The Psychology of Job Interviews
The Book Brigade talks with organizational psychologist Nicolas Roulin
Posted April 6, 2017
The job interview is an essential gate through which almost all job applicants have to pass before they join an organization, yet both job applicants and interviewers often engage in them with mixed feelings. But the high-stakes job interview can be made more effective, predictive, reliable, and fair, and turned into an instrument for finding the right person for the job.
Are job interviews really good predictors of future performance?
Job interviews tend to have a bad reputation and are often believed to be biased. And it is true that some interviews can be poor predictors of performance, especially if interviewers are unprepared, ask differing questions to candidates, or assess candidates based on intuition. For instance, interviewers sometimes believe that they can “see through” applicants, recognize which ones are honest and which ones are trying to fake and to identify the best “fit” for the organization based on their extensive experience. Yet, the last decades of interview research reveal that those types of intuitive judgments are very often incorrect in a selection context.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel! Research has also shown that interviews can be good predictors of future work performance if they are effectively designed and conducted. For instance, prediction improves when interviews include questions built specifically to assess job-related characteristics when interviews are conducted by a panel of interviewers, when the same questions are asked consistently to all candidates for the same job, and when the answers are assessed using standardized rating scales. If best practices like those are implemented, research suggests, a job interview can be one of the best selection tools in managers’ toolbox.
What's one of the biggest misconceptions that interviewees often hold going into a job interview?
Sometimes interviewees have extreme views of the job interview. Some of them expect the interview to be like a police interrogation where the interviewer tries to uncover evidence of problems associated with their past. Such interviewees will be anxious, worried about mistakes they could make, and their performance will ultimately suffer. Others expect the interview to be a simple, casual conversation with the interviewer, which may lead them to under-prepare and be less likely to make a good impression. Because of such misconceptions, interviewees may fail to convey their actual qualifications, and organizations may dismiss potentially excellent candidates.
In reality, most interviews are somewhere in between those two extreme cases. And there are ways for interviewees to ensure that they are prepared for what the interview really is and thus to perform at their best. For instance, interviewees can work on managing their expectations towards the interview, gather information about the job they applied for and the organization they want to join, and ideally think about a set of narratives based on their work history that they could use to answer questions during the interview.
What are one or two things you think interviewers should do for more effective interviews?
In the book, I describe a variety of techniques that interviewers could use to make their interviews more effective. If I had to highlight two, it would be on how to design better questions and how to assess candidates’ answers.
First, interviewers should refrain from asking popular questions like, “What are your main weaknesses?” or questions based on the candidate’s resume. Instead, they should develop questions that are specifically tailored to measure knowledge, skills, abilities, or competencies required to perform the job. This generally includes questions designed to elicit responses where candidates describe how they dealt with a specific situation in the past or how they would handle such a situation in the future. As an example, if the job requires communication abilities, a relevant question could be, “Tell me about a time when you had to explain something complex (for instance, the technical features of an object) to someone who was not familiar with it.” Such a question invites interviewees to describe a past experience, ideally in a work context, where they demonstrated their possession of a job-relevant qualification and to illustrate how they behaved and what outcome they obtained.
Second, interviewers should be careful not to rely on their first impression of a candidate, or on their intuition, or on general evaluations. Such types of assessment are likely to be biased, unreliable, and may lead to suboptimal hiring decisions. Instead, interviewers should design rating scales describing a set of behavioral responses (from very inappropriate to very appropriate) for each question. Such scales can be used as benchmarks to evaluate the quality of applicants’ responses, derive scores for each applicant, and compare applicants to identify the most suitable for the position.
What led you to write The Psychology of Job Interviews?
For me, the job interview is an interesting paradox. It is one of the most popular selection techniques and is used in virtually all organizations around the world. It is difficult to imagine hiring a new employee without interviewing him or her. It is also a costly and time-consuming process for organizations and managers, and making a mistake can have long-term consequences. Therefore, there should be a strong incentive to use the most effective interviewing methods in order to ensure hiring the best possible individuals. Similarly, for candidates the job interview is generally a high-stakes situation, creating a strong motivation to perform.
Both psychology and management scholars have accumulated extensive evidence about the mistakes to avoid, the potential biases to consider, and, ultimately, what interviewing techniques lead to better (more valid and reliable) decisions. Unfortunately, this knowledge often fails to be effectively transferred to the very people who need it: the interviewers and the applicants. Good books translating research findings into practical recommendations for interviewers are extremely scarce. The main resources available to interviewers are usually guides written by managers or consultants based on their own professional experiences. And that advice is not always in line with what the research suggests. As a result, many interviews are still conducted using ineffective and, sometimes, biased techniques. I have seen this many times when talking with interviewers and job candidates and when conducting studies on this topic. The Psychology of Job Interviews is my humble attempt to filling the gap; it translates findings from decades of research (including my own, but also research conducted by many other selection experts) into practical recommendations relevant to a wide audience.
What is the most important point that you want to get across?
The book aims to bring the research on interviewing to a broad audience of managers, recruiters, job applicants, students, and the general population. Drawing on extensive research in industrial and organizational psychology and management, I’m trying to explain what the job interview really is: A matching game, one that interviewee and interviewer must play in order to define whether there is enough of a fit to start an employment relationship.
But for this game to be successful, players must first learn the rules. This means understanding the various forms that a job interview can take, the good vs. bad practices that exist, and how to ensure that the interview process is fair and effective. I discuss what the players can do more effectively to play the game—for instance, the response strategies and influence tactics that interviewees can use to increase their chances of success in an interview, and also how interviewers and organization can manage them. I’m trying to highlight how the outcome of the game can be more positive for both players, notably by describing how interviewers can make decisions free from biases or errors.
Who would most benefit from reading this book?
This book could mainly benefit two groups of readers. The first group of readers involves professionals involved in interviewing job applicants. They would particularly benefit from the parts of the book describing the best practices for designing and conducting job interviews and how to make optimal hiring decisions. This certainly includes professional recruiters or human resource managers who interview candidates on a regular basis. It also includes individuals who have to conduct interviews from time to time as part of their work yet are not expert at it—line managers, store managers, small business owners, or entrepreneurs. It might also be useful for students involved in programs such as psychology (especially work, industrial, or organizational psychology) or business and management (especially human resource management) who could become interviewers.
The second group of readers who stand to benefit are individuals currently on the job market, or about to enter the job market, and who want to be ready for their interviews. For them, the most relevant sections of the booking discuss what to expect from an interview, how to be prepared and deal with stress, and how to make a good impression and influence interviewers’ decisions. The material is also of value to unemployed individuals, employees looking for a career change or soon-to-graduate students. Indirectly, this book can also benefit career advisors or counselors who are tasked with advising future applicants.
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