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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Raised by Wolves: Or Why Most Job Interviews Are a Waste of Time

15 January 2020

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There are few things I have been more disastrously bad at than dating. I was the poster child for dating the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and then continuing to date them for more of the wrong reasons. Not only was I bad at it … I was bad at it for more than a decade. It was so bad that I caused my friends considerable discomfort. So bad that there was finally an intervention.

The intervention went something like this:

BFF 1: “What are you even doing? What is it you’re looking for when you go on a date?

Me: “What do you mean what am I looking for? I’m looking for a date. How is this even a question?”

BFF 2: “No you’re not. We know you. You want to have kids. You want a family. You’re the nesty-est nester of all of us. You’re not looking for a date. You’re looking for a relationship.

Me: “Well that’s why I go on dates! How am I supposed to be finding a relationship if I don’t go on dates?”

BFF 1: “Yes, but you’re doing the dates all wrong.”

Me: “Well I’m not going home with them on the first date if that’s what you mean.”

BFF 1: “That’s not what we mean. You’re not asking the right questions. You’re not even putting them in the right setting.”

Raised by Wolves

There is an ongoing joke between my siblings and me that we were essentially raised by wolves. Case in point: How had nobody ever bothered to explain to me that there was a point to dating, and that the point was relative to what it was you were trying to accomplish? My friends went on to illustrate how each of our dating approaches were different because we each wanted something different. Who knew there was a science to dating?  (apparently, everyone but me)

The intervention landed me in dating rehab for a few months while I stopped to evaluate how I should approach dating to achieve my desired life goals. And it wasn’t long before I started applying this new lesson to everything I did.

As it turns out, most job interviewers were also raised by wolves; trained to do job interviews by people who had no training themselves in job interviews. Or, worse yet, never trained by anyone at all. And the result is a lot of disastrous dates hires, many of which go on to be relationships that are disappointing, psychologically and monetarily expensive, and hard to get out of.

There Is a Science to Interviewing

Interviewing is used in a lot of roles: Journalists conduct news interviews, scientists conduct research interviews, criminologists conduct case interviews, law enforcement officers conduct interviews of people adjacent to crimes, health care professionals conduct patient interviews … and all these professionals are trained in something called interview science. Yet when it comes to job interviews, most managers just start firing questions at candidates about whatever pops into their heads.

It's no surprise that so many hires are just another bad first date followed by a U-Haul rental.

One of my companies is a strategic HR advisory consulting firm, and it has become somewhat of a mission for me to help our clients do a better job of dating hiring, and that means doing a better job in the interview process.

The Science of Interviewing

You could spend (as I have) months of coursework and years of practice to learn the science of interviewing, but some basic knowledge goes a long way.

Interviewing is an interdisciplinary field, which means that it draws upon principles from psychology, communication studies, sociology, and data analytics to create a process that is intentional, structured, capable of delivering a specific result, and fair. Science is required  because interviewing is about understanding human motivation and how that motivation influences behavior. While we cannot perfectly predict future performance for anyone based on an understanding of their past actions, a well-structured and conducted interview can get us closer to understanding than a random collection of questions without any strategy behind them can.

And if you think you can depend on your gut for this, you’re destined for many bad marriages hires. I won’t even try to explain in this already longish blog why that’s a bad idea, but you could read this book if you want to know more. In it, Malcolm Gladwell does a fantastic job of laying out the risks of trusting one’s gut too much when it comes to assessing people.

The principle we lean on most in interview science is Behavioral Psychology. Behavioral psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on how past behavior influences future actions. Social Psychology also plays a strong role, helping us understand group dynamics, communication patterns and — of grave importance — understanding how biases influence interview outcomes. The Communications discipline, including active listening and attending to non-verbal cues, is crucial to creating a productive interview environment.

Like most scientific disciplines, there are many theories about the best ways to use all these principles to do interviews. Some theories are more suited to some professions than others. For example, the Reid Technique is a police interrogation theory that would not be at all suitable for job interviews. Likewise, Cognitive Interview theory as used in forensic psychology would be deeply intrusive and inappropriate for a job interview. But there are several interview theories and practices that are applicable to the hiring process.

One of them is Competency Based Interviewing Theory, which focuses on assessing the specific skills and competencies relevant to a job. Most people who have never studied interview science would say, “Yes! That’s the theory I’m using!” But there’s way more to it than simply asking about skills and experiences. Competency Based Interviewing Theory uses structured behavioral questions to elicit detailed examples of past experiences. It provides a framework for getting past superficial knowledge and into deeper understanding of a candidate’s abilities and suitability for a given job. Competency Based Interviewing also provides the necessary framework for ensuring a fair and objective assessment across all the candidates for a given job.

Another theory used in a good hiring process is Cognitive Ability Theory, which assesses a person’s problem-solving abilities. Again, if you’ve ever asked “how would you solve such-and-such problem,” this does not mean you were using Cognitive Ability Theory. Unlike simply asking about past problem-solving experiences, this theory involves tailored assessments that delve into a candidate's innate abilities, providing a more direct evaluation of their cognitive aptitude and analytical reasoning skills. To do this, you need suitable assessment tools to provide the data necessary to analyze each candidate and formulate the right questions.

We also use Situational Judgment Theory in the hiring process, which involves presenting candidates with hypothetical scenarios to evaluate their responses and test their judgment and decision-making skills. Again, this isn’t as simple as asking “how might you …” questions. Using Situational Judgment theory, the professional interviewer studies the role thoroughly, identifies the critical competencies and scenarios relevant to the position, and then creates a set of situational questions designed to specifically assess these competencies. The questions are designed right down to the way the questions are asked, because if the questions themselves are vague, or are asked differently from candidate to candidate, the results will not be fair or reliable.

A well-structured interview process involves all these practices and sometimes a few more, depending on the professional requirements of the role. All candidates should be asked the same set of questions to ensure fairness, though the questions asked during the probing of cognitive ability are likely to be different from candidate to candidate based on their differing attributes, qualifications, skills and experiences. The key is to strike a balance between consistency and customization to gain insight into each candidate’s qualifications and potential.

Since all humans have biases, it is also essential to provide bias awareness training, to include diverse interview panels, and to make use of good data for the assessment, interviewing and decision-making process. Efforts to mitigate the effects of bias will produce more equitable — and higher quality! — hiring outcomes (see new section on the use of AI in hiring, added on 10/30/2023 as an addendum at the end of this article)

If you are getting the impression that you must interview someone 32 times to understand if they are the right candidate, that would be wrong. In fact, the majority of good hiring decisions can be made with just two interviews … as long as those two interviews are well-structured.

What Skills and Experience Won’t Tell You

Of course, a candidate can have all the skills and experience in the world, and still be a douchecanoe that gives you a chronic headache and makes all your other employees want to quit. Most skills can be trained on the job, but you cannot train someone to have character, to be kind, to care about others’ needs and opinions, or to be disciplined. These are all attributes that each interviewee has already been born with, raised to, or chosen, and nothing you do in onboarding or training will change those fundamental characteristics.

There are simply some personality and behavioral traits that make candidates a better employee, and you must uncover those in the interview as well. You can use a combination of Behavioral and Situational Judgment interviewing techniques to uncover these issues. But again, I  caution: Simply asking the question “You discover a colleague engaging in unethical behavior. What steps would you take, and how would you balance your loyalty to your colleague with your commitment to the company’s ethical standards?” will not give you the insight you need, because everyone knows how to answer that question “correctly.” You must also employ Depth Interviewing skills to ask the right follow-up questions in the right way to encourage candidates to provide more detailed, specific, and … eventually … genuine responses.

The Interview Sequence

I prefer a two-interview strategy for most hires. I say for most, because for leadership positions and other roles with great strategic impact, two interviews are rarely sufficient. But the majority of hiring activity is for the rest of the roles, and two interviews can work very well if you structure them properly.

In my experience interviews are best done with more than one interviewer, which helps balance out preconceptions and biases and allows you to take advantage of differences in perception and interpretation. But if there will be multiple interviewers, it is important to have the whole group follow the same script and to train the group on how to interview together.

The first interview is to get at the questions of character, personal discipline, and orientation to others. This can be a short interview (20-30 minutes). In the first interview, I only probe skills and experiences as a mechanism for exploring character, discipline, and behavioral or communication issues. No matter how smart or experienced a candidate is, if I see warning bells on issues of character and behavior, there’s no second interview. Why bother? A less skilled candidate with better behavioral attributes will serve the company better in the long term, so there’s no risk when it comes to passing on people that come with a behavioral warning label.

Besides, most of what you need to know in the first interview should have been visible from the resume and/or your job application. Where they worked, what they did, skills required to do the job … these are all things you should review before the first interview is even scheduled. If you don’t receive sufficient insight on the resume, send them your job application (which should ask for sufficient insight) before scheduling the first interview.

For those candidates we deem interesting enough to do a second interview, we schedule them for a pre-employment assessment first. We administer the 16 Personality Factors Comprehensive Insights assessment by Talogy, because it gives us the greatest insight for developing further interview questions, and it benefits from greater peer review and anti-bias development than any other assessment we’ve researched (which is not to say there’s any such thing as a personality or performance assessment that is completely without bias, but that’s another article).

The second interview typically lasts an hour and includes a selection of questions designed to deliver insight into all the candidates’ skills, experience, abilities, behaviors, and motivations, plus individual questions derived from our analysis of the pre-employment assessment.

It is important to group the first and second interviews together as much as possible. This helps to remember candidates more clearly relative to one another and can also help to reduce personal biases and filters from interfering with good hiring decisions. In most cases we have enough insight to choose from among the candidates after second interviews are complete.


The science of interviewing integrates psychology, communications, social sciences, and ethical considerations to deliver a systematic approach for evaluating candidates. Does that sound like a lot of work? Well, it’s not so much a lot of work as it is a lot of learning and study. These days I can prepare for a good interview process in an hour or two, but it’s taken me 30 years of study and practice to get to this point. Is it worth it? Most definitely. Understanding human behavior and using best practices improves the accuracy and the fairness of hiring, which leads to making better choices and, ultimately, to running better companies.

Which brings us back to dating. After what I lovingly refer to as the “Big BFF Intervention, or BBI” my dating took a turn for the better, and it wasn’t long after that I found the relationship that would turn into the love of my life and (at the time I write this) nearly 25 years of commitment. Though I do appreciate the mistakes I made before the BBI, I’m also quite relieved that I was able to stop making them. After all, dating is fun … for a while. But what you really want to do is get on with your life, and when it comes to the quality of life … and business! … the decisions we make really matter.



Addendum: AI in the Interview Process

The following addendum added on 10/30/2023 to reflect accelerating use of AI in the hiring process.

The fact that HR departments — and companies that have no formal HR process at all — are increasingly integrating AI tools into the hiring process is concerning on many levels. It is hard enough to get human beings past their biases, poor listening skills, and vague communications; though producing structured interviews and providing training can at least help with that. But the algorithms powering AI tools are opaque, and we have no idea if they have been meticulously designed to avoid biases.

AI systems learn from historical data, and if that data contains biases, AI will perpetuate those biases and cause discriminatory outcomes. To date there is very little transparency regarding the data used for AI decision-making. You need to understand and be able to explain how AI systems make recommendations (download our e-book to understand the evaluation process you should use when implementing AI in any business process).

Of equal concern, the lack of human empathy and understanding in AI systems could lead to misinterpretation of candidate responses. Human emotions and contextual cues are vital for successful interviewing, and AI cannot respond to them the way a trained human interviewer would. If an initial video interview is conducted using AI, only to be skimmed watched by a hiring manager after-the-fact, there’s no opportunity to further probe candidate responses. This can lead to failure to understand a candidate’s suitability for a role. Additionally, reliance on AI hiring tools might result in a loss of the personal touch needed to effectively evaluate a candidate’s soft skills, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit within an organization.

AI is being used to increase hiring efficiency, but it should be used sparingly. Concerns about fairness, unbiased evaluation, and privacy protection are important, but perhaps most important is that AI still does not have the ability to use psychology, sociology, and communication sciences sufficiently to improve HR outcomes. The result for most companies will likely be making all the same hiring mistakes they make now … only faster.