Is Hiring Any Different Than Pure Guessing?

I must admit that I have found the recruitment process challenging in every single position that I have had. As a senior executive I have often been involved in hires by other managers and frankly they do not seem to fair any better. As far as I can tell there seems to be no correlation between the interview process and the quality of the hire. First pick hires often end up adding no value and at times even destroy value. Fourth picks often end up flourishing and becoming stars. Is there any reason to have an interview as part of the recruitment process?

I remember when I was first entering the work force I started preparing for my interviews. One of the questions I was told to prepare for was “Tell me about your greatest weakness.” I found this question so offensive that I really could not bring myself to come up with the a trite answer and to this day I refuse to participate in any job interview, as interviewee or interviewer, if that question is used.

The reason this question is offensive is that it puts the interviewee in the difficult position of jeopardizing their job prospects by being honest or breaching their integrity by dishonestly positioning themselves in a better light. Let us not kid ourselves, all the advice to “give an answer that seems like a weakness but is actually a strength” is just another way of saying “lie.” As far as I’m concerned the only correct answer to this question is “I don’t suffer fools easily.” Or if you want to go for funny, try “Kryptonite.”

What about more reasonable questions such as “Tell me about a time you added value” or any number of “Tell me about how [you did something that made you look good].” Even the most honest answer only gives a small insight, as it is a rare job indeed that is not significantly impacted by work colleagues, a boss and the business environment. In particular it only says something about technical skills.

More important than technical skills is interpersonal skills. There is quite often no wrong or right here, it is a question about cultural fit. There are psychometric tests available but how useful are they? The human mind is a little difficult to be measured this easily. How can you tell if someone is going to fit in to the current group or if they will the square peg in the round hole that makes working the team a nightmare? It is such scenarios that deteriorate into otherwise mature men and women fighting over who moved the stapler.

The bottom line is that there is massive information symmetry and the interviewer is at a great disadvantage. Even assuming complete attempts at honesty by the interviewee, the amount of information that is necessary to make any sensible judgement is too great for a one hour interview (or even a dozen such follow up interviews). Just think about it, how often does your current team need to meet for you to understand your own projects? How many months of full time work before you feel that you understand a new team member? Can a few interviews replace that?

So is the recruiting function doomed? I don’t think so. When trained professionals are involved, in the form of some combination of the HR department and executive recruitment firms, this makes a material difference. Strong intelligence, excellent reference networks, extensive databases and pre-screening and interviewing has added value.

Another useful tactic is to ensure that the job description is well thought out and detailed, allowing the interviewee a chance to participate in the decision if he is a good fit. After all, he knows himself far better than a stranger interviewing him.

I think most of all it is important to manage expectations. If employers are aware that they recruitment process is far from perfect and avoid making strong determinations about whoever they hire then they will not be disappointed when the candidate inevitable fails to stand up to the initial hype. At this point, good two way communication can keep things on track.