Monday, October 25, 2010
Don't ask candidates to judge themselves
Imagine you're buying a car. The salesperson throws out a price on the car you're interested in. And here are the questions you ask to try to determine whether it's a good deal:
- Is this a good price?
- How good of a salesperson are you?
- Compared to other sales you've made, how good is this one?
Think this is silly? Well it's essentially what many employers are doing when they interview people or otherwise rely on descriptions of experience when screening. They rely way too heavily on self-descriptions when they should be taking a more rigorous approach. Think these types of questions, which should be stricken from your inventory:
"What's something you're particularly good at?"
"How would you describe your skills compared to other people?"
There are two main problems with asking these types of questions in a high-stakes situation like a job interview (or buying a car):
1) People are motivated to inflate their answers, or just plain lie, in these situations. You know that. I know that. But it's surprising how many people forget it.
2) People are bad at accurately describing themselves. We know this from years of research, but if you're interested, check out a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that compared Big 5 personality ratings from four countries and found that people generally hold more favorable opinions of themselves compared to how others see them.
But it's even worse than it appears. It's not just that people inflate themselves, it's that some of your best candidates deflate themselves. Think about your star performers: if you asked them how good they were in a particular area, what do you think they'd say?
You essentially want to know two things about candidates:
1) What they've done
2) What they're capable of doing
To answer the first issue, you have several options, including:
1a) Asking them to describe what they've done--the so-called "behavioral interviewing" technique. Research shows that these types of questions generally contribute a significant amount of validity to the process. But they're not perfect by any means, particularly with people with bad memories about themselves. And keep in mind at that point you're taking their word for it.
1b) Asking them for examples of what they've done. Best used as a follow-up to a claim, but tricky in any situation where there's even a remote possibility that someone else did it or did most of it (so practically everything outside of the person being videotaped).
1c) Asking others (e.g., co-workers, supervisors) what the candidate's done. Probably the most promising but most difficult data to accurately capture. Hypothetically if the person has any job history at all they've left a trail of accomplishments and failures, as well as a reliable pattern of responding to situations. This is the promise of reference checks that so often is either squandered ("I don't have time") or stymied ("They just gave me name, title, and employment dates"). Don't use these excuses, investigate.
As for the second issue, you have several options as well, including:
2a) Asking knowledge-based questions in an interview. For whatever reason these seem to have fallen out of favor, but if there is a body of knowledge that is critical to know prior to employment, ask about it. At the worst you'll weed out those who have absolutely no idea.
2b) Using another type of assessment, such as a performance test/work sample, on-site writing exercise, role play, simulation, or written multiple choice test (to name a few). Properly developed and administered, these will give you a great sense of what people are capable of--just make sure the tests are tied back to true job requirements.
2c) Using the initial period of employment (some call it probation) to throw things at the person and see what they're capable of. It's important not test their ability to deal with overload (unless that's critical to the job), but get them involved in a diverse set of projects. Ask for their input. Ask them to do some research. See what they are capable of delivering, even if it's a little rough.
Whatever you do, triangulate on candidate knowledge, skills, and abilities. Use multiple measures to get an accurate picture of what they bring. Consider using an interview for a two-way job preview as much as an assessment device.
But above all, don't take one person's word for things. Unless you like being sold a lemon.