Most of us have attended at least one selection interview in our time, and we may well have been selected. As well as getting the job we benignly approve the good judgment of the selectors. And there is good reason to learn how this judgment works. It has been valuable to me because in recent years I have needed to coach several of my grandchildren for their own interviews. Secondly, because selection interviews have been studied by many psychologists, we can learn a good deal about the influences at work on human judgment.
The first lesson to grasp is that personnel selection through the ordinary interview is, from the employer’s aspect, a hopeless exercise. Its value is negative. The late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology at Susses University) wrote that interviewers, by continuing to have faith in their erroneous judgments, displayed “one of the more curious acts of irrationality in the Western world”. But what is bad news for the employer is good news for others: by understanding the irrationality it is the skilled candidate who controls the interview and not the employer.
We are back with our old friend: first impressions. This is a deep universal evolutionary instinct, developed from our need to recognise danger instantly and to act swiftly – without delaying for further analysis. One military interviewer boasted that he could make his selection in two or three minutes. It was not an idle boast because what happens at the beginning of the interview influences the whole episode, and becomes the lens through which later information is judged. For example, studies have shown that negative information which becomes clear later in the interview is often disregarded or excused, when it is inconsistent with the early impression.
The key is to present oneself as a likeable person. That sounds cynical, but do we not sometimes almost unconsciously choose to act in a way which is pleasing to others? Confidence and a pleasant smile is a good start. That’s easier said than done on such an occasion: it may need practice. The handshake is important too – firm enough to show confidence without being intrusive. Spectacles elevate the perceived IQ by 12 points. Two or three inches of extra height help for a leadership post. Before a word has been spoken the interviewer has a picture of the candidate which will be difficult to dislodge.
Having started well there is a need to reinforce the comfort of the interviewer. It is useful to have met some members of the organisation beforehand. The candidate will have learnt about the dress code which he follows in a slightly smarter form, suggesting how important he holds the interview to be. He will have learnt about the issues and the values beforehand, distinguishing carefully between the stated aims and the real day to day values – which are often very different. For example good customer service may only be a theoretical value which is ignored in practice. It is of course the stated aims which you laud in the interview.
He will be asked at some stage if he has any general questions. Having learnt about some of the good features for employees, he will be able to focus on these. For example, if the pension scheme is rated highly his question may be about the pension arrangements. If the interviewer is invited to explain the benefits, he may actually purr, while giving out brownie points.
The CV will record the necessary qualifications, which will of course have been researched. This will include planning answers to possible questions. But for our purpose it is the questions about outside interests which matter. They matter to the interviewer too because asking the candidate to expand on these allows him to think he is conducting a searching interview. The answers, which have been carefully prepared but sound extempore, confirm that he is just the sort of person which the company likes. “I play golf” has secured many a worthwhile position in one company and “I play rugby” in another. (The candidate, of course, has checked this beforehand.) We all value *people like us”.
The selection interview is of course a special case: there is an understood format providing a framework for preparation. But the psychology involved is universal. If you speak in public your audience will have decided within less than thirty seconds whether you are worth listening to. A schoolteacher may never recover from the first lesson he takes. If you meet a new person socially the same pattern is at work: the first few seconds will unduly influence the relationship. And the opposite is also true. We are all susceptible to the power of first impressions. So we all need to learn from what is literally a prejudice: we must listen longer and think more carefully before we allow our instincts to fool us.