Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 253
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Fooling Us in the Interview

Research reveals a type of interview question that prompts favor seeking answers.

Have you ever hired the person with the best interview and then been disappointed in the person's performance on the job? Have you ever reviewed your interview notes and the questions you asked and wondered where you went wrong? If so, you have a lot of company.

Interviewing is something we take very seriously, and it has been the subject of much research interest.

The most hopeful innovation in recent years has been the structured interview. The first step in planning a structured interview is a job analysis to identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities that characterize successful employees. Next, questions are carefully written which will encourage applicants to reveal these qualities if they have them. A rating system must be created, for example, behaviorally anchored rating scales, and finally, a numerical scoring system which assigns overall scores to applicants.

Armed with a list of questions, interviewers read these to applicants and then listen to their answers. They are careful not to vary from the question list, and they avoid giving cues which will steer applicants toward desirable answers.

Structured interviews are supposed to improve accuracy, allowing us to do a better job of hiring the best candidates for our jobs, but research efforts to substantiate this claim have failed to do so. Aleksander Ellis, from Michigan State University, is concerned about this problem, and he recently completed a study that yielded suggestions we can follow to improve our structured employment interviews.

Ellis noted that two question types dominate structured interviews. The first he labeled "experience based" and the second "situation based." Experience based questions ask applicants to describe an experience that relates to a needed quality of the job. For example, "Tell about a time when you resolved a conflict between two people." Situation based questions ask applicants to describe what they would do in a hypothetical situation. For example, "If you arrive on the scene of an accident and find two individuals arguing, what would you do to calm them down?"

Applicants are often well practiced in recognizing cues that guide them in answering our questions. They compliment us, voice our values, take the credit for successes in their lives, and describe behaviors which are exactly the ones we are looking for. Indeed, this skill in giving us answers that make them look good has even been named. It's called impression management.

A goal of structured interviews is to reduce the influence of impression management, and it was with this hope in mind that 119 applicants for firefighter in a midwestern city were interviewed. Ellis analyzed the tapes of these interviews, and he found that the influence of impression management was as strong as ever. Applicants using it the most also had the highest ratings, so the fire department would follow the mistake of so many other employers: they would hire people skilled at interviewing rather than fighting fires. In his analysis, Ellis noticed that the use of favor-seeking comments were the most influential in swaying the opinions of interviewers, and the most common favor-seeking comment he noticed involved voicing beliefs and values that could reasonably be expected of the interviewer. He also noticed that situation based questions most often triggered these favor-seeking comments.

Professor Ellis has two suggestions he feels will help us. First, we should learn to recognize impression management comments. We need to distinguish between information about the person and comments intended only to gain our favor.

Second, we should limit our use of situation based questions. The opportunity to invent behaviors for hypothetical situations is too appealing to applicants who desire to create a favorable image in the minds of their interviewers. Such questions are invitations to fool us with compliments. Instead, he recommends we concentrate on experience based questions.

Reference: Ellis, Aleksander, Bradley West, Ann Ryan, and Richard DeShon (2002) The Use of Impression Management Tactics in Structured Interviews: A Function of Question Type? Journal of Applied Psychology, 87 (6), 1200-1208.

© Management Resources

Back to home page