An Overwhelming majority of organizations use the interview as a primary tool for selecting employees (Blockyn, 1988). Skeptics, noting interviewing's mixed record as a selection and recruitment device, might attribute its persistent use to tradition or employers' misplaced confidence in the practice. Despite its shortcomings, however, the employment interview addresses important needs of employers and coworkers of new employees. Employers hope through interviewing to gather applicant information not readily available elsewhere. Of special concern are questions about employee "fit," communication skills, job motivation, and work-related values. Employers are right to doubt whether other sources of information, such as resumes, references, and personality tests, can answer such questions. Employers also believe the person-to-person approach of interviewing can be an effective way to sell their organizations to applicants. Since encouraging applicants to remain in the applicant pool is an important aspect of personnel selection, this is a powerful motive for the continued use of employment interviewing (Martin & Nagao, 1989). Thus the very real need to hire competent, mature individuals who can get along with others continues to motivate the use of employment interviewing.
While the research and training literature largely defines the success of employment interviewing in terms of its ability to serve managerial interests (Ralston & Kirkwood, 1995), the significance of the interview extends beyond these concerns. Applicants also seek information about the interviewing organization and the job in question. The usefulness of interviews in employee "selection" hinges as much on helping applicants decide whether to pursue or accept offers as it does on helping employers decide to whom they will make offers. Furthermore, the employment interview is more than a gateway to the organization. Whatever transpires between parties during interviews is part of their long-term relationship (Herriot, 1989), and applicants extrapolate from interaction during interviews what life might be like once hired (Jablin, 1987; Jablin & Krone, 1987; Rynes, 1993b). How new employees perceive employers to be fulfilling negotiated conditions of employment and other expectations created during interviews colors their first weeks on the job and perhaps their entire tenure. Moreover, the quality of communication during the hiring process may
influence applicants' perceptions of the values and culture of the hiring organization (Ralston & Kirkwood, 1995). "If an applicant feels treated with care and consideration, perceives he or she is treated on an equal basis, and there is mutual decision making," de Wolf (1993) argued, these factors "will . . . shape expectations about future cooperation" (p. 257). Although the research literature has not emphasized the effects of interviewing on applicant decision-making and long-term employee/employer relations, these issues underscore the potential value of interviews.
This essay argues that interviewers can dramatically improve the value of the interview for all parties by inviting more meaningful applicant performances. We first argue that many employment interviews fail to achieve their full potential in matching people with jobs and promoting positive, long-term employer/employee relations. Next, we identify some ways in which interviewers have tried to discover applicants' personalities, motives and values. These efforts, while well-intentioned, can sometimes be counterproductive. We argue that applicant behavior is necessarily a performance, which Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo (1983) define both as "theatricality" and "accomplishment" (p. 129). While naive interviewers may fail to recognize the theatrical quality of applicant behavior, trained interviewers may focus only on this quality and seek to penetrate interviewee performances. Paradoxically, however, efforts to outsmart applicants invite applicant performances that are hard to interpret. These efforts also create a communication setting unlike that in the workplace, and they deprive applicants of information they need to make wise employment decisions. Finally, we argue that interviewers can improve the value of selection interviews for all parties by helping applicants give their best possible performances, practicing conscious transparency, and creating a communication situation more like those on the job.
Throughout the essay we concentrate on interviewers as change agents. Interviewees also influence interview processes, and their ethical responsibilities have been discussed elsewhere (Kirkwood & Ralston, 1996). However, employers typically exercise more control over interview format and topic selection than do applicants. In any case, interviewers have more control over their own than over applicants' behavior. For these reasons, we will focus on what interviewers can do to enhance the value of the interview.
Assessing Interview Effectiveness
One may assess the usefulness of any employment interview by asking four questions:
1. How much does the interview improve the employer's hiring decisions?
2. How useful is the interview as a recruiting device?
3. How well does the interview aid applicants' decisions about whether to remain in the applicant pool and accept offers of employment?
4. How will initial interactions in the interview affect long term employer/employee relations?
By these standards, many employment interviews do not fully achieve their potential.
"With the possible exception of such obvious forms of quackery as graphology, phrenology, and astrology," Dipboye, Stramler and Fontenelle wrote in 1984, "no other personnel selection technique is held in as low esteem in the research literature as the interview" (p. 561). A decade later, some scholars' opinions of employment interviewing had not changed much. "The interview is a terrible predictor of job success," Herman stated (1994, p. 114). While the record of employment interviews in aiding the selection process is not as bleak as these comments would suggest, few would disagree that there is considerable room for improvement.
With few exceptions, interviewing research, training, and practice have been guided by the "prediction paradigm" (de Wolf, 1993, p. 253). On this view, the sine qua non of interviewing is enhancing employers' ability to predict future employee job performance and retention through rigorous selection. The operational arm of prediction is validity, and issues of validity dominate the employment interviewing literature. Some evidence shows that interviewing yields seriously flawed predictions, with validity coefficients falling around .14 (Hunter & Hunter, 1984). Other studies indicate validity can be higher, with coefficients ranging anywhere from .31 to .47 (Huffcutt & Arthur, 1994). The construct of incremental validity is of particular interest in evaluating the value of interviewing. Incremental validity concerns the extent to which interviewing improves selection decisions beyond what is achievable using other predictors and data collection methods. Predictors such as an applicant's cognitive ability are measured by using written measures in pre-employment tests (Terpstra, 1996). Reviews of the research literature (e.g., Campion, Purcell, & Brown, 1988; Conrad, 1988) suggest the incremental validity of employment interviewing is poor, and some research shows that less expensive paper-and-pencil tests yield better results (Tubiana & Ben-Shakhar, 1982). Campion, Campion, and Hudson (1994) reported that structured interviews correlated significantly with a battery of cognitive ability tests in predicting applicants' performance, but the interview did not meaningfully improve validity beyond the tests. Pulakos and Schmitt (1995) found an "experienced-based" questioning technique to be statistically significant ([R.sup.2] = .14, p [less than] .05) in improving the overall validity of the selection process. Although these researchers were pleased with the interview's contribution, much room for improving its incremental validity remains (Campion, Palmer, & Campion, 1997).
Martin and Nagao (1989) suggested that interviewing remains the most widely accepted technique in personnel selection in part because it helps persuade qualified individuals to remain in the applicant pool and accept positions if offered. However, the research presents a complex picture of the recruitment function of employment interviews. Taylor and Sniezek (1984) observed that "in general applicants reported that the recruitment interview had very little effect on their attitude towards the organization as a potential employer"; hence "the interview may be functioning poorly with respect to both the evaluation and recruitment of applicants" (p. 167). Similarly, Rynes and Barber (1990) concluded that "the employer that wishes to attract more or better applicants will not find much support for the notion that improving the performance of organizational representatives enhances job acceptance rates" (p. 292). Other studies (Powell, 1991; Harris & Fink, 1987) found that impressions formed prior to interviews tend to have the greatest impact on applicants' attitudes toward employment with a given company. Yet, Ralston (1993) and Ralston and Brady (1994) reported that applicants satisfied with communication during interviews were more attracted to positions and organizations than were less satisfied applicants. The value of interviewing for recruitment may be greatest when applicants' feelings about jobs are neither positive nor negative (Ralston, 1993; Rynes & Miller, 1983). Thus, while interviewing shows some promise for recruiting qualified employees, to date research offers only partial support for its value (for more comprehensive treatments of this issue see Rynes, 1993; Taylor & Bergmann, 1987).
While many studies have assessed the effects of interviewing on employers' hiring decisions, to our knowledge there are no empirical studies of how well the interview improves applicants' decisions. However, an analysis of advice given to applicants (Kirkwood & Ralston, 1996) concluded that the interview may not meet applicants' needs since the guiding principle of such counsel - to impress and please employers - discourages applicants from openly pursuing their own interests. When following the interviewer's lead, displaying an other-orientation, and selling themselves, interviewees may find it difficult to gather information they need. Advice on asking questions illustrates the tone of most recommendations to applicants. Interviewing texts discourage applicants from asking "me-oriented questions," despite the fact that such questions may reflect their most pressing concerns. Instead, applicants should remember that "Asking questions shows interest and preparation. It's another chance to show you've done your homework" (Barbour et al., 1991, p. 69). Hence, applicants should ask "other-oriented" questions that demonstrate their knowledge of and interest in the employer. If applicants want answers to less impressive questions, they may need to get them surreptitiously. One training film advises applicants, "Obviously you can't spend the day with a clipboard interviewing people. You gotta be subtle and figure out ways to find the answers to those questions. If you want to know about work hours, ask about traffic, when people have to leave home to arrive at work" ("Job Search," 1989).
Thus, expectations regarding applicant conduct do little to enhance their decisions. Furthermore, interviewers may undervalue the importance of providing applicants with useful job information. Tissen (1989) maintained that most employers see providing applicants with job information as an "added cost" rather than as an "added value" of conducting business (p. 191). By comparison, the "realistic recruitment" model (see Wanous, 1989; Wanous & Collela, 1989) argued that better informed applicants make better employment decisions, which directly affect the validity of decisions made by employers. Wanous and his colleagues have proposed a comprehensive model for providing applicants with job-relevant information so that they might self-select themselves in or out of the applicant pool. Helping applicants make better decisions thus offers an important, if as yet unfulfilled, opportunity to enhance the benefits of the interview for both applicants and employers.
Ralston and Kirkwood (1995) argued that an adversarial relationship between interviewers and applicants can create a lack of trust that may resonate throughout the tenure of the employer/employee relationship. Interviewing practices that privilege employers' interests over applicants' and perpetuate the power imbalance typical of most interviews can erode trust. So can applicants' perceived impression management tactics.
Typically interviewers expect to stipulate the interview's format and content, control the amount and kind of information they give applicants, and challenge applicants' claims when necessary. Applicants have far less power over these aspects of the interview. On the whole they are expected to comply with interviewers' attempted control, although they do exercise influence over interaction in the interview (e.g., Engler-Parish & Millar, 1989). As we will show later, good reasons exist for interviewer control of some aspects of the conversation, and applicants themselves may expect interviewers to exercise such control. Nonetheless, a one-up, one-down relationship does not help build trust between employers and their eventual employees.
Applicants' impression management tactics and interviewers' wariness of such tactics also contribute to a lack of trust. Kirkwood and Ralston (1996) documented how some business and communication texts advise interviewees to minimize their weaknesses, appear interested in the position even when interest is premature, and feign interpersonal attraction toward the interviewer. Fletcher's (1992) response to such instruction is no doubt typical of many interviewers: "It is one thing to provide training and guidance to interviewees in how to present their talents and other attributes as effectively as possible, but quite another to coach them in strategic impression management tactics that are deliberately intended to favorably impress irrespective of their actual merits" (p. 362). Hence the behavior of interviewees can also foster mistrust.
Establishing how interaction during selection interviews might influence long-term employer/employee relations is difficult, but gamesmanship and a lack of trust can hardly improve them. Conversely, any movement toward greater trust in the interview should promote such relations. Discovering how to promote trust is thus another untapped opportunity to enhance the value of the interview.
In summary, empirical research suggests that many employment interviews have yet to achieve their full potential as recruitment and selection devices. It also appears that interviewers could do more to help applicants make informed decisions. Likewise, many interviews do not contribute as fully as they might to positive long-term employer/employee relations. Improving applicant decision-making and promoting employer/employee relations have received less attention in the interviewing literature, but scholars and practitioners have proposed numerous ways to improve the performance of the interview as a selection tool. See Campion, Palmer, and Campion (1997) for a review of these techniques. Nonetheless, basic assumptions about interviewer strategies remain unchanged.
Reconsidering Interviewer Strategies
All interviewers, from untrained novices to sophisticated professionals, pursue the same goal: to get to know applicants as people and predict how they will behave on the job. The need to get a more realistic picture of the applicant, as compared to the one portrayed by resumes and references, is compelling. However, some efforts to get to know interviewees can reduce the value of the interview for employers and applicants.
Discovering the Real Applicant
Having read resumes and letters of recommendation, employers are eager to form a more comprehensive and, perhaps, realistic picture of the person they might be hiring. Experienced interviewers wisely use the interview to confirm that applicants possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) claimed on their resumes. Beyond checking facts about KSAs, however, many employers also hope to discover what "kind of people" they are interviewing. This focuses the selection process on more elusive questions regarding applicant personalities, motives, values, and people skills. In pursuit of these insights, untrained interviewers try to get to know applicants as they would any new acquaintance, by exploring areas of common interest, inviting applicants to talk about themselves and their interest in the position, and asking personal questions that may not be job-relevant but are customary in other initial interactions ("Are you married?" "Do you have children?"). If interviewers follow advice from experts, they may find themselves cast in the role of Sherlock Holmes, an insightful if somewhat cynical student of human nature who deduces from skillfully asked questions the hidden (and presumably unpleasant) truth about the applicant. Stewart and Cash (1996) tell aspiring interviewers "there are always two applicants in an interview, the real and the make-believe, and your task is to determine how much of what you see and hear is a facade for the interview and how much is genuine" (p. 154). The interviewer's task, wrote Smart (1983), is to "ascertain the whole job-relevant truth about the candidate - warts, skeletons in the closet, and all" (p. 68). Thus Townley (1994) said of current approaches to interviewing, "There is a view of the individual [interviewee] as harboring a secret truth, access to which is through interrogation by a privileged speaker - the interviewer." On this view the interviewer's craft is "the patient observation of surface expressions which reveal inner truth" (pp. 114-115).
Two beliefs underlie interviewers' efforts to discover what kind of people applicants really are. The first is that, however well qualified candidates might be for a job by virtue of their training, experience, and technical skills, if they are unmotivated, selfish, stubborn, or hard to get along with, they will be more trouble than they are worth. Second, by forming more accurate impressions of candidates, employers can better predict how they will perform on the job, whether they will be happy in it, and how long they will stay. Because it is easier to teach people new technical skills than to motivate them, teach them basic social skills, or transform their personalities, employers are eager to know the "real" person who will work for them.
Although these beliefs are valid, the desire to know who applicants really are is often unattainable. Even at its best, when conscientious applicants are responding sincerely to interviewers' thoughtful questions, it is asking too much of the interview to reveal applicants' true motives and personalities. Indeed, one may rightly ask whether there is one true applicant whom the skilled interviewer can know. All of us are complex beings, and our motives and behavior are influenced by the situations in which we find ourselves. Owing to these situational influences, it is difficult to predict performance on the job (Guion, 1990). Because applicants work hard to impress interviewers, it is even less likely that interviewers can learn much of value about their motives and personalities. Coached interviewees, especially, are aware of interviewers' needs and preferences and come prepared to present themselves as ideal applicants (Kirkwood & Ralston, 1996).
Fortunately, however, while the search for applicants' true motives and personalities is hard to fulfill, it is also unnecessary. One can accomplish a great deal of value in the interview without trying to get such information. We concur with Dickerson (1989), who argued that a lack of employee motivation reflects an incompatibility between the work environment and employee needs. If an employee who has demonstrated she is capable of working with others and doing good work is not performing adequately, the cause probably lies in systemic reasons why it is not in the her best interest to do so. Thus, "the big problem in the hiring process is not finding motivated individuals; it's placing the right individuals in the right jobs" (p. 219). In short, if an applicant can demonstrate good interpersonal skills and other job-relevant abilities in the interview, it is up to the employer to create a work environment that invites and rewards similar behavior on the job. As we shall argue later in the essay, Dickerson's perspective can dramatically improve the value of interviews for both parties.
Interviewer Questioning Strategies
One must be cautious in characterizing how interviewers try to get to know applicants. Reading training materials, one would conclude that most interviewers conceal what kind of candidate they are looking for, as well as the motives for their questions and their responses to interviewees' answers ("What a great answer!" "I can't believe she said that!"). If they follow some experts' advice, interviewers will employ strategic questions and structured interviewing methods designed to penetrate applicants' interviewing personae. Kador (1997) tells employers that unless they put as much preparation into interviews as the candidates, they will get rehearsed answers. He offers a series of questions designed to help employers probe more deeply into the candidate's mind and personality. For instance, employers might ask, "Why are manhole openings round?" to gain more insight into applicants' ability to handle tough questions. Falcone (1994) urges employers to gather information about the "whole" applicant by conducting structured interviews in which applicants are asked questions that stress spontaneity, thereby overcoming scripted responses. He suggests asking, "How many hours a week do you need to work to get your job done?" Applicants' answers, he argues, will provide useful information about their work ethics, outside time commitments, and willingness to put career needs over personal needs. To avoid getting responses that reflect applicants' attempts to please interviewers, Kador and Falcone advise employers to avoid disclosing the motives for their questions.
Many interviewers, however, are untrained and have read little about the subject. These interviewers are likely, we suspect, to engage in less structured conversations with candidates, talking a great deal about the position and the kind of person they hope to hire and inviting interviewees to respond. Hence, while trained interviewers may seek the real applicant indirectly, others - probably the majority - conduct this search openly.
In critiquing these methods, we would observe that all interviewers, regardless of their approach, invite applicant performances. It is useful to understand interviewee behavior as performance for two reasons. First, this behavior is characterized by greater self-consciousness and concern for impression formation than is ordinary social behavior. Hence it is a "performance" because it is akin to "theatricality and play-acting" (Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1983, p. 129). Second, every interviewer query tacitly or directly asks the interviewee to demonstrate some knowledge, skill, ability, or trait. In this sense the interviewee's response is performance as demonstration or "accomplishment" (Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1983, p. 129). Applicant performance as self-conscious presentation is inherent in all interviewing, and it is neither fruitful nor necessary to try to change this. However, interviewers have great freedom to decide what sorts of interviewee performances-as-demonstrations they wish to observe. Thus one may ask of any interviewing method: What sorts of demonstrations does it invite? What can employers learn from such performances? How do invitations to perform affect recruitment, applicants' decisions, and long-term employer/employee relations?
When interviewers ask questions such as, "Are you a team player?" "Do you like working with the public?" or "Are you a detail person?," it takes little insight to guess the right answer. Hence leading questions invite applicants to demonstrate their rhetorical skill in supplying this answer. These questions are useful primarily in seeing how well interviewees can craft arguments, use language, and tell stories the interviewer will find impressive. In effect, leading questions supply a claim and ask the interviewee to support it: "Are you a team player?" means, "Give me the most impressive answer you can stating that you're a team player." what can employers learn from such a performance? If only people who are team players could do an impressive job of responding, then this question would help identify team players. However, some people who are not good at cooperative tasks can give impressive answers, so asking a leading question about being a team player is useful chiefly in observing a certain kind of rhetorical skill. If this skill is useful on the job, this may be good to know. But if the rhetorical skill needed to answer a leading question does not help one be a team player, the question invites a performance from which interviewers cannot learn much.
Recognizing this difficulty, experts advise interviewers to avoid giving applicants information they can use to guess what kind of answers interviewers hope to hear. This advice takes the form of the familiar 80/20 rule, which suggests that applicants should do 80% of the talking and interviewers most of the listening. Interviewers should talk only to collect applicant information or to describe the position and the organization, as part of the recruiting effort. Interviewing experts have also proposed a number of questioning strategies designed to penetrate applicants' attempts to please them. These include conducting highly structured interviews, adhering to standardized scripts, and asking questions with hidden motives (e.g., Falcone, 1994; Kador, 1997).
In 1983 Smart predicted optimistically that "game playing in interviews will diminish as interviewers become more proficient. Skillful interviewers can cut quite quickly through the facade and tricks of a respondent, take control, and conduct effective and efficient interviews" (p. 5). However, the generally disappointing empirical research on the incremental validity of employment interviewing cited earlier suggests that interviewer secrecy and strategy have done little to improve the value of the interview for employer decision-making. On the contrary, interviewer attempts to outwit applicants may escalate the overall level of game-playing in interviews. Goodale (1982) argued:
Interviews have always included an element of game playing in which each party tries to outfox the other. Typically a respondent tries to guess what information the interviewer is looking for and then gives the interviewer only that part of the information which is to his or her own advantage. . . . Meanwhile, the intrepid interviewer tries to break through the respondent's facade, often using trick questions or other devious techniques, to get a look at the real person. As a result, the interview may degenerate into a game in which each party is trying to outguess and trick the other. It is evident that game playing is more common in interviews today than it was ten or fifteen years ago. (pp. 4-5)
Thus, attempts to outsmart applicants may invite the very applicant performances interviewers hope to avoid. Forewarned and fore-armed, trained applicants match each new interviewer technique with tailor-made impression management tactics. Regarding patterned behavioral interviews, Penrose, Rasberry and Myers (1996) warned applicants, "Often your personality and a few good answers can get you through the screening interview and maybe even the second interview. But when you undergo a behavioral interview, you can't bluff your way through the answers" (p. 396). Later they discuss the "STAR" method, by which applicants can perform more effectively in this type of interview and overcome possible interviewer objections. This example illustrates that interviewers' attempts to penetrate applicants' performances only invite more sophisticated applicant performances, producing an ongoing spiral of mistrust in which each party tries to outdo the other.
Covert questions also introduce a major source of error into the interviewing process by inviting applicant performances that are hard to interpret. Even when the hidden agenda for a question addresses an applicant trait that is job-relevant, the applicant's ability to detect the hidden agenda is not. Of those applicants who give unsatisfactory replies to the question, some lack the trait the interviewer seeks to measure. But do all of those giving unsatisfactory answers lack the trait? Some of these applicants might have supplied suitable answers had they perceived what the question was really asking. Furthermore, the question may reward savvy applicants who can detect its hidden agenda and supply answers that please the interviewer. Thus, the question may exclude some qualified candidates and favor some unqualified candidates. Because these questions tap at least three factors - (a) the trait being measured, (b) applicants' ability to see through such questions, and (c) their ability to give rhetorically impressive answers - these questions make it harder to interpret applicant responses and thus to identify qualified applicants.
Thus, some attempts to get to know the real applicant do not invite meaningful interviewee performances. Additionally, when interviewers try to outsmart applicants, other problems may arise. Interviewer secrecy restricts information given to applicants and so limits their ability to make informed decisions about remaining in the applicant pool and accepting offers. Implying a lack of trust between employer and applicant, interviewer secrecy and strategy can hardly be effective recruitment tools, nor do they provide a good introduction to the organization.
Controlling the Interview
Traditionally, interviewers expect to control most aspects of the interview process (Morgan & Smith, 1996; Ralston & Kirkwood, 1995). This expectation stems from three assumptions. First, virtually all interviewers, whether trained or untrained, believe the primary purpose of interviews is to serve employers' interests. Goodale (1982) identified the primary objective of the interview as "choosing the best applicant for the job" (p. 24), and Dipboye (1992) defined the employment interview as "a dialogue initiated by one or more persons to gather information and evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for employment" (p. 3). Such remarks reflect the belief, virtually unchallenged in the literature, that the foremost purpose of the employment interview is helping employers select employees. It is employers who "conduct" interviews, not applicants. Second, trained interviewers, at least, assume they must exercise control to gather reliable applicant information. Morgan and Smith (1996) observed, "The interview process requires the collection of a great deal of information within a limited time frame. . . . Therefore, it is imperative that the interviewer use the time available wisely by maintaining control and keeping the interview on track" (p. 370). To this end, interviewers determine what topics will be addressed and in what depth, and they ask the majority of questions. Third, those who train interviewers advocate control as a way of avoiding legal problems. Many interviewing experts believe that "Only with the use of a structured interview is there any hope of meeting legal requirements that the selection interview be valid" (Herman, 1994, p. 123). The fear is that in more casual conversation interviewers might inadvertently ask inappropriate questions.
Ironically, however, interviewer control can yield less valid information for employers, because an interviewer-dominated conversation does not create a realistic setting in which applicants can demonstrate job-relevant communication skills. Herman explained:
Applicants who have been put firmly in the subordinate role by a superior interviewer are less likely to accept the job than those who are treated as equals. And those who are put in the subordinate role end up behaving during the interview as subordinates, so it is difficult to predict from the interview how they would relate as peers or supervisors. Seeing applicants in the subordinate role only predicts how capable they are of groveling when necessary. Unless groveling is a bona fide occupational qualification, you don't learn much from playing this ego game. (1994, p. 117)
Although Herman's use of the term "groveling" probably overstates what happens in most interviews, her broader conclusion merits attention. The more interviewers control the conversation, the less chance applicants have to display the communication skills needed on most jobs. By comparison, interviews that create settings more typical of those on the job give applicants greater opportunity to display their social interaction skills.
In addition to limiting what employers can learn from interviews, interviewer control can harm applicants' decisions about employment. Both applicants and interviewers ordinarily assume interviewers will ask most of the questions. This practice affords applicants less opportunity than employers to gain useful information. Even when interviewers give applicants a chance to ask questions (typically, in the closing minutes of the interview), well-trained interviewees will ask questions meant to impress interviewers. Applicants thereby fail to gain information of real interest to them. And while interviewers may appropriately follow up, challenge, or criticize interviewees' claims, it would be risky for applicants to be similarly assertive in examining interviewers' claims about the position or the employer. Thus, the nearly universal emphasis on interviewer control deprives both applicants and employers of opportunities to gain valid information. Interviewer control also seems unlikely to promote positive long-term employer/employee relations.
Inviting Meaningful Applicant Performances
We argue that interviewers can better serve employers' and applicants' needs by inviting more meaningful applicant performances. To this end, interviewers should enable the best performances of which applicants are capable, practice conscious transparency, and share control of the interview with applicants.
Enabling Best Performances
Every communicative situation invites performances by the participants. Even untrained applicants recognize that employment interviews call upon them to present themselves in the most positive light and communicate in ways interviewers will appreciate. One might object to some of the ways applicants try to meet these demands, but it is unrealistic, counterproductive, and unnecessary to ask them to stop trying. The challenge for interviewers is not to penetrate applicant performances, but rather to invite applicant performances from which both parties can learn. The key to this approach is the distinction between performance as theatricality and demonstration (Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1983). These terms, we would suggest, identify two dimensions of behavior, which may vary in intensity in any given case. "Theatricality" refers to the extent to which behavior is self-conscious and managed. A performance is a "demonstration" insofar as it clearly displays certain attitudes, values, skills, or knowledge. On this view, all applicant behavior is self-conscious and managed to some degree, and efforts to elicit completely unself-conscious behavior from applicants are unlikely to succeed. However, such efforts are likely to invite performances that are hard to interpret or that call upon skills that are not job-relevant. In other words, efforts to overcome the theatrical nature of applicant responses undermine what could be the real strength of the interview - eliciting behavior that clearly demonstrates job-relevant KSAs. By accepting the theatrical nature of applicant behavior and inviting more meaningful applicant demonstrations, interviewers can improve the value of the interview for all concerned.
To elicit such demonstrations, interviewers should stop trying to predict applicant proclivities and concentrate on assessing applicant capabilities. The interview is misused, to the disservice of all involved, when it becomes an exercise in predicting applicant behavior based on inferences about who the interviewee really is. If predicting applicant behavior is important, employers should use records of performance in past jobs and reference checks to make such predictions (see Terpstra, 1996). The interview is better used to identify people who are capable of doing a job. As Guion (1990) observed, "For many [personnel] decisions, [discovering] what people can do may often be a more critical construct than [predicting] actual performance [on the job] - the latter is subject to many influences" (p. 340, italics added). By discovering what applicants can do, interviewers can provide employers with valuable information that is more reliable than predictions about what applicants may do.
While interviewers have long asked applicants to demonstrate technical skills during interviews, we believe a similar approach can be used to tap applicant interpersonal skills of interest to employers. To illustrate, an interviewer who wants to know whether an applicant can work well with others might ask the following questions:
* "Think of someone you've enjoyed working with. What do they do that makes them easy to work with?" (Asks applicant to demonstrate awareness of the skills needed to be a team player.)
* "Being a good listener is essential to being a team player. I'm going to state a position on smoking in the workplace, then I want you to show me how well you've listened by paraphrasing my position." (Seeks a performance of a specific skill related to teamwork.)
* Describe a hypothetical conflict between two co-workers. Ask the applicant to summarize the position of each worker and suggest a solution that might be acceptable to both. (Seeks a performance of perspective-taking skills needed for teamwork.)
* Describe a hypothetical situation in which a supervisor is asking an employee to sacrifice her personal goals for the sake of a team. Ask the applicant to discuss what reasons the boss should provide. (Tests applicant's ability to identify and weigh personal and group interests.)
Inviting applicant demonstrations of KSAs needed to be a team player has two advantages over situational and behavioral description questions, which on their face appear to be closely related to the items listed above. Asking interviewees to describe what action they would take as team players (in situational questions) or did take (in behavioral descriptions) elicits responses applicants hope will impress interviewers. This, we have argued, is unavoidable and not undesirable. Unless these questions are framed very carefully, however, they will ask applicants not to demonstrate specific KSAs essential for teamwork but only to give compelling accounts showing their general willingness and ability to work with others. Hence answers to situational and behavioral description questions can be high in theatricality, yet only provide evidence of applicants' rhetorical skill in claiming they are (surprise!) team players. Such demonstrations are of little help in selecting applicants truly capable of teamwork on the job. Furthermore, the phrasing of situational and behavioral description questions - "what would you do if" or "tell me about a time when . . ." - makes applicants' answers hard to interpret. Ostensibly, these questions ask applicants to predict their likely behavior on the job or to give factual accounts of past behavior; implicitly they ask applicants to affirm their willingness and ability to be team players. While interviewers might find it useful to hear such affirmations, thoughtful interviewers must also wonder, "Would she really respond this way on the job?" "Did her story really happen the way she said it did?" These concerns are difficult to resolve and may distract interviewers from a more important concern - does she have the KSAs necessary to be a team player?
When interviewers invite responses asking applicants to demonstrate particular KSAs, the issue of insincere or managed applicant behavior largely dissolves. When applicants demonstrate specific KSAs needed for teamwork, it does not matter if they are trying to impress the interviewer (one hopes they will!), because the interview seeks only to discover what applicants are capable of doing on the job. Inviting applicants to give their best performances of KSAs thus frees interviewers from the role of the adversary who seeks to unmask applicant conduct and discover a less impressive reality. The interviewer as cynical detective becomes the interviewer as coach, who in auditioning applicants for possible membership on the team first seeks to evoke the best performance each person has to offer. While an adversarial relationship between interviewer and interviewee is not desirable, inviting and indeed enabling applicants to give their best performances can only improve the quality of the interviewing relationship.
Earlier we argued that both leading and covert questions invite interviewees to display their skill in telling interviewers what they want to hear. Covert questions merely make applicants work harder to guess what the right answers are. It is hard to devise questions perceptive applicants cannot see through, but trying to ask such questions can prompt even more applicant game playing. In addition, interviewer secrecy deprives applicants of information they need to make wise employment decisions. Hence neither naive openness nor hidden agendas elicit meaningful performances from applicants. To achieve this goal interviewers should practice conscious transparency whenever possible. Conscious transparency represents a dramatic departure from the strategic interviewer behavior advised by many experts. It is also quite different from the unwitting openness of untrained interviewers. Conscious transparency has two components: sharing information with applicants and disclosing the intent of questions that call for applicant demonstrations of job-relevant skills.
To promote meaningful exchanges during interviews, both parties must have more or less equal access to information about each other. Employers use resumes, reference letters, and phone checks with previous employers to get more accurate and complete pictures of applicants. Comparable information about employers should be available to applicants, This will help them participate fully in the interview and use it to explore issues of concern to them. As suggested previously, better informed applicants make wiser employment choices, thereby improving the outcome of the selection process. To this end, employers might provide applicants with data on, for instance, promotion practices within the organization and voluntary turnover rates among employees. Employers might also supply names and phone numbers of current and previous employees, assuming they have agreed to participate. In this way applicants can gather different perspectives on employers' strengths and weaknesses, just as employers do about applicants. Porter, Lawler and Hackman (1975) advocated a similar approach, suggesting that employers might provide applicants with results from attitude surveys of current job holders. "If relevant," they added, "the individual [applicant] might be given a chance to interview job holders" (p. 157).
Interviewers can also improve the value of interviews for both employers and applicants by disclosing the intent of questions and their responses to applicants' answers. In addition to the questions cited in the previous section, the following questions illustrate the practice of transparent interviewing:
* "Being able to respond constructively to customers with complaints is an important part of this job. I know it's hard to practice what we preach, but what principles do you hope would guide the way you handle customer complaints?"
* [To an apparently "over-qualified" applicant] "I'm concerned you may find this job doesn't offer much of a challenge, given your abilities, so you'll leave as soon as you find something better. How would you respond to my concern?"
* [Responding to an applicant who has just listed three reasons why he wants a position, the first of which is that he likes the area and the last of which is that he thinks the work would be interesting] "Of your reasons for wanting to work for us, the first thing you mentioned was location and the last was the work itself. I'm not certain how much you're interested in this kind of work. What more can you tell me about this?"
* "We hope to hire someone who plans to stay with us for at least three years. We know plans can change, but could you describe the sort of opportunity or circumstances that would tempt you to leave sooner than this?"
Conscious transparency has several advantages for employers and applicants. It can improve employers' decisions by making it less likely that qualified candidates who fail to detect the hidden intent of questions will be excluded and that savvy impression managers will be selected. Unless the ability to detect the hidden motive of a question is a job-relevant skill, no good reason exists to hide the intent of questions when one is inviting applicant demonstrations of skills and abilities. Revealing intent can undermine questions that ask applicants to make and support claims about what kind of people they are, but transparency improves applicant responses to questions that invite demonstrations of skills.
Conscious transparency can also create a more authentic and less defensive climate in the interview. Discussing the "interactive-relational" approach to interviewing, Chirban (1996) underscored the importance of interviewer authenticity - the "genuine, honest, and truthful expression of thoughts, feelings, and intents that encourages a reciprocal response by an interviewee" (p. 40). In the absence of authenticity, Chirban argued, interviewing is less likely to succeed: "Interviewers . . . who advocate a formal posture and disregard or minimize authenticity lose the significance and potential for how the interpersonal process facilitates the interview" (p. 41). In addition, research suggests that interviewees are more satisfied when they believe the information sought by interviewers is job-relevant (see Rynes, 1993a, 1993b). Transparency can show the relevance of questions. Furthermore, it can improve follow-up questioning by allowing interviewers to check their perceptions of interviewees. When applicants behave in ways open to several interpretations, transparent interviewers can openly test their perceptions and arrive at a better understanding of the applicant.
Finally, consider the last question listed above, regarding the applicant's plans to remain in the position if hired. Clearly this question invites the interviewee to say what the interviewer wants to hear. So why ask it? Openly disclosing employers' needs helps increase decision validity by ensuring that applicants are armed with more information on which to base their own employment decisions. Also, when employers only hint at a concern, applicants may never directly comment on it. In responding to transparent questions applicants must address the concern. In addition, responding to transparent questions raises the ethical bar for applicants. We believe that when employers' needs are clearly known, most applicants will not purposefully give misleading responses. In addition, upon reflection following a transparent interview, applicants may select themselves out.
Interviewer control, in the form of highly structured interview formats, has its place when standardization of interview formats and questions across applicants is important. We have seen, however, that such standardization comes at a cost, because highly structured interviews bear little resemblance to the kind of communication situations most applicants will encounter on the job. Hence highly structured interviews do not permit applicants to display communication skills in realistic settings. Because communication is a mutual, transactional process, interviews should also be mutually controlled by interviewers and interviewees, when appropriate. In many interviews mutual control can take the form of equal opportunity to propose topics for discussion, raise questions, challenge answers, and regulate the flow of the conversation (e.g., deciding when a topic has been adequately explored). In fewer cases, mutual control might also include negotiating the format of the interview (e.g., unstructured dialogue versus interviewer questions followed by equal time for interviewee questions). While this negotiation might not be suitable for screening interviews, it would be feasible when employers conduct in-depth follow-up interviews. The interaction during initial screening interviews is often highly scripted, but Miller and Buzzanell (1996) suggested that "Participants in second interviews . . . are likely to have fewer opportunities for scripted interactions" (p. 169). Thus, second interviews would seem to provide the ideal situation for sharing control. But even in screening interviews, interviewers can abandon the expectation that applicants will "follow their lead" in all respects. Unless, as Herman (1994) noted, "groveling" is a job-relevant skill, interviewers should do everything in their power to avoid exercising their power.
To facilitate mutual control, interviewers must encourage applicants to question and challenge interviewer claims about the prospective position and employer and to ask questions of genuine interest to them. Mutual control also assumes applicants will have more information about employers before and after interviewing. To promote meaningful exchanges during interviews, both parties must have more or less equal access to information about each other. Hence interviewer transparency is inherent in the notion of mutual control.
Mutually controlled interviews offer benefits to both employers and applicants. Expanding applicants' freedom to communicate during interviews allows employers to observe a wider range of applicant skills than would otherwise be displayed in the interview. By encouraging "applicants' tactful but incisive examination of employers' claims," interviewers can assess their critical thinking and interpersonal skills (Ralston and Kirkwood, 1995, p. 87). Similarly, inviting applicants to engage in free-flowing conversation may provide a better opportunity for each party to get a feeling for the likely chemistry of their interaction on the job and employee-organization fit. Interviews in which there is more unrestricted dialogue are also likely to enhance recruitment. Latham and Finnegan (1993) found that applicants responded more favorably to unstructured interviews in which the conversation was free-flowing than to highly structured sessions that were tightly scripted. By enhancing applicants' opportunities to learn as much from the interview as interviewers do, mutual control can improve applicants' decisions about whether to remain in the applicant pool and take jobs if offered. Inasmuch as mutually controlled interviews are more typical of life in the organization and demonstrate respect for all parties, this approach should also lay a better foundation for positive employer/employee relations. Finally, while interviewers might fear that sharing control with applicants will allow conversation about topics that should not be considered in the hiring process, focusing on applicant demonstrations of job-relevant KSAs and transparently sharing the motives for questions makes this possibility less likely.
Employment interviewing has the potential to meet important needs for employers and applicants. Some of these needs are well recognized, such as helping employers select qualified applicants and encouraging interviewees to remain in the applicant pool. Others - helping applicants make wise employment decisions and enhancing long-term employer/employee relations - also highlight the potential of the employment interview. Yet many selection interviews have not fully achieved their promise. Nonetheless, we can learn from the experience of untrained and more sophisticated interviewers. Insofar as untrained interviewers try to get to know applicants as they would any new acquaintance, they are creating more authentic dialogue in the interview. The leading questions naive interviewers ask also give applicants useful information about the position and the work environment. However, such questions invite applicants to tell interviewers what they want to heal and thus can reduce the interview to an exercise in rhetorical skills which may or may not be job-relevant. Hence more sophisticated interviewers are sensitive to the kinds of questions they ask. But if interviewers try to outsmart applicants, they invite applicants to outguess them. Trained interviewers may also control interview format and content, so all interviewees are on an even playing field and employers are assured of gathering essential information on each applicant. However, interviewer controlled conversations do not model those on the job very well.
We have argued in this paper that interviewers can improve the value of the interview by helping interviewees give their best possible performances of job-relevant interpersonal and technical skills. To this end, interviewers should practice conscious transparency and, insofar as possible, make the interview a mutually controlled dialogue more typical of interaction on the job. Transforming the employment interview in these ways can promote more authentic communication that serves the needs of both employers and applicants.
Send correspondence to Steven Ralston, Department of Communication, Box 70667, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN 37614-0667
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William G. Kirkwood is a Professor of Communication at East Tennessee State University, where he also serves as the Director of the Oral Communication Proficiency Program. His research has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, including Communication Monographs, Communication Education, and the Journal of Applied Communication Research.
Steven M. Ralston is an Associate Professor of Communication at East Tennessee State University, where he also serves as the Assistant Director of the Teaching and Learning Center. His research has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, including The Journal of Business Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and the Journal of Applied Communication Research.…