"How many siblings do you have? If you could have dinner with Albert Einstein or Michael Jackson, who would you choose?" These are examples of real questions that have been asked by investment bankers of prospective new recruits.
But people who use questions like these for recruitment purposes are a liability to the organisations they are hiring for, says Michael Greenspan, occupational psychologist with Kiddy and Partners, who trains executives to be more effective interviewers.
"What is the right answer?" he asks. The interviewer who asked the Einstein question apparently thought the pop-star was "the right answer", because a preference for the scientist would demonstrate a bias for theory against practice.
The author of the sibling question thought you could "tell a lot about a person" from family position: the interviewer came from a large family.
Interviewing is something that most senior investment bankers and fund managers have to do on a regular basis, notwithstanding the increased use of assessment centres and psychometric tests, particularly for graduate recruits.
In most banks, for lateral hires the cornerstone of the process remains a battery of sometimes rather unfocused interviews with time-pressed potential supervisors and colleagues. At a few US institutions, a candidate may have to endure as many as 70 interviews. Yet most bankers have never received any training in effective interviewing.
Research has been carried out over several decades on the effectiveness of different recruiting methods. Traditional interviews come out consistently poorly, predicting performance in only around 25% of cases. However, this can rise to 50% or higher if a structured, focused approach is adopted.
What is especially interesting, says Greenspan, is that with traditional interviews there is no difference in the effectiveness of people who think they are good interviewers, compared to people who think they aren't.
The problem, he says, is that traditional interviewing relies disproportionately on gut feeling. That leads to people hiring clones of themselves and making decisions based on personal prejudices.
Greenspan says: "The notion that we can be objective is ludicrous. We all think we're shrewd. But the danger is that we make a decision and then look for evidence to support it and play down other things."
The third element in this triple whammy of poor practice is selective memory distorting the profile of the candidate one way or another.
Instead, says Ian Tomlinson-Roe, director of KPMG consulting for financial services, interviewers should start by being clear about their objectives: to find out precisely what experience the candidate has and to explore specific skills, competences or behaviours. Skills and behaviours, he says, can broadly be divided into three categories: professional/sector related, technical and interpersonal.
According to consultants, a number of bulge-bracket banks are now using or moving towards what is called "competence-based interviewing", although few institutions will discuss their HR practices publicly.
However, Fidelity Investments discloses that competence-based interviewing has been the norm for many years and executives are routinely trained in its use. …