Interviews and Prejudice

Interviews and Prejudice

I’ve had over 50,000 interviews in the past thirteen years. The majority of those have been phone-based, with thousands of personal interviews added in as well. Interviewing is both a science and an art. It is definitely a skill and it is the one critical skill which receives virtually no training for managers. Most management development programs offer training for managers which consists of basic management training, financial training and HR training on protected classes of employment. But a hiring authority really needs basic skills in interviewing. At the extreme, I can recommend TopGrading by Brad Smart as an excellent treatise on interviewing and on defining talent for excellence. TopGrading’s original interview process was a four-hour scripted format. They have since revised that down in later editions, but the important message is that a structured format for interviewing candidates delivers repeatable performance in attracting the right talent.

Humans are tribal at our core. We naturally segregate by groups of similar interests: sports teams, school attendance, ethnicity, religion, politics, vegans, hunters, fat or skinny. We tend to play together with people that are reasonably similar to ourselves. That makes sense. We often tell our clients that people hire people they like; regardless of pure skillset. So hiring someone who is a jerk is likely to happen, if that company is full of jerks. But then there’s reality; companies run better and are far more nimble when there’s diversity within their ranks. There are plenty of statistics that demonstrate that the inclusion of diversity; whether at the board level or senior executive level actually drives better overall financial performance. Diversity adds strength to a company because adding multiple insights into the company direction is a stronger predictor of changing to meet the market needs. Inbred companies struggle to get out of their own way.

So if hiring diverse employees is so valuable, why do we fail to do so? Part of the answer lies at the heart of the hiring process. Most companies still make the bulk of their hiring through an applicant-flow process; ‘post’ a job (paper ad, job board, web, etc.) and wait for the applicants to send in resumes. The natural response to that model is to review 100’s of resumes, winnow those down to a dozen or more and then call those applicants with a minimally structured and limited phone interview. This level of screening is typically the province of HR; either an in-house recruiter or a lower-level HR functionary who is tasked with a mountain of ‘reqs’ on their desk and who view candidates as job-seekers. The applicant-flow model dominates the mindset in hiring within most companies. The candidates are treated as intrusions or annoyances; not solutions to problems, or potential contributors to the company.

The second phase of the diversity problem is that everybody is prejudiced. Everybody, including Mother Theresa has some prejudice against some class of people. We can’t regulate racism and ageism out of existence; we can only punish those who get caught. We get requests from our clients every day about some nuanced prejudice that they want us to magically screen for. We don’t and can’t do that, and we try to politely tell them that the task should be to find the right person to succeed in that role; even if they turn out to be a black, fat, 51 year old, smoking, Jewish, Russian woman; and pregnant, too. At the end of the day, if that person excels in the role you’ve described, and is a reasonably good cultural fit for the rest of the company, why do you care?

And then there’s the interview process issue. We have clients who spend months trying to schedule phone interviews, personal interviews, testing regimens, reference checking, background tests and managerial overviews; only to lose the candidate due to lack of interest or loss of respect for the process and company. And with every additional interviewer added to the mix, the ability to make a decision becomes less feasible. When you add 5 or 7 or more people into the interviewing process, you interject 5, 7 or more personal prejudices into the mix. Many times, a single negative comment from the interviewing committee can doom the candidacy of any potential hire. We are all quirky. We all ‘prefer’ that people look and act just like ourselves. We will discount a candidate for reasons that have no relevance to professional performance: color, sex, age, height, weight, religion, etc. And why would any of those issues make a difference if the person is fully qualified to do the job? Despite every newspaper headline to the contrary, there is a genuine shortage of qualified talent in the US today. And that shortage covers everything from skilled labor to CEO’s. The only glut of talent we have currently in the market is unskilled labor; and that won’t be resolved for many years.

The talent market has already moved to a candidate-driven market. The days of languishing over a hiring decision are long past. Multiple interviews combined with lengthy hiring processes and testing regimens that stretch out months will not attract the best talent. In fact, you run the risk of demonstrating to that talent that you have poor processes. Every well-managed company focuses on process improvement; assemble faster, handle materials less often, process invoices more accurately, etc. Why not review your hiring process as part of your annual review of efficiency? Trim the process; reduce the prejudicial variables from the participants and move on with solving the original problem; someone to do the work.

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