Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interviewing Is A Flawed Process

How many of us have come back from an interview and said to ourselves, “I could have done better.  I wonder if I blew it.”  I tell my candidates not to over-think or to rehash their interviews.  What is done is done.  However, I have always believed that interviewing is a flawed process:  It doesn’t matter who you are, but you only get a few minutes – half an hour or, if you are lucky, an hour to strut your stuff and tell who you are and what you can do.  All too often the words just don’t come out right.  Or, even if the words are right, they sometimes get misinterpreted.

It isn't just the candidates who blow interviews, sometimes it is the interviewer.

So much on an interview depends not just on the interviewee (candidate) but on the interviewer.  I often hear feedback that during the half an hour or so, the interviewer talked almost all the time, asking very few questions.  My candidates tell me they barely had time to talk. Then, often, I get feedback that my candidate was, “too quiet”.

When I know an interviewer does that, I counsel my candidates to be sure to interrupt so that they can talk and let the interviewer know who they are.  But interviews go bad for other reasons. All too often, an interviewer asks an ambiguous question and the candidate chooses an answer, but it is not the response the interviewer wanted to hear.  Or, a candidate answers the question and the interviewer picks up on only a small detail of the response and blows that detail all out of proportion, making the candidate wrong for the job.  Recently, I had a candidate mention something in his background which had little to do with the job he was interviewing for, but which he thought might ultimately be relevant.  The agency president who was interviewing him concluded that he did not have the right perspective for the job.  His background, personality and outlook made him perfect for the agency, but he was rejected because of a simple miscommunication. 

Of course, interviews get blown for reasons which could have been controlled.  I have heard about interviews blown because a candidate brought coffee without bringing it for the interviewer.  Interviews have been blown because someone answered a cell phone call.  Candidates often screw up an interview because they were unprepared.  All too often, people go on interviews without checking out the agency's website or otherwise doing their homework.  (A candidate at BBDO once talked about loving their MasterCard campaign.  Or the creative candidate who interviewed at JWT and told the interviewer that she wanted to work at a creative agency like Chiat, Mother or BBH, never mentioning JWT.)  These are valid reasons to reject a candidate.  But interviews get blown for reasons which make the process unfair. 

Many interviewers, particularly non-professional interviewers, often make the mistake of  what I call confusing adjectives.  They assume that because someone is quiet that they lack energy.  They assume that because someone is thoughtful in their responses that they are not quick on their feet.  Or because they are soft spoken they are not strong.  I recently had a southern candidate get rejected because of her southern drawl. The interviewer assumed that she was neither forceful nor aggressive because of her southern laid backness.  Ironically, she is one of the most aggressive and persuasive people I know.  Unfortunately, I could not get her another interview.  A very successful creative person was once rejected by a creative director because she did not go to the School of Visual Arts, despite an award winning portfolio.  And because creative people are often hired only because of their “book”, the interview counted for very little.

In the fifties and sixties, many corporations resolved these subjective issues by administering employment tests.  While these are mostly out of favor today, there are actually a few advertising agencies which still use them to determine personality “fit”.  I won’t even bother to comment on the absurdity of this.
Perhaps the worst part of failing an interview for reasons which have nothing to do with the job itself is that, especially these days with computerized records, a candidate can be scarred for life depending on the notations made in the company’s computer.  The laid back southern person might be labeled as “meek” by an unthinking interviewer.  Then, next time she is submitted, even if years from now, she might be prevented from interviewing because of the mislabel in her file.

I would like to suggest that this is one time when I actually believe in the committee approach to interviewing.  I am not talking about the nine interviews that the old Chiat/Day used to do. And I am not talking about having any single person on the interviewing committee able to reject a candidate outright.  Rather, there should always be two or three senior people who do the screening of senior people and two or three less senior who might see and evaluate more junior potential employees. After the interviews, the committee should meet, discuss candidates, the available jobs and reach a consensus on appropriateness.  Every manager’s fear is that either the person below him or her or human resources will screen out a very good candidate.  The approach I am suggesting would help insure that good people are not passed over for bad reasons. 

I would love to hear your ideas of how to evaluate potential employees people fairly.


  1. Very few have the background or patience for interviewing candidates. Most have not taken to time to learn about the candidate before they enter the room as evidenced by not even taking time to read the resume prior to the meeting. As a result, quick opinions are used when more deliberate and considered judgment is called for.

  2. Yet another typically thoughtful post from Paul. Here’s my favorite personal anecdote relative to all of his points … I’ll try to keep it short (maybe).

    About 15 years ago, when I was still in Account Management before deciding to specialize exclusively in new business development, I interviewed for a top Group Account Director position at Hill Holiday’s New York office (basically running half their client accounts.) My credentials were perfect for the job; my references equally impeccable; interviews with the NY President, agency Chief Creative Officer, and Director of Client Services all great. They made a handsome offer to me and I accepted it. Only thing left to close the deal was go to Boston headquarters for a day-trip of “multiples” and shake a few hands as a formality.

    The next day I was told by HHCC/NY that they had to withdraw their offer on orders from the brass at Boston.

    I was stunned to say the least, so I called the HR Director at HHCC/Boston to see what happened and we spoke at length.

    Bottom line: Despite my previous 15 years in classic packaged goods account management and rising to SVP-Management Supervisor on almost $100 million in billings at a Top-Ten global agency, Boston thought I was just a “salesman”.

    Imagine that. Somebody who could sell an agency point-of-view; a new creative campaign; a media plan; a research proposal; whatever; ultimately, the client’s brand!!!

    Fast-forward, I wound up at Scali McCabe Sloves. But, then, what did those idiots know about brand marketing and advertising (Perdue Farms, Castrol, Volvo, Maxell, Mercedes-Benz, et al).

    LOL … Bill Crandall, Chief Marketing Officer at Della Femina Rothschild Jeary + Partners.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Interviewing can certainly be a flawed process. Evaluating a candidate or hiring authority is a very open game; what are we listening for first; personality, skills, job content, management style… everything? To get this all in during an hour interview is unreasonable and takes careful listening and a strong understanding of oneself, which most people have not been trained to, nor often give time, to do. Imagine if you meet your wife for the first time trying to figure out if you and she were a match, too much expectation for most of us to deal with in an hour, :-).

    Trying to make a good impression is a big reason people regret some of their answers later on. I tell people to go in with no expectations, be themselves, and listen first to how comfortable they feel with the person(s) they are meeting. Is this a person they would enjoy being with, as they will be seeing them more than their family. What values do they notice they have in common and which ones might they not? How much do they respect each others way of managing responsibilities?

    I find interviews are often left with either favorable or unfavorable “gut feelings”. A gut is intuitive, which we trust, and it basically says, “I don’t know, it is a gut feeling”. People will often give a reason they are not interested in moving forward in a hire that does not speak to what is beneath the reason they state unable, or at times unwilling, to articulate it.

    Stronger listening will let people better identify what is causing this feeling; is it many clear obstacles to a good match or an assumption that with proper clarification could lead to a great match?

    If agencies and candidates listened in an interview process the way they would listen to a client and “hope” a client would listen to them during a pitch, we would find great matches being made and bad ones avoided, :-).

    Best Regards,
    Barney – LifeBalanceRecruiting.Com

  4. My favorite feedback of all time was something like "based on your enthusiasm we just feel you'd get bored too quickly." Can someone explain to me what exactly I was supposed to do? Should I have fallen asleep during the interviews?

    A footnote to the story - the HR person who coordinated the interviews actually went on a 15 minute rant, after she got the feedback, how she thought they had their heads up their behinds. She told me that they always complain how she never brought in true "rock stars" to interview and when she did they always came back with some sort of feedback that meant over qualified. I've never had a recruiter go off on me, about her own agency, like that before. We've remained in contact through linkedin and have even had a cup of coffee together since.

  5. Tks very much for your post.

    Avoid surprises — interviews need preparation. Some questions come up time and time again — usually about you, your experience and the job itself. We've gathered together the most common questions so you can get your preparation off to a flying start.

    You also find all interview questions at link at the end of this post.

    Source: Top 10 interview questions and answers

    Best rgs


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