Why Job Interviews Suck

Why Job Interviews Suck

It’s not you. It’s them. (Not them, the people. Them, the interviews).

“A bad system will defeat a good person every time.”

~ W E Deming

If there was ever a graphic illustration of Deming’s 95/5 rule, job interviews could be it. So, in this context we might say:

“A flawed approach to candidate evaluation will defeat a good candidate every time.”

I was reading this morning about how interviewers in general, and HR people in particular, value “enthusiastic” candidates, rejecting those who show little enthusiasm.

As a low-positive affect individual myself, I call this bogus. Of course, post-Kahneman we might call most of the “received wisdom” underpinning recruitment practices, especially candidate evaluations and interviews, as bogus.

“That most basic of human rituals—the conversation with a stranger—turns out to be a minefield.”

~ Malcolm Gladwell

Here’s a list of “eight reasons most commonly given by HR people for rejecting applicants” (I suspect rather an American perspective) and my observations as to the flaw(s) in each one:

Lack of enthusiasm

Low-positive affect individuals are people who appear “less cheery”.

“Even though they lack cheerfulness, [low-positive affectives] may have more engagement and meaning in life than cheery people.”

~ Martin Seligman

Related to this, “affect display” is the external display of an individual’s affect. Seligman suggests that some 50% of the general population are “low-positive affective” individuals. Can any organisation afford to exclude 50% of candidates from consideration simply because they might appear unenthusiastic, and because of the whim (bias) of their HR people in this regard? Especial when low-positive affectives may be the “more engaged” half of the population?

And then there’s the question of integrity. By setting an implicit expectation of an appearance of enthusiasm, such interview situations introduce candidates to the expectation that if hired, being dishonest with one’s feelings is an integral (sic) part of working for this particular organisation. Not perhaps the best kind of start for a new relationship?

Lack of interpersonal skills

Defined in the source list as “an inability to get along with others”. Few HR people in my experience are competent to distinguish an inability to get along, from e.g. introversion or from “a different view of the world”. Often, then, candidates of great potential value for e.g. their creativity, potential for increasing the diversity of the hiring organisation, or for helping shift the organisational mindset are passed over in favour of folks who will “fit in”. This only serves to compound the current (typically, ineffective) organisational mindset.

I suspect that one key reason HR types evaluate folks on interpersonal skills, irrespective of the need for these in particular positions, it a lack of competence to evaluate people on meaningful, relevant skills (such as technical skills) – and a near-complete ignorance of the role of mindset, and of the need to evaluate in that context.

Moreover, sociopaths are renowned for their ability to to appear highly sociable and capable of “fitting-in”. Placing value on this aspect of a candidate’s assumed character can only serve to increase the chances of hiring more sociopaths.

And again, setting an expectation that one should be less than forthcoming about one’s character – and seeing a candidate’s honesty in revealing their ‘faults’ as somehow defective, also speaks against integrity (and honesty) being valued in the hiring organisation.

What’s in it for me?

Organisations typically think they have the whip-hand when it comes to hiring. Particular at times in the economic cycle when it’s a “buyers’ market”, there seems to be a prevailing attitude that there’s little need to take a more collaborative, mutual view of hiring. Organisations that believe their offering someone a job is bestowing some great largesse or gift are laying the foundations for the violent, abusive domination relationship so inimical to engagement and a climate where people feel encouraged to give of their best.

Unclear job goals

“Don’t be a generalist.” Sigh. Most hiring organisations still look for deep and narrow specialists, not realising that the age of the specialist is at an end, and the (specialising) generalist is in the ascendancy. For flexibility in business – an ever-increasing necessity – specialists cannot hold a candle to generalists. The ability to adapt and redeploy efforts to different tasks and domains at a moment’s notice becomes every more crucial. Narrow specialisms place great obstacles in this path.

And then there’s the whole question of whether one should be hiring for skills at all or, as I suggest, mindset. “Get the right folks on the bus.”

Poor personal appearance

I agree that “poor” personal appearance might be unattractive. But does it speak to the ability to do good work? I myself have lost count of the times where I’ve seen folks wear a suit to an interview, and totally tank when they’ve come to the point of talking with technical folks – like developers – simply because they’re wearing a suit!

If an organisation is so superficial as to take undue regard of a person’s appearance, then what chance they will place much value on that hire’s ability to do good work once hired? A triumph of image over substance? Quite common, in my experience.

Unprepared for the interview

Appearing unprepared for an interview, and actually being unprepared is often two very different things. Again, we’re talking about appearances, and (biased) personal judgement, rather than substance or ability.

And don’t get me started on the know-nothings that still believe that questions like “Tell me a little about yourself” have any place in the process. Yes, time spent in preparing for the interview will be time invested wisely, but we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that preparation can, in itself, be fairly judged.

Not being clear on your strengths

“You should be able to state without hesitation, three characteristics that would make you a great candidate for any given job you are applying for.” This is flat-out hokum. From observing many (UK and European) interviews, I can say that most interviewers regard candidates that talk about their strengths as braggarts and egomaniacs. How ironic is that?

Not selling yourself

“in the interview process, you are selling yourself.” True, but – excepting, maybe, sales positions – are we saying that every candidate has to have sales skills? Am I the only one that sees the contradiction between this and the (albeit flawed) “be a narrow specialist” vibe?


How do you feel about this whole mess? Even as a low-positive-affective myself, I’m, as mad a hell and I’m not going to take it any more. #NoCV

– Bob

Further Reading

Why Do Job Interviews Suck? ~ Igor Sutton
3 Reasons Job Interviews Suck ~ Dr Janice Presser
Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman
The New-Boy Network ~ Malcolm Gladwell (online article)
IT Job Postings Ask for the Wrong Thing ~ Mike Rollings (online article)
The Power of Introverts ~ Susan Cain (TED video)
Interviews Can Be a Terrible Way to Identify Good Programmers ~ Andrew Wulf (blog post)

  1. My web site (kode4food.it) is my CV — Granted, I don’t get many job offers as a result. But overall, I agree on every point

  2. Hey Bob, how timely, with me looking to do interviews next week! Overall, I’m totally with you on this and have a few comments, mostly along the lines of it “depends on the context”, which needs to be qualified as “our current general context”. I presume you’re coming from an “ideal Chaordic” point of view where everyone “just meshes”?

    Lack of enthusiasm – That’s an interesting one and as you say probably more relevant in the US. In all the interviews I’ve been involved in (on the interviewing side) we’ve seen when enthusiasm is being manifested in more subtle ways – I think it’s a point of awareness on the part of the interviewer.

    Lack of interpersonal skills – I can understand your point in a dev team context, but in the area of architecture, by it’s nature you need communication skills to cover the “impedance mismatch” between business and technical.

    What’s in it for me? As a contractor, I always view interviews as a two way process. I’m assessing them probably more than they’re assessing me as I have to dedicate months of _my_individual_and_valuable_ life to working with them and I don’t want to waste it. I’ve turned down numerous offers because an organisation, team or individual didn’t “feel right”. When I haven’t gone with my gut it’s usually not gone well.

    Unpreparedness and Strengths – To me, these are really just “entry points” for the work I do. To me, an interview is a bit like a play/game – there’s a cast of characters and I just happen to be playing the role of the interviewee. I have to wear a suit and tie to interviews. Do I like this? No. Do I wear a suit and tie when I actually go to work? Suit – rarely, Tie – never, unless I’m meeting with the CEO or like. At the end of the day, an interview only goes for around an hour so I don’t really care if I have to dress up a bit and think about why I’m interested in an organisation or project.

    Society (not just ours – animals too) is based on roles – I’m sure PaulK would have a lot more to say on this. If you’re challenging whether we should be doing this at all, I think that’s a big ask against a tide of a few million years of evolution 😉

      • No – I will now though…

      • Just read all the links except the book (I can’t speed read : ). I especially liked “The New-Boy Network”. I’m not saying the current system is fine and agree that it totally sucks!

        So I suppose my next question is what do you suggest we do about it? What is “Hiring that doesn’t suck”..?

      • Did you read my post “How to Map a Memeplex”?

      • Of course I did! (read How to Map a Memeplex) I even commented on it… 😉 Will be interested to see how you go…

        The Memeplex post covers CV’s and this one covers Interviews, so I suppose what I’m interested to know are your thoughts on the _whole_process_ (or non process, which I suspect it may be) that brings the whole thing together. Not just #NoCV, but #NoHiring, #RightShiftedHiring? Maybe start with a Manifesto like Agile? The #NoHiring Mainfesto?

        You’re obviously on to something that is bigger than just CV’s and Interviews which are just symptoms of a broader problem. I’d like to know more in this context as I think we know what the higher level problem is.

  3. Personally, I always wondered about the intention of the people holding job interviews.

    Of course, the assumed intention is to get to know the candidate and to decide whether she or he will be a good fit into the existing organisation.
    Unfortunately, no matter what you do, there’s no way to find out in only a small amount of time in a context that is different to the actual workplace the candidate (and other people) will be involved in. I am pretty certain that companies know that.

    So, this leads me to the question: if people know the interviews don’t give any good advise for the hiring process, why do they keep doing them? There must be something else about it that is of benefit.

    What I observed is that interview processes are often driven by the organisational blame culture. Hiring someone is seen as a risk and if the person does not meet the expectations, there must be a scapegoat, someone who is responsible for making the wrong choice. So, for the people who get given the task of choosing, it becomes a prerogrative to become more defensive and hedge against this risk – by using all kinds of filter criteria, they create the illusion of having assessed everything that could go wrong – so they can shift the blame away.

  4. Sensei…thanks so much for reading my blog in the first place then using it as the basis for a nice discussion. Now for members of your audience who might not read my original post, it was written with the goal of awaking recruiters and hiring managers to the things they do to drive great people away.

    Insofar as the question Oliver raised, interviews really are great instruments if folks knew what the heck they were doing. Very few companies insist on actually planning the actual interview; even fewer take time to map interview questions to real performance deliverables and culture traits. Instead they go by “feel” or worse ESP…Lord, with all that good ESP you’d think they’ve never been divorced or go through relationships like messy children go through napkins at the dinner table.

    For most companies, recruiting is an ad hoc exercise rather than following a strategic and tactical plan that is as rigorous as a 3-5 year business plan. Bottom line is that you can’t bootstrap talent activities.

    • I’m with the research mentioned by Menkes in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article – “‘structured interviewing’…has been shown to be the only kind of interviewing that has any success at all in predicting performance in the workplace.” And that’s not very much like the commonly understood version of “interviewing” at all. I don’t agree the problems stem from folks not knowing what they’re doing (although that’s true) nor from e.g. lack of planning or mapping.

      I myself favour other means to improve the (woeful lack of) effectiveness in candidate selection. I mention one idea in my recent blog post “Make Bad Hires”.

      BTW Did you read Kahneman yet?

      – Bob

  5. pklipp said:

    Lately, I’ve been starting interviews by telling the person I’m interviewing that they have the job. I think that changes the conversation a lot. Before they meet me, a candidate has had their past work reviewed for quality and creativity; they’ve done a small project to see what their work product looks like outside of the context their prior associations, and they have pair-programmed with members of the team they’ll be working with. Usually they’ve also spent time socially with team members, at lunch or parties or community events. Then the team makes the hiring decision and if it’s “yes” I interview the candidate. Starting with “you’re hired” takes all the superficial play out of the conversation. I want to know who’s joining my organization, what they want to get out of it, and what I can do to provide them the support and opportunities they’ll need to achieve their goals. Since I’ve started doing that, job interviews have been much more satisfying – for both parties.

  6. Liv Asy said:

    Even before getting the chance of an interview you have to exercise your ability to transform all the dimensions of your career into a flat 2-3 pages CV that can catch the attention of HR for more than the 3 seconds in average that they are willing to spend reading it. If you a granted an interview, something you really have to demonstrate your gratitude for, you have to memorise how to be a STAR…literally. All answers, rehearsed to exhaustion, have to follow the same pattern: Situation, Task, Action, Result. After all that, there is a fair chance that you will loose the position to a candidate with some networking in the company, even if you were perfect for the job. By the way, HR in charge of hiring hate being called HR, they are “talent acquisition specialists” 🙄

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