May 12, 2021

Why I am an interview sceptic

Greg Marsh
Co-founder & CEO

You're responsible for hiring a new Head of Stuff. But there's a catch: you can either interview the person, or you can take references on her, but not both.

Picture the reality of the reference-only option: you literally don't get to meet her at all until after you've negotiated terms, placed her in your org, introduced her to her new colleagues, and onboarded her.

Does the idea make you queasy? It would certainly be an eccentric company that killed the unstructured job interview entirely.

And yet, to the extent it's considered primarily as a mechanism for determining who to hire, the best research suggests we probably ought to. Interviews are surprisingly poor predictors of on-the-job performance. And most of us are really quite bad at interviewing to boot, because actually getting even half good at interviewing takes doing it for literally thousands of hours with active training and support. There really is a whole lot of Dunning-Kruger here.

Put aside for a minute the small number of job categories -- sales roles come to mind -- where the competence of performing well in an interview is likely to be fairly well correlated to one core component of job competence, for the vast majority of role types, interview context is almost wholly dissimilar from job context. Someone can can interview fabulously for a IC role as a technologist, say, with a ready wit, nicely turned self-deprecatory anecdote, and neatly clipped saws about their pets and hobbies, and yet be a truly abysmal engineer.

The converse is equally conceivable. Indeed, we've all seen it. You imagine Wozniak would have shone at interview? 

And yet, here we are, stuck on the need to interview as our default method for candidate evaluation.

What interviews can do

I've done a lot of interviewing. Probably around 5,000 hours of it or so by this stage. I reckon that makes me only partially incompetent. I certainly enjoy it, and am interested in it--principally because I'm interested in people and what makes them tick. And, with the application of a little self-discipline and patience, I think interviews properly conducted can give a fair impression of certain aspects of a candidate's motivation, their character and their emotional intelligence.

There are better ways of testing motivation, mind you. Ask a candidate to complete a work sample or lead a working session and you'll quickly find out who has the interest and desire to succeed, and who does not.

And there are other excellent ways of learning about character. The hard part about character, indeed, is that most of us are not unitary; we contain multitudes. And character is revealed (and often only even discovered) under a multiplicity of contexts. The dry intensity and artificiality of an interview room is only one of those.

But, nevertheless, I think 30-45 minutes with someone in intense discussion can be a helpful guide. And it can reveal a fair bit about someone's emotional intelligence and self-awareness in particular.

Interviews constitute probably around 30% of what I rely on in making my hiring decisions.

Of course, there's something else that is happening across the interview table. And in many ways, this is the much more important component of the exchange. Because, in life, you are only buying until it truly matters; for when it truly matters, you are selling.

Anyone who is truly good at what they do has an enormous range of choice about who they want to do it with. As a hiring manager, if you're any good, you are seeking to recruit people at the limit, which is to say folks who could work anywhere. Your job -- and in many ways your main job -- is therefore to convince the person opposite you, under the assumption that they are indeed extraordinarily gifted, that they might just want to work here, with you, now. If you win that battle, by all means you've earned the right to spend a bit of time assessing them.

What interviews cannot do

And then there's the rest. How does someone interact with a team? How do they manage others? When are they are they best? How do they cope with stress? What are their particular stand-out skills? When are they exposed? How hard a worker are they? What are they weak at? How do they cope with adversity?

All of these things are actually very easy indeed to discover. You just need to speak to someone honest who can comment with authority about the individual in question because they've actually observed their work output over an extended period.

Should be easy, right?

Well evidently not. Taking references well is no easier than interviewing competently. But I would argue it reveals more and more reliably than most interviews ever can.

There are lots of challenges to navigate in taking references. And we're talking discreet candid conversations with former colleagues or managers, not 'HR references' that affirm that a candidate hasn't lied on their resume. (Though no harm in checking that too, mind. You'd have imagined the publicness of LinkedIn discouraged exaggeration; turns out people still make stuff up. A lot.)

One obvious challenge is that most people don't usually tell you the whole truth when you ask them about people they like. Not unless they really trust you, owe you something, or want something from you. Instead, you have to listen really carefully when you ask them questions about a candidate. You have to permit them to tell you enough of the truth for you to interpolate the rest. And then you have to go digging to get to more truth from other reference calls.

It's like an episode of Columbo: just one more thing.

On average, I'll take around six references on a person before I hire them. For a senior person, double that. Some of those will be people the candidate has nominated. Some will not. I try not to let reference calls take more than 30 minutes. Anyone worth hiring will have any number of people who have worked closely with them who will be willing to give you at least 30 minutes.

On the other side of it, by this stage in my career, I receive about one request for a reference call per week. I usually take the call. I always tell the truth. It's the least I can do to give back.

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