HR Basics, Recruiting and Staffing

The Top 30 Most Common (and Critical) Interview Problems

123RF Stock Photo

First of two parts

By Dr. John Sullivan

What’s wrong with corporate job interviews? Pretty much everything!

Interviews are the second most used and “flawed” tool in HR (right after performance appraisals). They are used and relied on around the world for hiring, transfers, promotions, and for selecting leaders.

After studying and researching interviews for over 40 years, I find it laughable when people think they can become interview experts simply by conducting a few of them. Despite their many flaws, my purpose is not to tell you to stop using interviews. Instead, the goal is to make you aware of the things that can negatively impact the results of an interview. My premise is that if you encounter these problems and you understand their causes, you can take steps to avoid or minimize them.

Here’s a complete list of the top 30 most common interview problems (and I’ll list 20 more tomorrow):

A) The 15 most critical problems that can occur with interviews

1. Some things should not be measured in an interview. Few start an interview with a list of the things they want to assess. Many things just can’t be measured accurately during an interview including: many technical skills, team skills, intelligence, attitude and physical skills. Giving them a work sample or test is often superior.

2. Using historical information to predict the future. Interviews cover what happened in the past. Unfortunately, in a fast-changing world “the way you did something yesterday” simply wouldn’t work in today’s “new normal.”

3. Interview questions are not directly related to the needed skills. Most questions and “solve this problem” scenarios are developed independently and are not tied to a specific “required” skill or knowledge. There is no script or plan to ensure the right things are covered so that interviewers don’t just make up whimsical questions.

4. Inconsistent questions. There is no interview question “script” prepared for most interviews, so that the same questions are not asked of each candidate, which causes serious comparison and reliability issues.

5. No weights. Interview questions are frequently not “weighted” or prioritized, so minor questions receive the same weight in the final rating as the most important ones.

6. No scoring sheet. There is no “scoring sheet” to ensure that interviewees are rated consistently on the same factors. Many final decisions are made based solely on memory. Scoring sheets forces the interviewers to make their decision based solely on the factors on the scoring sheet.

7. No agreement on good answers. Almost universally, interviewers asked questions without first determining what is a weak, good and a great answer. As a result, the exact same answer will get different “scores” from different interviewers.

8. Interviews are inherently misleading. The basic foundation of the interview is based on the premise that during the interview, candidates are acting “normally” and are telling the truth. This is unlikely because most candidates are scared to death before, during and after interviews. The interview situation is by definition “unreal” and “words” often should not be taken as proof. It is not “the job” and therefore what happens during the interview might not be representative of what one would actually do on the job. The goals of many interviews are unfortunately focused on finding “faults” in the candidates, as opposed to finding their positive aspects.

9. Saying what they want to hear. Interviewees frequently provide the “answers” that they believe that the interviewer wants to hear, rather than the most accurate answer. Interviewees frequently lie or omit key facts, unfortunately, interviewers do the same.

10. Non- job related factors influence decisions. Numerous subjective factors like body language, accent, height, handshake, dress, coming late may distract from a focus on the answers provided. Because of stereotypes, it is also true that demographic factors (race, sex, age, national origin) may also impact the results.

11. Practice makes perfect. Preparation changes interview results. So if you think you are getting spontaneous answers, be aware of the thousands of Internet articles, sample questions and videos that can super prepare candidates for anything. Individuals that that have not been in a job search for a long time might be “rusty” in their interview skills. While unemployed candidates that have recently gone through numerous interviews could benefit from their “extensive practice” and do better.

12. Your specific interview questions may be known in advance. In addition to generic questions, with the use of glassdoor.com, be aware that whatever specific questions your firm has asked in the past (and their answers) are likely to be posted.

13. Behavioral interviews have inherent weaknesses. Behavior interviews rely 100 percent on candidate provided (and possibly exaggerated) descriptions of how they handled a problem in the past. Also be aware that they may have acted that way because of cultural rules and constraints that would be completely different today, at your firm.

Extrapolating forward on how they would act six months from now, even though they have long since changed, and in your unique culture/environment can be misleading. Asking candidates to describe how they “handled” a certain situation has some serious inherent problems.

First: what the candidate is describing to you may have happened, but you can’t actually know the extent of their contribution to the described action. Second: if their verbal descriptions or their delivery happens to be “clumsy,” their accomplishments will likely be underrated (even though they actually did what they described). And third, in our current fast-changing world, you might not even want them to act the same way.

14. Lack of future view. Most interviews and all behavioral interviews focus on the past but whoever is hired will be working in the present/future. Most interviewers fail to ask candidates to forecast the future and to provide an outline of the plans that they will use to identify and solve upcoming problems.

15. Not hiring for “this” and “the next job.” Hiring managers can be shortsighted. They frequently interview and hire based 100 percent on their own short-term needs. Companies should hire individuals for both “this” and a future job but most interview questions are not designed to assess “future” competencies that will be needed in their “next job” in the company.

B) Problems with the interviewer

16. The interviewer. The sex, age and experience of the interviewer dramatically impacts their assessment of any candidate. If the person they are interviewing is “different” than them, the result will also be different. All-too-often, interviewers act like they are junior psychologists and may make snap but inaccurate judgments about candidates.

17. Bias and prejudice. Some interviewers have biases or make stereotypes that eliminate individuals for nonbusiness reasons.

18. Interviewers are not trained. Almost everyone assumes that interviews are easy and don’t require training. Managers only receive cursory training and therefore they don’t know the pitfalls that can lead to bad interviewing and hiring results. Because “mystery shoppers” are not used, HR has no direct way of knowing what might be happening during an individual manager’s interviews.

19. The interviewer has arbitrary knockout factors. Many interviewers seem to arbitrarily make up subjective “knockout factors”, which prematurely and often unfairly screen out qualified candidates. Many of these knockout factors are based on personal prejudices.

20. Interviewer fatigue. After many interviews in a row, the interviewer is tired and their judgment weakens.

C) Common interview process errors

The actual design of the interview process can cause many problems.

21. No structure. The less structure, the less reliable are the results. Using the same structure around the globe may be a problem because local cultures and laws vary.

22. The timing. The time of day that the interview was held has an impact upon its results because the energy level of interviewers and interviewees changes. Someone that has gone through five back-to-back interviews will perform differently than someone who had a break. And because multiple candidates are involved at different times of the day or on different days, it makes accurately comparing interview results that occurred at different times or days “difficult”.

23. The length of interviews varies – interviews are often very short, making realistic assessment difficult. And due to time and business pressures, managers often eagerly make snap, “first impression” decisions, which can be inaccurate. Comparing candidates that had interviews of significantly different lengths is also difficult.

24. The order of the interview. If you are the first among all candidates in the interview process, you’re less likely to be hired then if you are the last candidate. Unfortunately, where you appear in the order of interviews impacts your odds of success.

25. Consistent location. Even the place where the interview is held (if it is not consistent for all candidates) can influence the candidate’s assessment (i.e. lunch interviews produce different results than conference room interviews).

26. Interviews are held in person. This makes them expensive, because of the use of an interviewer’s time. Also requiring an “in person” interview means that many working people simply won’t show up. Advances in technology now make it possible to hold inexpensive live video interviews over the Internet. Live video interviews and telephone preliminary interviews can save both travel costs and candidate time without impacting quality.

27. Travel fatigue. Often interviewees are flown in for the interview the night before and jet lag makes them underperform. Interviewers can suffer the same issues.

28. Selling is limited. Not enough time is spent during the interview selling the candidate, so those with multiple choices might not accept.

29. Skills demonstrated in the interview are not required for “this job.” Interview scores tend to vary based on the candidates interpersonal and communication skills but this particular job might not require even average interpersonal skills. Thus some jobs (i.e. receptionist, salesperson and recruiter) lend themselves to being assessed through interviews, while for some other jobs (like programmers, artists and meter readers), interviews may be horrible predictors of the candidates on the job success because they work alone.

30. Panel interviews. Panel or group interviews are often intimidating, because of the number of people in the room hurling question after question at the single interviewee. Often an assumption is made that panel interviews reduce the chance of bias or prejudice, but that is not automatically true if the team leader is powerful and successfully encourages others to share their bias. Candidates can also become frustrated when “the wrong person” asks a question (for example, when an HR person asks a technical question and a technical manager asked a question that should have been asked by HR).

Tomorrow: 20 more of the most common interview problems.

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of Talent Management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations / organizations in 30 countries on all 6 continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR and the Financial Times. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring”, Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics” and SHRM called him “One of the industries most respected strategists”. He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked #8 among the top 25 online influencers in Talent Management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.
  • Anonymous

    “20. Interviewer fatigue. After many interviews in a row, the interviewer is tired and their judgment weakens.” I agree doing more than two or three interviews is a lot on an interviewer. I have to do about 150 to 180 interviews over 5 months. It can be very taxing. http://www.internaldrive.com

  • http://twitter.com/CatalyticCoach Gary Markle

    Very well put. I particularly agree with the mention of another
    broken process – the performance appraisal. It shares some of the same
    issues as the interview process, namely that the traditional approach
    tends to disappoint and fall short of delivering desired results.
    Interviewing, as with performance management, improves when we improve
    coaching skills – the art of asking good questions. Thanks for sharing!
    ~@CatalyticCoach

    • Pakoenig

      I agree Gary. Often performance appraisals are shaded by management personell. For example, I was once rated “meets” on punctuality and attendance.  When questioned, management stated they couldn’t turn in an appraisal without any negativity to HR. Much of my work product received “outstanding” and ”commendable” scores on the appraisal. Great input!!

  • http://www.enmast.com Devan Perine

    Great post, John! Very clearly laid out. We see small businesses making a lot of these mistakes when it comes to hiring. The biggest reason why they struggle with interviewing so much is because they don’t do it often, so they don’t have the practice or experience needed to conduct a great interview.

    We actually conducted a webinar on best hiring practices for small businesses with some experts that I think your readers would really find helpful => http://ow.ly/9fCCY