Tag Archives: staffing

Beware of the “Spanish Inquisition” approach to Interviewing.

Two Business Executives Sitting in Armchairs on the Grass Talking to One Another

Nearly 40 years ago, back in the dark ages when I first began recruiting executives, the interview process was fairly straight forward– one hiring manager spending maybe an hour with one candidate at a time, and then passing that candidate on to someone else. It usually started something like this:

“Let’s review your work history?”

No longer. Over the last four decades the job interview has become extremely sophisticated, with a myriad of new tools and strategies employed to help ferret out whether a given candidate fits the culture and is qualified to perform the job.

One of these tools is group interviewing– sometimes call “structured interviewing”, “values interviewing”, or “behavioral interviewing”.

The process involves a group of representatives from the hiring organization, typically between 3 to 10 participants, gathered together in a conference room and tasked with spending several hours asking prospective candidates a series of predetermined questions. The questions are based on competencies identified in the job specification, and the candidate’s responses to the questions are typically given a value and rated at the end of the interview.

This structured interview has several advantages. All participants in the decision-making loop get to hear the same candidate asked the same questions, and providing the same answers in real time.

Because everyone participates at once, the process is more time efficient and downtime is reduced. Responses to questions can be checked, compared, discussed and refined, i.e. “Did you all hear what I think I heard?”

Questions are typically less open-ended, and the interviews therefore are less prone to manipulation by glib and practiced interviewees. The process is standardized, and thus theoretically less susceptible to claims of favoritism.

Handled improperly, however, which they often are, these structured interview processes end up being excessively intimating, one-sided, skewed, and downright destructive to the recruitment process.

Candidates have told me on more than one occasion that their experience with this kind of selection process was like a “Spanish Inquisition,” during which they were summoned before a tribunal to be tortured with obscure and excessively complex questions, and then summarily dismissed, sometimes bloodied and emotionally spent.

What do you imagine the chances are that a good candidate will respond favorably to an offer of employment after an experience like this one?

I recall one candidate who endured an interview much like the one described here calling me from the airport and saying “Never, ever refer me to that company again. I don’t care if they are a Fortune 100 company. I haven’t worked for 20 years to be treated like that!”

While I remain an advocate of structured interviews and devising questions that provoke a deep dive into a candidate’s suitability for an important position, there are several crucial rules of the road that need to be followed if this type of interviewing is to yield productive results:

1) Be sure to explain clearly to the candidate, prior to arriving, what will transpire, who he/she will be meeting, their roles in the organization, and what the various segments of the process will involve.There is nothing worse than having a candidates blind-sided by one of these sessions when they expect a one-on-one, casual discussion.

2) Develop an interview process that includes both an informal opportunity for information exchange between interviewees and panelists, and a more formal group of structured questions. Balancing the two is mandatory.

3) Include panel members in the process by having each them pose many of the questions. This invests some energy into what is often a lengthy, intense process, and provides the candidates being interviewed a glimpse of the individual styles and personalities of those evaluating them.

4) Be sure to leave significant time at the close of the interview for the candidate to engage the panel in a Q&A session. You will discover that this is often when the interview takes off in terms of energetic involvement, and both sides learn the most about the other.

5) Never attempt to crowd more than two structured interview sessions into a single day. If done properly, these interviews require several hours and tons of emotional and intellectual energy. The panelist’s attention and interest will wane if required to spend all day in a conference room. I once had a board member actually fall asleep during one of these over long interviews– not impressive to the candidate and embarrassing for everyone involved.

6) Ensure that the interview panel understands that candidates will be probing the group with questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones, when their turn arrives. Help the group develop a plan which anticipates what the tough questions might be, how to tackle the answers, and who will give the lead response. Good interviews are thrown into chaos when several panelists answer candidate’s questions at the same time, and frequently give conflicting responses.

7) Above everything else, remind all participants of one enduring truth: These interviews are inevitably “mutual selling opportunities”. Of course the candidates are under scrutiny, but so equally is the hiring organization. Grilling candidates under harsh white lights, as if they were suspects in a criminal case, without correspondingly displaying some sense of humanity and sharing of organizational values, culture and goals; is a gross misuse of the recruiting tool.

The best companies understand intuitively that the free and enthusiastic exchange of information between a candidate and the hiring organization, thereby establishing a human connection with a good candidate, is at least as important as probing relevant experience and skills.

It does no good to have successfully identified the right candidate if you haven’t been able to communicate to that individual what an outstanding culture your company possesses and why the position is an exciting opportunity.

If they don’t understand this intuitively, it is the job of the HR professional or recruiter to impress upon them how critical this is. Otherwise, everyone involved will be committing a big chunk of their time to a potentially wasted effort.

Don’t Ignore the BSDM (BS Detector Mechanism)


Abstract Image of Business People Walking on the Street

Long ago, as a very young and green Human Resource professional in a giant manufacturing complex, I was part of a department that routinely conducted work climate surveys to gauge the attitudes of the nearly 2000 employees working on the shop floor.

The survey results at this particular complex consistently demonstrated distrust and dislike of the senior management at regional headquarters. There appeared to be a widely held feeling that the Regional Vice President “just doesn’t care about us.”

Like all diligent HR professionals, we fed the information back to the Vice President in as constructive a format as we could devise. The theme we promoted, back then, was known as MBWA, or Management by Walking Around”. There were many earnest discussions explaining the value of making casual visits to the plant floor, asking employees about their families, their favorite sports teams, or soliciting their ideas on business improvements. The VP indicated an understanding and acceptance of the concept, and immediately attempted to internalize a change of behavior.

One year later, as was typical, human resources initiated another survey. The results: not only was there no improvement, but the VP received even lower scores than before. HR next engaged groups of employees from different departments in focus group sessions to ask one question: Why?

The feedback varied somewhat, but can be largely characterized by one person’s trenchant comment:

“We knew Mr. X was doing what would impress us, and could tell that he really didn’t give a damn about whether our kids had a cold.”

All of us, including the human resources department, failed to take into account the little noted, but always present, BSDM- the BS Detector Mechanism.

Almost all people, regardless of economic status, education, class, race or any other marker one can name, possess a fairly well honed antenna for “authentic” behavior on the part of their co-workers, colleagues and, particularly, their supervisors in the workplace. They know, although most can’t identify how or why, when the person with whom they are interacting genuinely cares about their comments, feelings and opinions, and when that concern is feigned.

Employees will tolerate, and even embrace, vast differences in values and lifestyles between themselves and their bosses if they viscerally sense a human connection between them- a sense of the shared humanity that bonds all of us in the experience of living and working. What they will consistently reject is even a faint whiff of what they deem as faux concern and interest, particularly if delivered with a slick smile and fake bonhomie.

Leaders should assess whether they can identify what attributes and interests their employees possess with which they can genuinely, deeply identify, and focus on those when developing a relationship. Otherwise, the BSDM will kick in, all efforts to lead this way will backfire, and the delicate supervisor/subordinate dynamic may be irreparably damaged.