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Job interview

Job interviews are divided by technique into unstructured and structured interviews. The former draw upon free-flowing discussion while structured interviews are characterized mainly by the use of standard interview questions. Altogether twelve meta-analyses have been published on the two techniques' ability to predict job performance leading to wide consensus over the superiority of structured interviews (Levashina et al. 2014). The early meta-analyses' knock-out to unstructured interviews has later been mitigated and apparently experienced interviewers can attain decent prediction levels also through free-flowing discussion.

Stage interview

Structured interviewing enjoys an almost shoulder to shoulder position to intelligence tests as the best predictors of future job performance, while personality tests follow somewhat behind. One meta-analysis has shown incremental predictive validity over intelligence and personality tests (Cortina et al., 2000) indicating that interviews seem to capture some qualities of individuals which remain beyond the reach of intelligence and personality tests.

The following displays an extension of the basic idea originally presented in the book Job Interview (Niitamo, 1999). The technique combines the best features of free-flowing and structured interviewing. The “Stage interview” is carried out under highly similar conditions and with the use of standard questions. However, the use of short, open-ended questions leads the interviewee to an empty, unpropped, unconstrained stage to perform. In other words, instead of merely answering to questions the interviewee is led to "behave" and emerge as a whole, behaving individual.

The combination technique parallels well with the division of personality tests into respondent and operant measures (McClelland, 1980). Self-report questionnaires are examples of the former where the person is instructed to make choices among fairly clear-cut alternatives (“I am little - much of something”). So-called projective tests are in turn examples of operant measures. For example, the famous ink blot procedure (Rorschach, 1927) asks the person tell what he or she can see in the blots. The standard set of ink blot cards don't represent anything specific but lead the person to an unstructured situation.

Reaching for the whole person

The interview "stage” resembles a problem solving situation where instantly available answers will not quite carry the person on the shore but where he/she is expected to come forward as a viewing, perceiving and behaving individual. Short, open-ended questions simulate real world unstructuredness and the interviewee is led to express his/her personal way of taking attitude, perceiving things and behaving in situations.

A good example is a car salesman standing as a candidate to sales director's job. The short, open-ended question “What do you do in your current job” leads him/her into an ambiguous, open and unconstrained situation where he/she is expected to behave. The most concrete type of response might involve a brief blurt: “I sell cars”, whereas the broadest response might sound like: “I am for my own part responsible for the sales of passenger cars at Cars Inc., in the country's south-western region”. The third respondent might have difficulties in answering until receiving further clarification to the question.

Taken the heavy action orientation of sales jobs in general, the “foot first" action pattern expressed in the first response is viewed as promising per se. Undeniably, it appears somewhat short and blunt in regard to the broader sales director's position. The promise of the response becomes evident when it is compared to the equally short response: “I am a car salesman”, which has its emphasis on “being". The third response is all but promising in regard to both salesperson's and sales director's jobs. Namely, the respondent might find it challenging to perform successfully in any ambiguous, unstructured situation calling for brisk action orientation.

Obviously the examples represent continuum endpoints between which all real world responses appear. But the strength of using open-end standard questions becomes evident in just a few interviews through displaying the wide variety of emerging responses. Shortening the questions and making them more open-ended is a surely a simple procedure for priming responses with the free-flowing feature. However, more important is that the interviewer widen his/her perspective and begin viewing the person as a whole, as a stand taking, perceiving and acting individual. In the best situation all three processes can be identified in a response (cf. salesperson example) but their manifestation depends much on individual open-end questions.

Interview as a stage for personality

Interview is one among many stages to observe the manifestation of personality in behavior. In fact, this may very well offer the answer to the question intriguing researchers: what particular qualities are captured by interviews which remain out of reach for tests (Cortina et al., 2000) but enable stronger predictions of behavior. Interviews seem to enable seeing how for example motives, ways of thinking and attitudes become manifested in real world situations. That is, to see if the interviewee emphasizes attainment of high quality or sizeable results in his/her interview responses? Whether he/she perceives things from a broad or focused perspective? Whether the person takes an attitude of great curiosity to new things in the environment or emphasizes predictability and control over things?

More focused stages for observation of personality's manifestations are provided by different behavioral exercises: reporting, presentations, negotiating, etc. etc. So-called critical incidents (Flanagan, 1954) of the real world's long-term work processes can be condensed into 8-15 minute mini-simulations. For example, an entire reporting process can be simulated by giving the person 5 minutes to gather and compile a set of unstructured data. Subsequently, he/she is allowed 3 minutes to deliver his/her report for a receiving audience. In doing this, observers pay attention to the person's attitude toward the given task, his/her way of perceiving and compiling information and finally, delivering it (Competence school lesson on mini-simulations forthcoming).

Micro situations

Interviews contain many micro situations which simulate behavior in the real world. For example, the interviewee's service orientation becomes exposed when the interviewer says that he/she doesn't quite understand interviewee's answer, perhaps expressed in technical jargon. The attitude reflected in the interviewee's response may vary from passive non-bothering, all the way to the interviewee making doubly sure that the interviewer (customer) becomes fully informed and served.

Attention to micro situations can begin from walking the interviewee from the waiting space, through sitting down to the interview room and ending to the closure of the interview. The psychologist performing the ink blot procedure also pays attention to whether the person takes the offered blot cards in his/her hands, whether asks for additional instructions, whether begins responding in five seconds or five minutes, etc. Obviously, observations in such focused or subtle micro situations should not rise to dominant position but potentially enrich and complement the picture of a whole individual.

Assessing vs. communicating

In addition to the actual appraisal task, job interviews are often expected to provide an introduction to the organization and the target job and deliver positive employer image. However, performing exemplary candidate appraisals and communications within one interview is a challenging task. If 15 out of the valuable total of 45 minutes are used for communication, only 30 minutes are left for the appraisal effort - not to speak of the time that it takes to switch the role from giver of a positive employer image to the role of an objective appraiser.

Even bigger a challenge is posed by the fact that introduction of the organization or job easily undermines the appraisal power of the stage. While presenting the target job the interviewer tends to subtly imply person qualities desirable for the job. In such situations every interviewee will automatically begin adjusting his/her responses in alignment to the implied qualities. If creativity is expressed as desirable, everyone will pose as a more or less creative person and the same thing happens with any other desirable quality. Introductions and communications tend to “set" the stage and "cast roles" so that there is little free space left for the interviewee to emerge as an individual.

In the single interview situation, a practical solution is to delimit the introductory part to the job announcement. Also the time used for communication can be minimized and at least refrain from too strongly expressing desired person qualities. Additionally, the first part of the interview can be dedicated to appraisal making and job introduction and communication to the last part of the interview. In the much better two interview situation, it may be useful to delegate the communication task to the junior interviewer and let the more experienced professional or manager focus on the actual appraisal task. In interviewing for high level positions, valuable help comes from additional interviews by an HR specialist or an external consultant who is in a better position to delve into the candidates' person qualities.

Interview as the main method

Interview has been and will be the main method in assessment of individuals. Comparing interview to other methods by their ability to predict job performance tells only part of the value in interviews. Namely, interviews provides the broadest possible perspective on the individual, serving as a coordination point where all observations become appropriately contextualized and weighted. The research accumulated over the decades has made interview into a strong assessment method and the structure brought by using standard questions marks a clear milestone. Further shortening and opening of questions as well as making use of interview's simulation properties will lead to even stronger predictions of job performance.

Cortina, J.M., Goldstein, N.B., Payne, S. C., Davison, H.K., & Gilliland, S.W. (2000). The Incremental validity of interview scores over and above cognitive ability and conscientiousness scores. Personnel Psych. 53, 325-351.
Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The Critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51, 327- 358.
Levashina, J., Hartwell, C.J., Morgeson, F.P. & Campion, M.A. (2014). The Structured employment interview: Narrative and quantitative review of the research literature. Personnel Psychology, 67, 241-293.
McClelland, D.C. (1980). Motive dispositions: the merits of operant and respondent measures. In L. Wheeler (Ed.) Reviews of personality and social psychology (Vol. 1). (pp. 10-41) Beverly Hills: Sage.
Niitamo, P. (1999). Työhaastattelu. (Job Interview), in Finnish. Helsinki: Edita.
Rorschach, H. (1927). Rorschach Test - Psychodiagnostic Plates. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.


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