Commentary: Why do employers make job candidates suffer endless rounds of interviews?
In the stiff competition for talent, assessing who is a suitable candidate may have gotten unnecessarily complicated, says HR expert Adrian Tan
SINGAPORE: When Kath* interviewed at a tech company some time back, she would not have guessed her journey would take her through six rounds of interviews over three months.
She was optimistic given the positive signs she picked up, but things went quiet after round six. When she called to ask, the company told her they needed more time. A month and a half later, she was told she didn’t get the job because she wasn’t a good fit.
Kath isn’t an exception.
Software engineering manager Mike Conley posted on LinkedIn his experience going for three rounds and being told there would be another six.
His post about his experience has since been viewed 2.6 million times with 4,000 public comments of support. There’s also a happy ending: Mike was later offered a job by a company who saw the post.
THE INTERVIEW MARATHON
Why are companies putting candidates through seemingly endless rounds of interviews?
Veteran recruiter James Lodder offers a few reasons. First, the company may be looking for a specific person with the experience to handle a critical but tricky project. For instance, getting a project manager for a multi-million-dollar project can be disastrous if the wrong candidate was picked.
Then, there’s the nature of work - if it is highly specialised, time is needed to filter out candidates who seem to have the requisite technical skills on paper but might not fit the culture, hours or other requirements.
TalentKraft co-founder Eugene Goh says a typical consulting firm puts applicants through up to four rounds of case study interviews.
Lasting no more than 45 minutes, each asks applicants to review an ambiguous problem statement and come up with best-case solutions.
This mirrors real-life scenarios where solutions are not binary or clear. The test can show an applicant’s thought process, logic and communications skills when they present to senior directors.
Other roles like software developers also require technical coding tests.
But barring these exceptions, there are no compelling reasons why an interview must go on longer than necessary. And yet, many do. Why?
First, there may be a lack of alignment within the hiring team usually made up of the recruiter from an agency, a HR representative and hiring manager, especially when it is a new role with few precedents.
As a former recruiter, I had a poor experience with a small engineering company that best illustrates this.
Each time they finished interviewing a candidate, they would revise the job scope and description. Because it was a new role and they were not sure what exactly was needed, they kept iterating with new insights from every applicant. And that lengthened the interview process unnecessarily.
Marathon interviews can also be prevalent in big companies where roles are matrixed and there are multiple stakeholders. Someone I know interviewed at a technology giant recently. Only at round five was he told he was too expensive.
But salary expectations are laid out in the application process so in this case, it may have been a lack of communication between HR and the hiring team. For instance, the hiring manager may feel the role is a junior one (often after feedback from an earlier phase) but this information is not filtered down until much later in the process.
Finally, it can come down to the inability of staff to interview well. Most hiring managers are not trained to conduct job interviews. They may just turn the interview into a coffee chat to gauge if they like the person and can be comfortable working with them.
This affliction happens to the top too. When I interviewed at an oil trading company many years back, my conversation with the managing director focused on what I thought of the painting hanging behind him.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
So, what’s an ideal number of interviews? Data scientist Andrew Liew’s analysis of Singapore HR data found most companies conduct between one and three interviews for junior roles and between two and six for senior roles.
Anything more means there’s a high likelihood the job description is poorly set up.
Lodder agrees, saying three is an optimal number for most roles, maybe up to five for a very senior role.
Any more suggests a failure in the recruitment process and results in a waste of the candidate and company’s time, he says.
Then there are companies who drill it down to a science. In 2017, Google decided to streamline their hiring process.
Their staffing team examined past interview data and concluded that four interviews were enough to make a reliable hiring decision. The team’s statistical modelling found that four interviews could predict a good hire with 86 per cent confidence. Any other more rounds gave diminishing returns.
This scientific approach was also used by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate. As a young officer, he was asked to improve the Israeli army’s haphazard process of assessing capabilities among combat-fit recruits.
Armed with a psychology degree and infantry experience, he brashly made up some criteria, developed questions to elicit relevant facts, and insisted interviewers ask only what he specified.
Each recruit would be given a score on each criterion, and the overall “Kahneman score” would be used in deciding a candidate’s fit for a role.
This resulted in better assignments. Kahneman reported the interviewers getting increasingly better at predicting success. The key was to ask the same questions of every applicant so a common benchmark could be developed for comparison.
With hundreds of generic roles, finding a suitable candidate shouldn’t be rocket science. Lengthy scenario-based assessments cannot be the main tool to assess candidates.
Paul Endacott, the founder and CEO of recruitment tech firm GRIT says technology can help.
For high volume and perhaps less front-facing roles, AI-powered conversational bots like impress.ai and Paradox can funnel out applicants at the earlier stages by asking questions you would in a face-to-face interview.
Despite these tools, it does come down to taking a risk. CEO of Vervoe, Omer Molad says interviews favour candidates good at performing during interviews but there’s no guarantee this will translate into doing well at the job.
To him, the most reliable way to assess a potential employee is to give them an opportunity to do job-specific tasks. In other words, interview people by seeing for yourself whether they can do the job.
The key however, is in picking the right tool. Many companies use a personality test. It works as an instrument to illicit things like values or attitudes and less about skills or aptitude, says Colin Yeow from Emergenetics Asia Pacific, but can be useful to see if the candidate fits the team and culture.
The search for an ideal candidate is important and hirers cannot rush the process. But hiring managers should bear in mind that there are no perfect candidates.
If companies have a clear idea of what they want, implement efficient tools to sieve out people with the right skills and then see if they are a fit in terms of culture, they can find good people.
It just shouldn’t require seven rounds of interviews.
Adrian Tan is the Future of Work Strategist at the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) which aims to professionalise and strengthen the HR practice in Singapore.
* A pseudonym was used in this commentary.