Obviously, you want to treat all job applicants fairly. That’s the best way to find the people who will help your organization grow and prosper, burnish your reputation in the marketplace, and also keep the legal wolf away from your door (applicants who feel unfairly treated tend to sue).

But are you aware that no matter how well-trained your interviewing managers, and no matter how sophisticated your interview questions, you can put these interviewers in situations where, despite their best efforts, they AREN’T fair to some applicants?

That’s exactly what you may be doing if you expect an interviewing manager to conduct more than four interviews in quick succession, according to new academic research on job interviews.

Interviewers and -ees
The research, led by a team of three management professors, was done at the career center of a large university in the Southeastern U.S. whose identity wasn’t given. The researchers monitored the activity of 166 interviewers with almost 700 graduate and advanced undergraduate students who were seeking jobs or full-time internships at corporations and other organizations.

When the professors analyzed the activity they’d recorded, they came to some interesting conclusions:

  • Highly experienced interviewers tend to make quicker decisions than others. This, the researchers said, may lead to cutting corners and a failure to gather information throughout the entire interview.
  • Structured interviews, where the interviewer must ask each applicant the same questions, discourage quick decisions by the interviewer, whereas more free-form interviews that involve a significant amount of rapport-building tend to encourage quick decisions.

Too much effort
But perhaps the most interesting conclusion of all was that the amount of time interviewers spent with each applicant increased up to a point … and then fell off sharply. This effect, the researchers said, appeared to be a function of “cognitive load” — the amount of mental effort expended in the working memory.

For a few interviews, the interviewers took progressively longer with each applicant, as they probed deeper and tried to get a greater understanding of the person in front of them. But at some point — the researchers located this point at around four interviews — the interviewers started behaving more automatically, as their brains sought to mitigate the effect of processing all the information they’d gleaned over the series of interviews. Essentially, the interviewers’ brains were “tired” and began taking short cuts.

The researchers pointed out that this effect means applicants interviewed near the bottom of an interviewer’s schedule may not get the same opportunities to perform as those near the top of the schedule.

If you’re concerned about the potential for unfairness that the research data suggests, you might want to:

  • Limit the number of interviews an interviewer conducts in a single session, and/or
  • Give the interviewers reasonable breaks — 30 minutes to an hour, perhaps — between interviews.

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