Inviting Meaningful Applicant Performances in Employment Interviews

By Kirkwood, William G.; Ralston, Steven M. | The Journal of Business Communication, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Inviting Meaningful Applicant Performances in Employment Interviews


Kirkwood, William G., Ralston, Steven M., The Journal of Business Communication


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. …

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