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Foiling the Warren Harding Syndrome

Structured interviews help weed out bias in job selection

While Malcolm Gladwell extols the power of snap judgments in his latest book, Blink, he also warns of its dark side. In the chapter “The Warren Harding Error,” Gladwell points out that Harding, often cited as one of the least successful U.S. presidents, was initially perceived as a man of intelligence and integrity – simply because he was tall, distinguished-looking and handsome. “It’s why picking the right candidate for a job is so difficult and why, on more occasions than we may care to admit, utter mediocrities sometimes end up in positions of enormous responsibility,” he writes.

Professor David Zweig, a specialist in organizational behaviour and human resources in U of T at Scarborough’s department of management, might have some suggestions on how to avoid having a Warren working for you – and it starts with conducting a structured interview. In a recent study published in Personnel Psychology, Zweig and lead author Derek Chapman of the University of Calgary found that most employers conduct informal, unstructured interviews, and ask questions unrelated to the job they’re recruiting for – which can impede the selection of the most qualified candidate.

“With structured interviews, you ask the same set of job-related questions to each candidate so you can make a fair comparison between them,” says Zweig. “With unstructured interviews, you have a lot of biases creeping in. If they like you, they’ll throw softball questions at you and try to find ways to support their initial impression. Structured interviews have also been shown to have up to eight times the predictive power of pinpointing the best candidate compared to unstructured interviews.”

Zweig and Chapman asked interviewers from more than 500 organizations to fill out a questionnaire examining such issues as the level of structure during the interview, and the amount and type of formal interview training they had received. Applicants filled out questionnaires before and after the interview.

The professors also found only one-third of interviewers had formal training, and this group favoured more structure during the interview process. “That’s way too low,” says Zweig. “Everyone should receive formal training on how to conduct a structured interview.”

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