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Unknown Menaces to Civilization #8: Job Interviews
It is an activity that increasingly requires far more time and energy than its outcome requires, and paradoxically, the more it drains resources from other productive work, the less effective it is becoming in achieving its purpose.

I am referring, of course, to job interviews.

Like other abominations, the contemporary job interview sprang from a perfectly reasonable premise: yes, before a company committed itself to hiring an individual, it made perfect sense to invite the top candidates to visit the company and answer a few questions about their experience and qualifications. Afterwards, having made personal assessments to augment the information in the documents submitted by the candidates, company executives would be in a better position to select the very best person to fill the position.

Yet somehow, the idea took root in some circles that it wasn't enough to simply have the candidates talk for a short period with a hiring committee. To get a better picture of each individual, the basic interview had to be longer—not, say, twelve questions in one hour, but thirty questions in two hours. And a single interview wasn't enough: one should also set up a couple of one-on-one conversations with major figures in the company, or meetings with groups of interested employees, or an open forum in which virtually anyone is allowed to show up and ask their own questions. Since the hired employee might have to give an occasional presentation, why not ask each candidate to plan and deliver a sample presentation as well? Then, when it became apparent that the entire process was going to take an entire day, one simply had to include a lunch, or a breakfast and lunch, or a breakfast, lunch, and dinner that would give company employees additional opportunities to informally interrogate the candidates while the poor people desperately endeavor to squeeze in a few bites between their answers to questions.

As someone who has worked at several universities, and knows many people who have worked at universities, I am most familiar with the way that these interviews are conducted in an academic setting. Almost invariably, for any significant position, there will be: an extended formal interview with a hiring committee; individual meetings with the department chair and a couple of deans; a special meeting with a selected group of students; a meeting with interested staff members; a formal presentation, open to the public, that concludes with a question-and-answer period; and one or two free meals with various employees at the university cafeteria.

Some might argue that these extended series of interviews, meetings, and presentations is entirely appropriate; after all, hiring a new full-time employee is an important decision, and one should arguably obtain as much information and input as possible about each candidate before making that decision. But the true value of excessively prolonged interviews is questionable at best. In the first place, there are only so many productive questions that someone can ask a potential employee, and extending the questioning period to six hours with different interrogators will inevitably involve countless repetitions of the same basic questions and the same rehearsed answers. Forcing candidates to relate the same anecdote demonstrating how wonderful they are six times will do nothing to improve your knowledge of their character and abilities.

One must also consider the fact that few people have a natural ability to seem impressive and charming for eight hours straight. Even the most socially inept people might manage to do this reasonably well for one hour. But if you make the process last longer and longer, almost everyone will eventually break down and start acting, well, normal. They will react a bit testily to an idiotic question; they might confess to an actual flaw instead of a purported flaw that is actually a virtue; they might tactfully disagree with the premise advanced by one interviewer. And any one of these unguarded, perfectly human responses might doom a candidate's chances to be hired.

Indeed, there is precisely one sort of individual who is invariably capable of maintaining a flawless performance for hour after hour. At one time, that person might have been described as a "smooth talker" or a "schmoozer"; today, one common expression might be a "bullshit artist"; but the best term might simply be a "phony."  In sum, an endlessly protracted interview process no longer functions to identify the very best person for a given position; it only identifies the person who can give the very best interview. Thus, the man or woman who impresses everyone for several hours is actually unlikely to be the best choice, since most jobs require more skills than a simple gift of gab.

I have observed the dire results of the modern interview process at one university. A certain office was once headed by a man who had absolutely no social skills and spent much of his time sitting at his desk reading a book; yet he was able to come across as a suitable choice after a brief interview process, and he proved to be an excellent administrator. After he retired, three people were successively hired to replace him; each person had to experience a lengthier and lengthier interview process; and each person was worse than his or her predecessor. Imagine hiring a person to manage an office and then feeling obliged, after several months, to ask that person to take some classes in order to learn how to manage an office. It happened. When you have a process that privileges the best talker, not the best worker, you are likely to end up not with people who can perform a task well, but people who can glibly explain why they were understandably incapable of performing the task well. Which person would you prefer to have on your team?

Now, it may be that, in some cases, this bloated and fatally flawed way to select an employee might accidentally identify the best candidate, but another problem can emerge: the person who is offered the job might turn it down. In theory, this should never happen: after all, applying for a job nowadays requires a lot of effort, and no one would logically do all that work if they really didn't want the position. Yet at least in academic settings, it is becoming increasingly common for selected candidates to reject the offered job. At one university, the choice for a high administrative position came down to three candidates, who each had to endure the typical ordeal of an overlong interview process. In the end, the committee selected one person, who turned them down; the committee then approached its second choice, and that person also turned them down; the committee finally talked to its third choice, and that person turned them down as well. So, the interim administrator has remained on the job while the university is obliged to start the process of attracting and interviewing candidates all over again.

Why on earth would this happen? Perhaps, it is related to the fact that the university had just subjected each candidate to what amounted to an extended period of torture, leaving them with very little desire to return to the scene of the crime. Bluntly, qualified individuals might wish to come back to the place where they were interviewed just as much as holocaust survivors dream about making a nostalgic return visit to Auschwitz. 

Now, contemplating a process that routinely leads to wrong choices, or that routinely inspires right choices to decline the posts, any executive might eventually realize, "You know, there must be something wrong with the way we conduct interviews." Yet in pondering how to address the problem, they invariably reach the wrong conclusion: in evaluating the candidates, we weren't thorough enough.  We didn't have them talk to enough people; we didn't take enough time to really get a good sense of their qualifications. And so, they decide, in the future, to make the interview process even longer, recalling the general tendency of companies (that I condemned elsewhere) to constantly increase the number of their meetings. I used to think that the one-day interview was excessive; well, the two-day interview is now becoming commonplace for certain high-level university positions, and the three-day interview is sure to come in the future.

Someday, one can hope that a courageous executive might see the situation clearly and announce, "Next time, let's just have one 90-minute interview for each candidate and see what happens." But it will be a challenging decision to implement; for it is easy to invite someone to participate in an interview process, and hard to dis-invite them. That is, once the janitors are allowed to talk to one round of future presidents, they will want to talk to all future presidents. And after you have persuaded university officials to give you $8000 to spend several days finding a new faculty member for your department, it is unnatural to ponder submitting a subsequent request for only $2000 to fund a briefer process.

An alternative solution would be for some enterprising businesspeople to start setting up interview training camps, where perspective employees will pay to spend four weeks preparing for the twenty-hour ordeal of their next interview, the same way that marathon runners devote weeks to practicing before each run. Perversely, that might represent the only way that today's truly qualified candidates will ever have a chance to get the jobs they deserve.

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