Job Interviews Are a Terrible Way to Find the Right Candidate

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Photo: Chris Ryan/Getty Images/Caiaimage

A job interview is really a parade of small, awful indignities: You have to be good at mindless small talk. You have to rehearse your answers to sound smooth but not too smooth, lest you sound overly polished. You have to openly discuss your flaws. And after all that, legal scholar Cass Sunstein recently argued in Bloomberg, you have to make your peace with the fact that whatever opaque system the interview just used to evaluate you may not even be relevant to the job itself.

Here’s how Sunstein laid it out: 

Suppose that you are considering two candidates for a job in sales, Candidate A and Candidate B, and have interviewed both. You and your colleagues were far more impressed with Candidate A, who was dynamic, engaging, and immensely likable — a natural, especially for sales. By contrast, Candidate B was a bit awkward and reserved, and so seemed to be an inferior “fit.”

One of your colleagues points out that both candidates have taken an aptitude test that relates to the job; their personnel files also contain their scores on a general intelligence test. On both tests, Candidate A was just OK; Candidate B performed superbly.

For most people, Candidate A will come off as the better option, with their in-person performance outweighing their less than stellar test scores — and that’s a problem, Sunstein argued: “Specific aptitude tests turn out to be highly predictive of performance in sales, and general intelligence tests are almost as good,” he wrote. “Interviews are far less useful at telling you who will succeed.”

The problem with interviews: We see what we want to see. We’re great at quickly forming first impressions, but we’re pretty terrible at changing our minds when new information comes in after the fact; instead, we tend to filter everything through the lens of that first impression, bending the facts to fit the theory, as it were. But as more and more companies focus on making happiness a part of the workplace culture, “who would I want to get a drink with after work?” has taken on outsized importance as a metric of who would be the best employee for the job (even though bosses focusing too much on workers’ happiness can actually be detrimental to their overall well-being).

Choosing between a high scorer and a great interviewee, then, is a little like picking between the steamed veggies you should have and the cheeseburger you really want: Even though you know one might be a safer choice, the other one’s just so much more enjoyable. The bottom line: Job interviews are great for highly charismatic underachievers, but kind of screw over the quieter go-getters among us. At least you still have power posing to help you through the process. Sort of.