"You had me at Hello?" Poor interviewing practices have long-lasting effects

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“I can tell whether to hire someone within the first three minutes of the interview.” It’s a pretty common boast, especially among seasoned managers and executives.

The problem is, like many boasts, it’s simply not true. Certainly, trusting one’s instincts can occasionally produce good results. As one of my mentors is fond of saying, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” But failing to invest the appropriate time and energy in the recruitment process is really just laziness. And blind faith in our “gut” can lead us to rely more on inductive reasoning than deductive reasoning, deciding first, and then making all subsequent information conform with that decision.

My college-age son once told me, “I met the girl I’m going to marry today.” Romantic? Certainly. Possible? Yes, but unlikely. (I know, I should probably watch Jerry Maguire again.) Why unlikely? Because my son was making a momentous decision based on incomplete information. And once he “planted that stake in the ground,” every piece of information that came after it that didn’t support his decision got ignored or rationalized. Long story short, he’s still single—and that’s just fine.

At the end of the day, the decision to hire—or not hire—an individual is the most important decision any manager can make. While HR consultants love to sell employers all manner of training and development products—from performance-management systems, to succession-planning software, to warm and fuzzy engagement and retention tactics, to complex HR metrics sliced sixteen ways from Sunday—not one of them is as important as hiring the right person in the first place.

My favorite quote on this topic comes from legendary basketball coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach (for those of you keeping score at home, yes, I also quoted him in an article several years ago), who said, “If you hire the wrong people, all the fancy management techniques in the world won’t bail you out.” I won’t spend a lot of time repeating why Red is such a credible authority on recruitment. I’ll let his nine NBA championship rings speak for me.

But the sad truth is that most managers spend more time and energy on correcting the aftereffects of bad hiring decisions than they do investing in the interview process. That’s a problem. Because interviews are like marriages: You tend to get as much out of them as you put into them.

So, in the interests of getting it right the first time, here are a few (but by no means all) of the pitfalls I’ve observed as managers struggle to “read the tea leaves” in the interview process:

1) Fail to plan; plan to fail—Too often, managers handle interviews “on the fly,” with too little preparation, instead, spending time on more “value-added” tasks—like creating a spreadsheet to save a few cents on paper clips or writing a memo about the next staff party. Interview preparation begins with reviewing the resume (or at least, the application) in advance, which can provide great insights about an individual, if the manager takes time to really review them. He or she should create notes about information that requires clarification, such as reasons for departures from previous jobs and unexplained inactive blocks of time, which should then be probed during the interview.

2) All the wrong moves—Many of us put ourselves in the role of amateur psychologists in the interview. We read all sorts of significance into non-verbal cues that in reality have no predictive value. We deduce in classic Sherlock Holmes-ian fashion that a lack of eye contact means dishonesty or “shiftiness.” We infer that a weak handshake means the person must also have a weak “character.” In fact, hard science has proven that these things—and others like them—are no more likely to predict success in a particular job than the color of the candidate’s socks or their zodiac sign. Research has proven that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So managers should focus on answers to behaviorally based questions (like “Tell me about a time when you…”), not reading various non-verbal “tells.”

3) Me, myself and I
—Either consciously or not, we tend to favor candidates who are similar to us. We seem to “like” candidates with the same tastes, preferences and interests. A manager who happens to be a big football fan can be unduly impressed by a candidate who can “talk a good game” of football—and if they happen to share an affinity for the same team? Fuggettaboudit. Good hiring managers know that it’s usually better to hire people who are not just like them. Beyond the more obvious diversity and equal-opportunity implications, it’s just not good business to hire a bunch of “Mini-me’s” (with all apologies to Verne Troyer). As the saying goes, “If both of us are always thinking the same way, then one of us isn’t necessary.”

4) Attention deficit—Many times, interviews are conducted in an environment that allows for too many distractions for the interviewer. A good, productive interview depends on the hiring manager’s undivided attention for the duration of the interview. Phones should be turned off or silenced. E-mails and text messages should be ignored (egad!). The manager should even avoid taking notes during the interview. It’s hard to be observant and engaging if your nose is buried in your notepad. Instead, carve out some time right afterwards to jot down your thoughts.

5) The disease of me—It’s tempting to use the interview as an opportunity to pontificate, taking advantage of a captive and eager-to-please audience. While it’s often important for the hiring manager to sell the job (and the company) to the candidate, interviewers should try to listen more than they talk. An 80/20 split is the goal…and, yes, that means the candidate should do 80 percent of the talking. Managers should save their soliloquies for the next local community theatre production.

Avoid these things and you have a good start at a productive interview. Don’t, and they may “have you at hello”…and for a lot of years after that.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes your comments at kwiedenkeller@amctheatres.com.