We all know what it’s like to get worked up for a job interview – spending days preparing, laying out your meticulously ironed outfit the night before, obsessively checking and re-checking the interview time and place.
But it’s all for nothing, it turns out. An assistant professor of management and marketing at the Yale School of Management, Jason Dana, has argued in The New York Times that job interviews are “utterly useless” even harmful, in identifying the best candidates for the job.
Dana claims that interviewers typically form strong impressions about applicants that often turn out to be completely false.
He cites the example of a friend of his, who had turned up to an interview five minutes early, was ushered in, had a lively discussion with a panel of interviewers and was promptly offered the job .
One of the employers later remarked how impressed she was that the friend had been so calm and composed, despite being 25 minutes late. It turned out the friend had been given the wrong start time. She seemed composed only because she did not realise she was late. Dana writes:
The key psychological insight here is that people have no trouble turning any information into a coherent narrative. This is true when, as in the case of my friend, the information (i.e., her tardiness) is incorrect.
People who have studied personnel psychology have known this for years, he argues. For example, in 1979, when the University of Texas Medical School was ordered to increase its incoming class size it admitted more than 50 students who had previously been rejected at interview stage. These students subsequently did just as well as their classmates in terms of academic performance, clinical performance and honours earned.
In other words the judgement of the interviewers would seem to have no role in discerning the most able applicants.
More worryingly still, job interviews can actually detract from other more valuable information about candidates.
In one example from Dana’s own research, 76 students were asked to interview other students. Using information gleaned from the interview along with previous academic results and an upcoming course schedule, the interviewer was then asked to predict the future success of the interviewee. They were then asked to predict the future success of a second student based on paper alone — that is, without the interview.
The result? The predictions made without the interview turned out to be by far the more accurate.
Dana concludes that people are overly confident in their own ability to build an accurate picture of someone from a face to face conversation.
We believe that chatting to someone for a mere 10 minutes gives us a better sense of who they are and what they can offer than their CV, experience, references and records. The management professor strongly argues that this is a mistake.
He finishes with a note of advice to interviewers:
Realistically, unstructured interviews aren’t going away anytime soon. Until then, we should be humble about the likelihood that our impressions will provide a reliable guide to a candidate’s future performance.