Terrie's Job Tips -- Getting a Second Opinion, Part I: Compensating for Your Bias

How many interviews does your company do with a single candidate before making a job offer? In my own firm, we usually have three interviews: one by the screening recruiter in the HR/recruiting team, one by the hiring manager AND the team leader of the specific team that the person might be joining, and one by the division manager. If there is a technology or knowledge component, then there is a fourth interview, or a sub-interview, to assess technical competency and skills.

I think we’re fairly normal in doing three interviews, and the idea is that if someone does not make the cut at a basic level, then that fact is discovered without having to burn the time of senior managers – who are also trying to run the business and solve other problems. We try to make sure that the interview process doesn’t run more than two-to-three weeks, since we know that most viable candidates are also talking to other companies. And, especially for bilinguals, for us to hesitate is to lose the opportunity to pick up someone good. In 2008 it is a seller’s market for bilinguals.

Some companies go way beyond this. Some foreign investment banks I know do as many as five-to-six interviews over a three-month period – trying to discover the emotional fit between the candidate and the other members of the team. I’m all for harmony in the workplace, but realistically speaking, talking to an individual over and over doesn’t necessarily help you find out what they’re going to be like long term. Rather you wind up finding out just how patient they can be and how smart they are at glossing over inconvenient details, but not much else. At the end of the day, you need to work with someone under times of stress to find out what they are really like.

Two categories of company which have difficulty conducting even a perfunctory set of interviews (and certainly not to the level that can be accomplished by an “elevator” filtering system such as the one I just mentioned) are small companies and those that are newly started subsidiaries of a foreign parent.

Let’s look at small firms first. These companies may have been running for some time and the hiring is probably mostly done by the owner or founder of the business. The disadvantage that small firms all have is that the interviewer is usually the final hirer as well, and thus their assessment of any new candidates will always be colored by the interviewer’s preferences – rather than being balanced by the input of others. Even highly experienced interviewers can miss flaws in a candidate’s make-up, which usually require a second opinion to catch.

Take myself for example. I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of candidate interviews, and although I pride myself in being able to quickly zero in on issues like sincerity of commitment and ability to perform, I still set a golden rule of backing off from the first interview and giving myself and the rest of my team time to mull over the candidate’s overall balance of attributes. Typically after the first interview, I will tell even those candidates I really like that, “There will be at least one-to-two other people interviewing you, and even though I like you, our hiring process is to have all related personnel involved in the decision. So, I can’t tell you what the final outcome will be until we’ve gone through that process.”

Setting the candidate’s expectations in this way gives me the breathing space needed to discuss, with the rest of the team, the person’s shortcomings and whether we are all prepared to cover those points. I find breathing space is particularly important when the candidate is very charming and good with words. It is easy to be so taken with their personality that you start compensating emotionally for their other inadequacies. For example, I will find myself thinking, “OK, that’s a problem area but maybe we can train him/her to overcome that – I’m sure that they can learn quickly and I’d really like to work with this person.”

Alternatively, I will be interviewing an individual who has obviously had a tough time with their current/former employer and I find myself wanting to help them out. I’m sure that this is a noble trait, or maybe I just identify with underdogs, but it isn’t always good for business! Furthermore, unless you are the person who actually will work with the new employee – and even if you can see the training they need in your mind’s eye – actually getting their future direct manager to commit to the same level is a lot harder if they didn’t buy in to the hire at the beginning.

So, especially for weaker candidates, group buy in is very important. This article is the first in a series of several on interviewing that will run over the upcoming weeks.