A Little Less Conversation

The job market is picking up. I know we can argue about the “participation rate” and other contrary indicators, but when the unemployment rate hits 4.5 percent, as it did in April, we are getting pretty close to full employment.

At this company, that usually means that we will find ourselves short of employees, whether our own business is growing or not. Small companies have limitations, and there are situations in which we simply can’t offer much in the way of career advancement, even to talented people.

Now those people can find opportunities, usually at larger companies, and as much as I hate to lose them I can’t blame them for leaving. I suspect you have the same problem in your business.

The favorable employment market has caused our company to be in hiring mode for much of the past year, which is difficult and time-consuming, but I have always thought that interviewing prospective employees is probably the most important thing I do. So I was disconcerted to see a headline in The New York Times that read “The Uselessness of Job Interviews.”

The April 8th article was written by a professor at the Yale School of Management named Jason Dana, who believes that interviews are not merely a waste of time, but actually counterproductive. He tells the story of a female friend who arrived a half-hour late for a job interview. She got the job, and later one of the interviewers told her that they had been very impressed that she had retained her composure in spite of being late.

In fact, the woman had no idea that she had been late, as someone at the company had given her the wrong time. The point of the story was that interviewers make wrong assumptions, and suffer from the human tendency to construct narratives out of whatever bits of information they have, even when that information is plainly incorrect.

Dana goes on to site studies and anecdotes which support his conviction that successful interviews are not predictive of successful careers. In one interesting case, some applicants were told to give untruthful answers to interviewers’ questions. Not only were the interviewers unable to distinguish which applicants were lying, they also believed they could choose the right people whether answers were truthful or not.

For that very reason, unstructured, conversational interviews are popular among many businesspeople these days. Rather than testing an applicant’s knowledge of the field, or asking him or her to make decisions based on hypothetical situations, or defend credentials and career moves, they just try to get to know the applicant as a person.

The professor heaps scorn on that method, and he’s probably right to do so. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it’s pretty much what I do myself.

I’ve been in my present position for 33 years, which has to be some sort of testament to the Peter Principle, and means that I haven’t been interviewed in a very long time. Prior to that, however, I had probably been to around 50 job interviews. What I learned from that experience is that interviewing is like most other skills;
it improves with practice.

After about a dozen interviews, I realized that I was more experienced at the process than many of the people conducting the interviews. I also realized that most of those people would rather talk than listen, so I asked them questions that allowed them to do so. That role reversal helped me become more relaxed and confident, regardless of where an interview should end up going.

In spite of that, I usually like it when an applicant asks me questions, assuming they are substantive. I want prospective hires to be curious about the company, and what role they would play in terms of achieving the company’s goals. I want them to be ambitious, and I want them to be frank.

If applicants don’t ask me any questions during the course of the interview I invite them to do so at the end. It’s surprising how many people can’t come up with a single question, which always leads me to wonder whether they are nervous, indifferent, or just not all that adroit.

It’s hard for me to imagine a hiring process that did not include an interview, and not merely because my pre-interview expectations are almost invariably wide of the mark. It’s also because conversational skills are important. I want to know how our employees will talk to customers, suppliers, each other, and me. Whether they will be working in sales or any other capacity, the ability to communicate effectively is hard to overrate.

Over the years we placed a premium on interviews, but such was not always the case with references. Sometimes we didn’t even ask for references, let alone check them, on the theory that an applicant would simply find a couple of friends in plausible places who were willing to say nice things, whether they knew them to be true or not. In any event, they would not say anything negative.

After a couple of bad experiences we decided that perhaps references were worth a shot, and I discovered something very surprising. Some references actually will give you a bit of negative information, usually as a footnote, and when they do you would be well-advised to pay attention. We hired a couple of people in spite of the caveats, and later found that they were right on the nose.

In one case, we were interested in hiring a woman for a sales position, so I called her previous sales manager, whom she had listed as a reference. He told me that she was a fantastic employee, the best salesperson he had ever had, and he would love to have her back. At the end of our conversation, though, he added, “I do need to mention one thing. She does sometimes have family issues that can interfere with her job performance.”

I thought, “Well, who doesn’t?” so we offered her the job, she accepted, and on her first day she never showed up, or called, because of what she later said was a family emergency. Apparently it went on for some time, and she never came to work for us.

It’s also worth checking the validity of academic credentials. I once discovered that a new hire had claimed a degree he didn’t have, and we were obliged to let him go, even though the degree itself was not a requirement. A few years ago, a local school district fired its superintendent when it came to light that he had not only invented his doctorate, but also the university that granted it.

In short, I get that interviews aren’t everything, but I will continue to resist living in a world that is entirely data driven. Hiring is something like dating, where long before match.com and e-harmony, we relied on a factor that was hard to define when it came to choosing people. We called it chemistry.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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