., structured interviews that have shown good validity) tend to meet with resistance. Managers want flexibility to ask questions they feel are appropriate and evaluate applicants on criteria they feel are most relevant. Sometimes the criteria are job relevant; sometimes they are not. When it is possible to convince organizational members to try a structured format, however, they become "converts." Managers end up concluding what we already know; that is, asking applicants structured, job-relevant questions and evaluating them on standardized criteria provide an efficient mechanism and very good information on which to based hiring decisions.

In summary, I/O research in general and interviewing research in particular are not having the impact they could because many managers do not know or appreciate what I/O psychology has to offer. We need to take steps to better ensure that our research has a more significant impact on organization practice. This means making I/O psychology accessible to managers by educating them about how it can improve business practices, writing feature articles for popular business publications, giving seminars targeted to managers on key HR issues, and other such activities. Another promising avenue is to ensure that I/O psychology methods and techniques are well represented in undergraduate and graduate management textbooks and courses. This is where future managers and HR professionals are first exposed to effective business practices. We also need to persuade our clients to try the methods we know will produce good results, even in the face of initial resistance. Finally, showing that our methods improve organizational effectiveness and bottom line results is a key selling point for many organizations.

The final comments for this discussion are provided by Robert Dipboye--professor and chair of the psychology department at Rice University. Bob points to a number of very positive factors that reinforce the use of unstructured interviews (i.e., the "bad kind") in organizations, and cautions us against becoming too controlling and overbearing in our quest to improve the interview process.

Organizational Barriers to Implementing Interview Research

Selection interviews have been the target of almost a century of research by I/O psychologists. This attention is warranted when one considers the central role that the interview plays in selection processes. Not only is the interview widespread, but other techniques, such as cognitive tests, often influence final decisions only after passing through the lens of an interviewer's judgments (Dipboye, 1992). Through structuring interviews, practitioners can reduce or avoid these biases by (1) focusing on KSAs of the job, (2) having interviewers ask the same questions and use the same rating scales, (3) developing scoring keys for evaluating applicant answers in behavioral terms, (4) using multiple interviewers, (5) eliminating extraneous conversation with the applicant, and (6) withholding the application and other information that might bias impressions.

The research on interviews has had an important impact on everyday selection practices in organizations, which can be seen in the content of interviewer training programs, the how-to literature, and the increasing use of structured interviewing methods. Nevertheless, it is ironic that, despite the evidence to support structured approaches (Huffcutt & Arthur, 1994), the casual conversation continues as the dominant mode of employee selection. A recent survey conducted by Stacy Jackson and myself found that the practitioners we sampled believed that the interview was far superior to other approaches (e.g., intelligence tests) and tended to endorse unstructured interview practices. Part of the problem may be that the validity data presented on behalf of innovative selection procedures are not persuasive and that utility analyses are needed to convince decision makers. However, a more fundamental reason that unstructured procedures persist is that they serve a variety of organizational functions (Dipboye, 1994), and relative to structured techniques are (1) more effective in recruiting, (2) personally more satisfying for those who must conduct them, (3) superior in achieving a good fit of the person to the organization. (4) fairer in the sense of providing more two-way communication, a higher quality of interaction, and more voice, (5) more politically advantageous for those attempting to influence selection processes, and (6) a richer medium for communicating the organizational culture. Essentially, the dilemma is how to ensure accurate assessment without becoming Orwellian in the quest for standardization and job-relatedness.

There are several suggestions for implementing structure in a way that is acceptable to users. In designing interview procedures, practitioners should keep in mind that more is not always better, and should ask how little structure they can get away with while maintaining the quality of assessments. In implementing a structured procedure, some solutions may be as simple as explaining at the beginning why applicants are not being allowed to ask questions, providing dual role interviews in which there are separate sessions dedicated to assessment and recruitment, or allowing a period of free interaction once the structured part of the interview is completed. To the extent possible, those who implement interview procedures should be involved in the design of those procedures. Once implemented, monitoring and maintenance is needed to avoid the destructuring that I would suggest is inevitable.

The successful implementation of research on the interview as well as other selection techniques requires sensitivity to user attitudes as well as psychometric expertise. Moreover, I/O psychologists should approach the issue as an opportunity to integrate the best elements of structured and unstructured approaches rather than as an either-or decision.

So what have we learned, Dorothy? In many ways the four sets of comments presented above, while differing in the details, present nonetheless a relatively unified front with respect to (a) the reasons for the continued reliance on interviews in organizations, (b) the means by which to correct or improve the interviewing process, and (c) the importance of continuing to conduct research in this area. In general, it appears that managers like to do their own interviews their own way (i.e., unstructured in form and content). One of the reasons for the pervasiveness of this trend is probably because it gives managers some sense of freedom or flexibility in what is probably an otherwise rather controlling and bureaucratic organizational system most of the time. As with many individual level traits or abilities, managers undoubtedly think they are above average on their interpersonal and interviewing skills--i.e., a good judge of character--and therefore need little in the way of guidance or formal structure from the ever-struggling-for-relevance (not to mention credibility) groups in the HR, OD and I/O functions. We all want to be on the far right side of the bell curve but, by definition, most of us are smack-dab in the middle.

With respect to improving the interviewing situation it is apparent that, despite the solid evidence in support of structured methodologies (even if they might be, as Bob suggested, conducted with as little structure as necessary in order to achieve the desired impact), managers remain a "hard sell" to the benefits of what in their minds amounts to more work and less personal control. They actually like doing the interviews their way, and they get to experience the individual differences inherent in the interviewee as well--i.e., they "get to watch them squirm." No wonder we can't sell the damn things! Interviews are probably one of the last places left for managers to exercise their creative juices, particularly with respect to that favorite humdinger of a question reflecting the V.P.'s big presentation, the water cooler and the faulty pentium chip. Nevertheless, enhancing structure, with a focus on specific situations and behaviors, at least at some level, is the preferred solution given by all four of our contributors. Training in how to use, and perhaps be even somewhat flexible in, the structured interview process is in turn the primary method recommended for ultimately increasing the effectiveness of the employee interview. Just remember, there is still no hard and fast solution to breaking through the initial layer of resistance that appears to follow such a shift in the selection process. And, as Elaine noted, we are probably not as good at marketing the benefits of our services as we could be.

Finally, the answer is a resounding "YES!" with regard to continuing our research efforts in the area of enhancing interviewing effectiveness. Apparently, it seems that convincing a group of I/O psychologists to give up on a line of research that has been studied for almost a century is probably more difficult than convincing managers that they need to take our advice and get some more structure in their interview processes. In any case, the charge is clear: Go forth and structure those interviews!

I would like to thank Phil, Gerald, Elaine, and Bob for their contributions to the present discussion. Thanks also to JW for assistance with the wording of the question and MZ for her typing and proofing assistance. If you have a "pet topic" that you've been waiting to see discussed in these pages, a burning desire to write something inspired about a particular topic in I/O psychology, or if you have any reactions of comments regarding this issue's forum, you can reach me at W. Warner Burke Associates Inc., 201 Wolfs Lane, Pelham, NY, 10803, (914) 738-0080, fax (914) 738-1059, or e-mail AllanHC@AOL.COM. Thanks for reading!

References:

Dipboye, R. L. (1992). Selection Interviews: Process Perspectives. Cincinnati, OH: South-Western.

Dipboye, R. L. (1994). Structured and unstructured selection interviews: Beyond the job-fit model. In G. Ferris (ed.), Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management 12, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, pp. 79-123.

Huffcutt, A. I. & Arthur, W. Jr. (1994). Hunter and Hunter (1984) revisited: Interview validity for entry-level jobs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(2), 184-190.

Judge, T. A. & Ferris, G. R. (1992). The elusive criterion of fit in human resource staffing decisions. Human Resource Planning, 15, 47-67.

McDaniel, M. A., Whetzel, D. L., Schmidt, F. L., & Maurer, S. D. (1994). The validity of employment interviews: A comprehensive review and meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 599-616.

Medley, A. (1992). Sweaty palms. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Biographies:

Philip Roth is an Associate Professor of Management at Clemson University. Prior to this position, he was an assistant professor at San Diego State University and a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Houston while working with Bob Pritchard. He has published articles in Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Personnel Psychology and Journal of Management. His research interests include interviewing, utility analysis, missing data, and G.P.A. as a predictor of performance.

Gerald R. Ferris is professor of Labor and Industrial Relations, Business Administration, and Psychology and Caterpillar Foundation University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also is the Director of the Center for Human Resource Management at the University of Illinois. He received his Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and subsequently served on the faculty at Texas A&M University. His research interests are in interpersonal and political influence in organizations, performance evaluation, and strategic human resources management. He has authored numerous articles in such journals as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Academy of Management Journal, and Academy of Management Review, and serves as editor of the annual series, Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management. He has authored or edited a number of books as well including the Handbook of Human Resources Management. Ferris has consulted on a variety of human resources topics with companies, taught in management development programs, and lectured in Austria, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, in addition to various U. S. universities.

Elaine D. Pulakos (Ph.D., I/O Michigan State University) is both a scientist and a practitioner. Currently Director of Personnel Decisions Research Institute's Washington DC office, she has spent her career conducting applied research and consulting in both public and private sector organizations. A Fellow of APA and SIOP, she has published over 100 refereed journal articles, book chapters, and technical reports, primarily on selection and performance appraisal issues. She has served as consulting editor of JAP for seven years, Personnel Psychology for five years, and Frontiers in I/O Psychology for three years. SIOP service includes Program Chair, Secretary, and Member at Large to the Executive Committee.

Robert L. Dipboye is chair of the psychology department at Rice University, where he holds the rank of professor. He received his Ph.D. in I/O psychology from Purdue University and has held faculty positions at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Purdue University. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Applied Psychology and is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Organizational Behavior and the Academy of Management Review. He is a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the American Psychological Society, and the American Psychological Association. He is the author of Selection Interviews: Process Perspectives and Understanding Industrial and Organizational Psychology: An Integrated Approach (with Carlla Smith and Bill Howell). In addition to his scholarly pursuits, he has consulted with organizations in the design and validation of selection procedures.