Is a rigid interview process fairer than a flexible one?

I come across people who say that in order to be scrupulously fair to applicants, they must treat everyone exactly the same during a job interview. This translates into behaviours like:

  • Behaving like Easter Island statues, with no sign of any response that could signal information about an applicant’s answers.
  • Asking exactly the same questions to every applicant with no deviation.
  • Eliminating all follow-up probing questions.

On the surface, this looks like a fair process. Everyone treated the same. No favouratism. No hints of being helpful or treating someone differently.

But is this really fair, and importantly, does it deliver a useful result? Is a selection panel likely to be able to gauge who is the best person for a job from such a process?

A major flaw with taking such a rigid approach to selection interviews is that each person will give their own unique response to any question. If a person hasn’t given as full an answer as the panel would like, or there are parts that need fuller investigation, taking a rigid process approach will prevent any follow-up. This is not giving an unfair advantage to an applicant. It is ensuring that they have been given a fair hearing, have had their responses fully tested so that the evidence can be assessed. If there is no follow-up a panel could be making a decision based on incomplete information, which is unfair to that person as well as other applicants.

While the panel may think their questions are perfectly clear, crafting quality questions is an art which most panels have not fully mastered, so there is a high probability that at least one of the questions will be ambiguous, unclear, or just plain mystifying. Without some flexibility around how a question is put to an applicant, the panel is stuck with digging a deeper trough of confusion.

If selection panels behave like robots, with no interpersonal skills on show, the public relations component of a job interview is lost. The artificial formalness will affect applicants, usually detrimentally, resulting in them not presenting their evidence as effectively as they might under less formal circumstances. For external candidates, many will be put off wanting to work for you if they think their future boss and colleagues are devoid of people skills. the net result is that the best candidate may be lost to the organisation. Given people tend to share unpleasant experiences, word will spread about who not to work for.

If you hold to the view that a rigid process is best, analyse what your concerns are that prop up this belief. Is the concern about perceptions of fairness and possible appeals? If so, consider whether it is the process of treating people the same that delivers fairness or is it the quality of the evidence you gain from applicants? And if the latter, what type of process is likely to give quality evidence? A flexible one, that caters for differences while applying a pre-established structure, is likely to deliver a better result than a rigid process based on an assumed sameness.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.