Informal vs Structured Job Interviews — Why a ‘Chat Over Coffee’ doesn’t Work
For many small businesses, a job interview means a quick chat with the owner over coffee. Unfortunately, this is a terrible way to find the right person for the job.
Informal interviews are the kind of interviews where there’s not a lot of structure to the recruitment process. I often see this happen in small businesses, where the owner or the senior manager will have coffee with potential candidates and make a decision over that coffee. Sometimes there may be a second coffee with someone else in the business. But research shows informal interviews are not effective in selecting the right candidate for a job.
In this post, I’ll take a look at why people are using informal interviews, some of the issues with them and what the research shows. Then I’ll show you a better way — how to put a structured process in place, and train people in how to use it.
Why are businesses using informal interviews?
Sometimes businesses think it is easier to have a coffee with candidates than to implement a structured interview process. Unfortunately, businesses usually discover that the person hired through an informal interview process is not the right person for the job.
I’m often told things like:
- we want to stay small and flexible
- we don’t want to deal with that big-business stuff
- we don’t want the hassle of structured interviews.
Unfortunately, businesses usually discover that the person hired through an informal interview process is not the right person for the job.
Research shows that as humans, we all have bias, we all have prejudice. Even if we’re aware of it, we’ve been trained in it, it’s still there, that’s just part of our human condition. It’s important that we know it, and we recognise it so that we can try and reflect and change our behaviours.
If someone has never considered their own biases, it’s definitely going to come out in interviews, particularly in informal interview. Why? Because you’re not doing an equal comparison against candidates.
If someone has never considered their own biases, it’s definitely going to come out in interviews, particularly in informal interview.
As an example, research from the University of Florida shows that people with an ethnic name who spoke with an accent were less likely to be hired, even more so than those who had an accent, but without an ethnic name.
This is just one of many studies that goes into bias, and that bias can be about race, gender, disability and age. So it’s important that we recognise that this is an inherent part of us as humans, and that we do what we can within our hiring processes, and all of our employment processes, to try to limit it as much as possible.
Impression management just means that as people, we try to give a positive impression whenever we can. This can mean candidates are overly confident and sometimes it can lead to faking behaviours in interviews.
If candidates are overly confident, sometimes it can lead to faking behaviours in interviews.
So if we’re just having a chat over coffee, there’s a risk that a candidate might move into impression management. Often people don’t even realise they’re doing this, they simply want to show you their best possible side. And you may not realise that your perceptions are skewed.
As people interview more, they become really good at it. So you may think. ‘this person’s fantastic, look at the rapport we’ve built, and how well they’re able to answer my questions!’ But like all learning, the more that we practice something, the better we become. And being good at an interview is not the same as being good at a job.
Another thing to consider is what social psychologists call the need for affiliation. As human beings we have a desire to establish social contact with other people. Put simply, people like people.
Generally we go into interview processes with an optimistic outlook, we think we’re going to do our best to like the candidate. When you couple that with two other things, the proximity effect and the exposure effect, you can find yourself making decisions for all the wrong reasons.
The proximity effect means that we’re more likely to like people who are closer to us. If you think about your friends, people you’ve had a relationship with over the years, it’s a good chance they live close to you. If you work closely with someone, you’re more likely to consider them a friend than someone you only see once every six months.
Like the proximity effect, there’s lots of research into the ‘exposure effect’ that shows that the more that we see somebody, the more we like them.
A perfect storm
All these things can work against you in your goal of finding the right person for the role. Imagine you go for a couple of coffees with someone, and they’re engaging in some impression management, they’ve got lots of confidence and they have a lot of practice with interviews.
As a human, you have a desire to be friends with them, and you want to like them. And because you’ve seen them a couple of times, you are doing your best to find what’s good in this person, rather than determining whether they are actually the person with the right skills, knowledge, experience and ability to do the job. And that’s really what an interview should be all about.
Why use structured interviews?
A lot of businesses at the moment are struggling to find the right people. So there are good reasons to do structured interviews. They don’t need to be overly complex or complicated. Structured interview help ensure
- you’re setting new employees up for success
- they know exactly what they’re being hired to do
- you’re getting the best possible candidate
- you can make the best possible decision about who’s the right person for the job.
In my post on Recruiting Right — Use Psychometrics to Find Great People, I looked at using psychometrics as part of your recruitment process. These tests help to remove bias, and put some more structure in. But there’s more to it than that.
In structured interviews we ask the same questions of every candidate. This reduces the bias, because we are able to compare candidates when we’re asking everyone the same question.
Structured interviews can be more informative, because you’re defining the questions in advance, to ensure they relate to the job. In an informal interview, you’re unlikely to have prepared, as it’s not a structured process.
For example, imagine you have a job that requires someone with a high level of analytical skill. Without preparing in advance you might ask questions like:
- do you consider yourself analytical?
- tell me about your analytical skills?
If you take the time to consider the types of questions you need to ask you may have questions like:
- can you tell me about a time when you had to take a large data set and provide some insights to a management team around that data?
- what was the process you used?
These questions encourage the candidate to give you an example of a time when they’ve demonstrated the skills you need. And you haven’t even used the word ‘analytical’ in the questions.
The answer should let you know whether they acted in a logical, analytical way, or if they haven’t done this work before. It allows you to make a decision about whether they already have the skill, and if not, whether you can train them.
So it’s important to take the time, before the interview, to determine the things that you need to ask the candidates, and frame the questions so you get useful answers.
Hard to fake
Structured interviews are much more difficult to fake because you’re asking for examples. Ideally, you will include questions that people haven’t come across before. A structured interview will go beyond the usual questions like:
- tell me about yourself?
- what do you consider your strengths or weaknesses?
- what would your ex-manager say about you?
- what kind of manager do you like to work for?
- who’s been the best manager you’ve ever had? why?
- tell me about a time you performance-managed a staff member?
These are questions that candidates encounter in 95% of the interviews. They’ve been asked these questions before, and likely have prepared answers.
However when you’re drilling down into your particular role, and ask questions related to the knowledge and skills needed in that role, they’re less likely to be questions the candidate has answered before. That means they’re more difficult to fake.
If you use structured interviews, you need to be consistent with your processes and train everybody who does interviews. If I said to someone who’d never done this type of interview before, ‘here you go, here’s some interview questions, good luck!’, that’s probably not going to give a good result. It may not be any better than those informal interviews at a coffee shop.
A better way is to define the right questions and to train my interviewees in behaviour-based technique.
The right questions
To find the right questions, I need to ask:
- what are the top three skills needed in this role?
- what are the top three behavioural attributes that mean someone can succeed in this role?
Then I take those two things to my bank of interview questions and come up with the best questions for the role. Then we lock those in as the questions that we’re going to ask.
In behavioural-based interview technique, we’re looking for the candidate to tell us about an example where they can demonstrate three things:
- a situation or task
- the action that they took
- the result
So we say to the candidates, today we’re going to be asking you some behavioural-based questions. And when you are asked those questions, we’d like you to reflect on your past experiences. Those experiences can be work-related, or non-work-related. And within that answer, we would like you to make sure that you’re covering the situation or task, the action you took, and the result of that action.
You’re not trying to trip people up, it’s not supposed to be something hugely tricky. You’re just trying to give structure to the process so that you know that you’re asking things that are relevant to the job.
This gives the employee an opportunity to highlight those areas as well. Because as much as I was warning about impression management earlier, you can also have the opposite problem. Sometimes a candidate really wants to make a good impression, but they haven’t interviewed for a long time, or they’re just not very good at interviewing. So providing more structure enables people to put their best self forward.
Next you need to train everybody who interviews in behaviour-based technique, and in how to develop the right questions. You also should be training people around bias, and the types of interview questions that you shouldn’t be asking people, and why. People need to be aware of their conscious and unconscious biases when going through a recruitment process.
During recruitment, it’s also very important that you are listening as much as possible. I generally find that people who aren’t trained in these processes tend to spend most of the interview talking, rather than listening to the candidate.
It’s very important to think about your recruitment processes. Remember:
- take measures to reduce bias
- define informative questions
- ask consistent and standardised questions
- use behaviour-based techniques
- listen to candidates
Remember, a ‘bad hire’ is expensive. Your employee turnover impacts everyone in the business. An interview process should be two-way. You should be assessing the candidate, but the candidate should also be assessing whether they’re a good fit for the role as well. So if you do get to the point that you’re offering the position, they’re really clear on what the job is and how they fit it.
Then you’ll find your new hire is excited to come on board, and you’re really confident in their ability to do the job as well.