A New York Times article recently caught the attention of the editorial team here at RLI, starting with its undeniably clickable title: “The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews.” Utter uselessness? Really?

The piece focuses on a recent study the author conducted on informal, in-person interviews. It found they do nothing to predict future on-the-job performance.

The author and his colleagues asked one group of study participants to predict the future GPAs of college students using three sources of information: current GPA, future course list, and informal interviews. The researchers then asked another group of participants to predict the GPAs of that same group of students using only current GPA and future course list as inputs. No in-person interviews.

The results? The second group did a better job of predicting future GPA. Ergo, say the researchers, in-person informal interviews are not just useless at predicting future performance. They can even negatively impact your ability to make those predictions. That explains the “utter” in the headline.

His research confirms the findings of similar studies going all the way back to the seventies. And it’s a well-known psychological phenomenon that, in the absence of complete information, we humans almost automatically build narratives to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. The relationship of those narratives with reality can be, shall we say, strained.

Is that the whole story?

I’d stop far short, though, of calling informal job interviews utterly useless. But not because there’s anything wrong with the study. My issue is that predicting future performance isn’t the point of informal job interviews anyway. Here’s what an in-person job interview can do:

  • Help you select for fit among several proven performers. Resumes, transcripts, and job skills testing are all equivalents of the “current GPA” used in the study. They’re all indications of past and current performance. So let’s say you’ve found two candidates who are well-qualified, with great resumes. You have no doubt either one can do an exemplary job of operating a forklift, or debugging code, or keeping the books. At that point, only an in-person conversation can reveal other qualities that can differentiate them from each other. Maybe one of the candidates has another skill set that just happens to overlap with an emerging need. Maybe one of the candidates is clearly passionate about the role, while another is just phoning it in. Whatever the case may be, you’re selecting someone you and your team will be working with for the foreseeable future, so the intangibles matter.
  • Help you weed out the clunkers. Most HR professionals know that, in practice, you will eventually come across someone who looks great on paper, but, in person, is obviously the wrong choice. If the “perfect” candidate shows up dressed like a clown and cursing like a sailor, you’ve got some important information. Information you’d never see if you just looked at the data.
  • Helps the candidate decide for themselves. Job interviews aren’t just a chance for you to evaluate a job-seeker. They’re a chance for that candidate to decide whether the company is a good fit, too. And if they’re going to self-select out, you’re going to want them to do it during the interview rather than six months into the job.

So, can an in-person interview predict how well a candidate will perform on the job a year from now? Probably not. Should you hire someone without meeting them first? Definitely not.

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