The Traditional Job Interview Needs A Radical Rethink

The concept of a formal job interview was born in 1920s America, another of Thomas Edison's bright sparks. A century later, the process has simultaneously come a long way and no way at all.
Edison's framework reportedly involved an aptitude test – a bit like today's job interviews, where we're advised to prepare for interview questions like "What are you most proud of?" and "Sell me this pencil".
Apparently, Edison also got his candidates to eat soup in front of him. "The famous inventor wanted to see if the applicants added salt and pepper before tasting what was in their bowl, or if they waited until they tasted it before proceeding with the seasoning," writes historian Andrew Martin. "Edison immediately rejected the premature seasoners, as he reasoned he didn’t want employees who relied on assumptions." A seasoned premature seasoner like myself would have failed at first slurp.
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What worked in the 1920s – shock – may not work in the 2020s. The five-day work week also began in 1920s America, at Ford Motor Company. Some companies in Australia are now reevaluating this, with a four-day work week trial beginning this year. The in-office situ has been given a long overdue makeover too, with many Australian businesses considering some form of permanent flexible working arrangement. So why omit the job interview from the same scrutiny? On its 100th birthday, let's question this ubiquitous route into work – along with its implicit biases, power imbalances and, ultimately, its effectiveness.
Despite obvious technological advancement – phone interviews in the mid 20th century, online screening tools in the 1990s, the arrival of LinkedIn in 2003, the unavoidable rise of virtual interviews in 2020 – the dynamic of interviewer asking questions and interviewee striving to answer confidently and not choke on their water remains. But it's also proven to not really work.
"We know that interviews alone are not great predictors of future job performance," Gemma Dale, a lecturer in HR and business at Liverpool John Moores University, tells Refinery29. "They are subjective and we only get to see a small amount of the whole person. With many of the more traditional interview questions it's also easy to practise answers, rather than experiencing a real 'get to know someone' and two-way conversation."
Corporate activist Belinda Parmar agrees. "The job interview process favours confidence over competence," she tells Refinery29. This puts many people at an immediate disadvantage – she mentions introverts, for instance. Anna* previously told Refinery29: "I am a super shy person and luckily I’m not in a people-facing role so interviews are really the only time at work that my shyness is an issue. I’ve had a few interviews in the past where I know I have blown it because I just can’t seem to present myself in the way I want to – my palms sweat, I stumble over words, it’s honestly a total nightmare." You might be perfect for the job but the enforced weirdness of the job interview structure can make even the most poised person palpitate. On the flip side, those who keep their cool are probably lying about their credentials or suitability, as 81% of us apparently do in interviews.
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The more job interviews we do, and the fewer jobs we get, wastes more than time. The cost of hiring is often discussed from an employer's perspective but interviewing is also a financial burden on the job seeker, sometimes prohibitively so. Attending an in-person job interview has associated costs including travel, clothing and occasionally accommodation.
In many job interviews, the interviewee is at the whim of the interviewer and, naturally, some will be better than others at asking questions. But interviews done right can be empowering. Tamara Toothill a senior content executive, tells Refinery29, "All of my previous job interviews have been very positive in terms of experience, which I know isn’t always the case. I have always been given all of the information about the interview beforehand, allowing me to properly prepare. At the end of job interviews, I have been given time to ask any questions I had, too."
Asking difficult questions in a job interview can feel daunting when you're trying to paint yourself as an enthusiastic team player. But it's really important you ask what you need to ask, to ensure the job is going to be a good fit. Tamara emphasises the need for dedicated space to ask questions. Perhaps it's time for us to interview them. "An interview is often seen as the employer asking all of the questions but it should be seen as a two-way conversation and the candidate should be given just as much time/opportunity to raise any questions they may have."
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According to Belinda, important questions to ask in 2022 centre around hybrid working and company culture. "Today, Gen Z candidates want to feel valued, visible and cared for. They want their voices heard," she says. "Younger generations are coming into the workforce and saying, 'You know what, I'm not going to put up with what you put up with. If I want to take a month off, I'm going to take a month off. If I want to, I'll tell you that I'm feeling frustrated or call out a microaggression. I want you as a leader to have the skills to do that.' I feel that is a really positive shift."
The interviewer – with their promise of a salary and gainful employment – once held the mic. But as the job market shifts in favour of the talent, this is no longer totally the case. "It’s an exceptionally competitive jobs market right now and companies are having to be innovative when it comes to attracting, hiring and also interviewing the best talent," says Charlotte Davies, a careers expert at LinkedIn.
There doesn't have to be sweeping structural reform in order to level out inherent power imbalances in an interview process. For Tamara, simply speeding things up would help immeasurably. (The hiring process takes 23 days on average, according to a study by Glassdoor.) "A drawn-out interview process, or one with too many stages, can have a negative impact on a candidate’s experience," she says. "It could result in the prospective candidate getting a negative vibe from the company or accepting a role elsewhere."
Simply removing outdated and cringey interview questions would be a good place to start, making it more of a 'get to know each other' exercise with proper space for equal interrogation – not just five minutes squished into the end of a challenging interview, when you're already exhausted. Companies are keener than ever to attract great candidates; now's the time to dig our heels in, ask more questions and expect better answers.
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