As a strategy consultant, clients often seek my advice in hiring decisions. That said, the years of experience haven’t in any way diminished the uncertainty or the challenge inherent in a hiring decision. A recent event only reaffirmed it.

I had been responsible, partly at least, for a case of poor hiring. A gentleman I had interviewed, with careful preparation, and recommended to a client had had to leave. He was not up to the task.

A chance to make amends?
So, when my client asked me to vet a replacement they had found, I tried harder to make amends.I read her profile several times and agonized over whether she had the skills and expertise my client needed in the Marketing Manager.

I prepared meticulously. I made a list of specific capabilities to look out for in the first interview and conducted it over telephone to avoid being biased by her appearance.

For the second interview I drew up a further list of questions and situations to test her. In the second face-to-face meeting I comprehensively gleaned her skills, expertise, functional knowledge, ability to think, and collaborative attitude.

I jotted down my impressions, while memory was still fresh, and conveyed my favorable opinion to the client. But I am not at all sure if my judgment was sound. In fact I wonder if we – my client and I – should have once again relied so much, or at all on interviews.

A flawed method 
Interviews are a flawed method for a number of reasons. The interviewer is susceptible to first impressions. An affable young man is likely to be considered more suitable than a shy young lady though these qualities may have nothing to do with their intelligence or capabilities. We credit a person who speaks well with more intelligence, and tend to overlook weaknesses of people who appear pleasant and smiling. We like or dislike a person by the way she looks, dresses, and behaves.

Interviews are no more than an intuitive assessment of the candidate, and they are fraught with biases. Is it even possible to predict a person’s performance over the next five years, or longer, based on a few hours’ conversation?

Is there a better method?
For most jobs, especially for junior to mid-level positions, intelligence, attitude, skills and capabilities are relevant for good performance. Standard psychometric tests can be excellent measures of the substance of a person. Technical and functional capabilities are better assessed by formal tests or examinations.

What if we have to use interviews?Fortunately, they can be made more effective. However, they should not be the only, or even the main criterion for selection. Here are a few suggestions for more effective interviews.

• At least one interview each by different senior people in the organization.
• All first interviews should be conducted over the phone to minimize the biasing influence of the candidate’s appearance.
• All must use the same carefully drafted set of questions that are likely to be good tests of the person’s capabilities. Each interviewer may evaluate the candidate on a scale of 1-10 on each of the questions and a cumulative score obtained for each interviewer.
• Finally, selection/rejection scores and criteria should have been agreed in advance. 

Elaborate? Yes. Unnecessary? Absolutely not! Our intuitive judgments can and do lead us astray.

Note: Subject inspired by Max Bazerman and Don Moore. 

V N Bhattacharya 
Business & Corporate Strategy