Interview Techniques for Employers: What Works (According to Science)

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
April 20, 2021
min read

Interview Question Playbook

WARNING: We will not cover any generic, wishy-washy interviewing techniques for employers in the following discussion. This is a conversation that must be steered solely by data and research. It may sound harsh, but good intentions without action won’t be applauded here. For those employers who are ready to correct their interview techniques and make better hiring decisions, you’re in the right place. 

And it’s a good thing you’ve come: incorrect techniques in interviewing might be wreaking havoc on your recruitment process as we speak. 

Incorrect (or, sometimes, downright disastrous) techniques for an interview are common. So common that the interviewing techniques that we’re going to talk about might seem radical.

All of our recommended techniques for interviewing are based on data, behavioural science research, and proven results; it’s what we’re all about here at Applied. 

We’re on a mission to de-bias and data-proof hiring. And when it comes to recruitment, we look specifically at two things: 

  1. How fair is the process?
  2. How predictive is the process?

Whether face-to-face or via video, traditional interviewing methods and techniques tend to be awash with unconscious bias, and are seriously lacking in predictive power. 

Translation: poor employer interview techniques don’t extract the right information to lead to the best hiring decision. 

Job applicants are now experiencing both the traditional, ineffective interview routine and the evolved, data-driven process. One is proven to lead to discrimination, and the other is proven to offer more opportunities and be more effective. Which side is your company going to be on? 

The importance of following current interview best practices cannot be overstated. Follow these unbiased tips on interview skills and techniques so you reliably pick out the right person for the job - and have the data to prove it.

The research around interview techniques

All of these traditional recruitment and interviewing techniques have something in common. Can you spot it?

  • Asking for related work experience and focusing on past career achievements 
  • Requiring a certain level of education when it’s not a direct qualification (doctors must have gone to medical school, but most positions don’t require concrete education such as this) 
  • Having go-with-the flow interviews that lead to unique lines of questioning with each candidate 
  • Discussing hobbies, interests or unrelated soft skills to get to know a candidate better 
  • Asking impossible brain-teasers or trick questions.

These interviewing techniques are all commonplace in the traditional interviewing process, but the data is clear: these don’t tell you anything about how a candidate will perform in your position. 

They’re what we call poor predictors, and if you’re still using them, it’s time to replace them with something better...
Predictive validity of assessment methods (chart)

Work sample tests and structured interviews are the clear winners when it comes to effective interviewing techniques for employers. We’ve cut out some of the less relevant assessment methods, but we would strongly recommend taking a look at the metastudy for yourself.

That data lays clear that unstructured interviews and background information like education and experience don’t tell you anything about a candidate’s ability. 

The research has spoken, so let’s dive deep into 6 actionable steps hiring managers should take to improve their interviewing techniques and not hire the wrong people.  

6 steps to effective and debiased interview techniques

Is your organization trying to evolve its interviewing techniques but hitting roadblocks doing it alone? Save this article for later, or book a demo so we can show you the exact steps.  

1. Forget about candidates’ backgrounds

The first step to good interview questions is to move away from candidates' backgrounds - this has far less to do with your position than meets the eye. 

Basic background inquiries like… 

  • Where a candidate went to school
  • What their degree is in 
  • Where they’ve previously worked 

...are all standard lines of questioning in the vetting process, but they’re not predictive and are a cause of interview bias which means they must be removed. 

Only data-backed lines of questioning should remain. This means removing any and all information from CVs that we know isn’t predictive: 

CV bias examples

This will lead your organization to hiring better candidates, and reduce a substantial amount of discrimination. 

How weighing background leads to discrimination 

The more we know about a candidate, the more ground for bias there is.

Unconscious bias affects everyone but left unchecked, can and will lead to minority groups being overlooked.

Our brains naturally look to take mental shortcuts and make quick-fire associations. Psychologically, similar seems safe which leads to hiring a homogenous group and reduces your odds of hiring anyone different. 

Where a candidate went to school, their ethnicity or even their accent can, and will, trigger biases that influence decision-making.

Whilst we can’t anonymise the interviewing process as we can screening, we can take the emphasis off of people’s backgrounds, especially since we know these things have little to do with ability.

When interviewing employees, avoid questions about:

  • Education
  • Years of experience 
  • Interests 

Whilst irrelevant questions about someone’s hobbies or travelling history might seem like a gentle way to get to know candidates, they do more harm than good.

The most prevalent type of bias that you’re trying to reduce with this step is affinity bias. Affinity bias is when we feel as though we have a natural connection with people who are similar to us and can often creep into interviews.

This means that we generally tend to favour candidates to whom we feel we have a ‘connection’. 

An interviewer’s ‘gut feeling’ on a candidate is a destructive force that is essential to remove from interviews. 

A hiring decision that relies on gut instinct is wasting everyone’s time. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, you can read more about interview bias here. 

Debiased requirements are step one, but there are still steps to take before the interview even begins. Next up is deciding the interview team.  

2. ‍Have three interviewers on the interview team

On the face of it, having three interviewers sounds intimidating, but the data is clear: best practice is to have a new three-person panel for each interview round. 

This step will actually make your interviews much more accurate. The benefit you’re targeting is called crowd wisdom

Crowd wisdom is the general rule that collective judgment is more accurate than that of an individual.

When an individual is solely responsible for assessing and determining the fate of a candidate, unproductive thoughts creep into the process: 

  • Who seems the easiest (for me) to work with? 
  • Who would be most enjoyable (for me) to work with? 
  • Who’s personality is the best fit (for me) to work with? 

How a one-person or repetitive interview teams lead to bias

If one interviewer has a bias towards or against a candidate, that bias must be averaged out by the scores of the other interviewers. 

Beyond the obvious likeliness to overvalue likeability and personality mesh, there’s another threat that a fresh round of interviewers removes: fatigue and time bias. 

When one interviewer, or one team, is required for evaluating a tiring string of candidates, there is preferential treatment given to the candidates reviewed first, or those reviewed right after a coffee break, or after a weekend. Those interviews reviewed when fatigued are less likely to be parsed positively. 

By implementing a unique interview panel for each round, interviewers don’t get fatigued, or even unintentionally lazy, near the end of the vetting process. 

This leads right into the next step for improved interviewing techniques for employers to implement: a scoring rubric. 

3. Make sure you have scoring criteria

Your fresh, focused interview panel has assembled. But what are they focusing on

Before you even write an effective job description, you should decide on the core skills you’re looking for, what value to put on each skill, and know-how to measure it. 

For interviews (or any part of the hiring process) to be objective, they need to be tied to fixed criteria.

How scoring guides work

Every interview question should have its own ‘review guide’ so that an applicant’s response can be scored from one to five. 

For each question, make note of what a good, mediocre and bad answer might look like.

Here’ what this looks like in practice:

Example question:  Explain what Applied is to us, and why a Talent Team might use it.

Example review guide: 

  • 1 Star: Either pretty incoherent or not well researched.  
  • 3 Star: Slightly less clear concise, and right in about 60% of the details
  • 5 Star: Clear and concise with about 80% of the broad details right about what Applied is and the benefits

Why is scoring criteria so important?

Well, it ensures that candidates are being judged on their answers, not their personality, cover letter or credentials.

And we also know that in addition to biases around people’s backgrounds, we’re also influenced by ordering effects.

For example, we’re more likely to remember both the intense and final moments of an experience more vividly.

This phenomenon is known as the ‘peak-end effect’

One study put this to the test - asking participants to take part in two trials which involved putting their hand into uncomfortably cold water.

  • Trial 1: Place hand in 14° water for 60 seconds 
  • Trial 2: Place hand in 14° water for 60 seconds and then 15° water for 30 seconds.

Participants reported that despite being uncomfortable for longer, they found Trial 2 less painful.

Why? Because the end of the experience was less painful (and the peaks were the same).

Peak-end effect example

If you conduct interviews without scoring as you go, you’re more likely to make inaccurate decisions based on these sorts of mental shortcuts.

A candidate that ends the interview on a high, for example, could be favoured over one who was more consistent but who ended on a lesser note. 

Note: small talk is absolutely encouraged - it’s important to make candidates feel at ease so that they can perform at their best - just make sure you’re scoring answers to the pre-set questions and not the small talk.

This is why scoring criteria is so essential. By creating an interview scoring worksheet that all interviewers adhere to, you’re able to get a host of people at your organization involved in the hiring process while seamlessly keeping everyone focused. 

The more diverse your interview panel is, the more objective the scores should be. 

How scoring criteria reduce bias

At the end of the interview stage, interviewers simply average out interviewers’ scores to build a candidate leaderboard like the one below (our screening process is anonymous, and yours should be too to triple your candidate pool). 

Instead of reviewing individual candidates at the end of an interview process, you review the data extracted from the vetting process: 

Candiate leaderboard within Applied Platform

When you review candidates by their names and memories of their interviews, it’s unavoidable that thoughts like these creep in: 

  • “He would fit right in!” (perpetuates the uniformity of the existing team) 
  • “Oh yeah, that was the super attractive one!” (leads to beauty bias
  • “The one with the super harsh accent” (almost always a discriminatory thought) 

With the interview team on the page and the scoring rubric in hand, it’s time to make sure that your interviews themselves reflect the same level of organization and professionalism. 

4. Structure your interviews

If you’ve been using traditional, unstructured job interviews, chances are each interview turns out to be fairly different from the next. That makes it difficult to objectively compare candidates’ responses.

To conduct structured interviews, you’ll need to ask all applicants the same open-ended questions in the same order.

By making the interview process as uniform as possible, you’re essentially ensuring that apples are being compared to apples.

If you decide to either grill or explore the background of one interviewee more than another, then this could easily affect your perception of how the interview went.

Structured interviews are not only more predictive than unstructured interviews, but they’re also far fairer.

How unstructured interviews lead to biased hiring

Unstructured interviews lead to spontaneous run-off lines of questioning that skew interviews. 

Remember: if all candidates aren't asked the exact same questions, then their interviews aren’t comparable. 

Make sure that you leave your interviews with all apples, and don’t end up trying to unfairly compare apples and bananas.  

Do you need help with this? Use our Interview Playbook. It’s a guide based on behavioural science resources that ensures your hiring team gets full value out of your interviews. 

With a structured interview cemented as a new interviewing technique best practice, it’s time to make sure you’re asking the right questions.

5. Ask forward-looking, work sample questions 

A structured interview can only get a hiring team so far unless they’re also asking the correct, recommended interview questions. 

And, why waste time asking lots of questions about a candidate’s skills when you could just test them instead?

One of the best interviewing techniques is to use work samples as a way of simulating the job itself.

As you can see from the metastudy above, work sample tests are the most predictive assessment method you have at your disposal.

Work samples take parts of the role and turn them into tasks/questions by asking job candidates to either perform them or explain their approach to performing them.

Using this style of question, you’re able to tap into candidates’ potential, rather than relying on proxies like education and experience. 

Work samples test for skills learned through experience, rather than for experience itself.

Here’s a work sample-style interview question we used for an Account Manager role:

You’ve been asked to put together a report on the Account Management function for the rest of the business to showcase the work of the team and its role in the wider organization. What might you include in this report and why do you think it would be valuable to share this information with others?

By phrasing questions hypothetically (or ‘forward-looking’), these questions enable candidates who have the right skills but not specific experience, to shine. 

Work samples aren’t too dissimilar to your typical ‘tell me a time when’ behavioural interview questions, except they don’t require having encountered the given scenario before.

That doesn’t mean that those who have tackled it before wouldn’t give the best answers, but we’d rather test this than take their word for it, so that everyone gets a fair chance.

You could also use interviews to work through a case study (ideal for second interview questions)

Here at Applied, we often use an interview round (or at least part of one) to give candidates a chance to work through a bigger task.

This usually consists of a task like the one above, except with follow-up questions.

Here’s how we did this for a Digital Marketer position:

  • Q1. Below is some fake data to discuss. ​​To meet our commercial targets we think we need to increase our ​demo requests​ from 90/month to 150/month. Below are some fake funnel metrics and website GA data. With a view to meeting this objective, talk through the above data and what it might mean.
  • Q2. What additional data would you need to work out how to meet the objective?
  • Q3. Given the objective, where would you concentrate your marketing efforts? Is there anything that you would do immediately? Where is the worst place to spend your time, given what you see in the data?

How forward-looking, work sample questions reduce bias

What is the sole purpose of the job interview? To determine who can perform the job best. 

Opening up the process to any other unnecessary metric creates unnecessary hurdles that are unrelated to the job. 

Give more people access to contribute to your organization by only focusing on testing for the specific skills needed. 

And, whatever you do, don’t test for culture fit. 

6. Assess mission/values alignment instead of culture fit

Hiring for ‘culture fit’ is often problematic.

Whilst you want to hire someone who embodies your organisation’s values, culture fit is often used as a smokescreen to discriminate against certain candidates.

Even well-intentioned hires can make the mistake of putting too much weight on culture fit.

If your organisation is made up of a certain demographic, this will generally shape the ‘company culture’ and therefore anyone who doesn’t fit this mould may be overlooked.

Whilst you could switch to ‘culture add’ (what someone can add to your culture), it’s more effective to simply move away from culture testing completely.

What to do instead to filter out bias

At Applied, we test for mission and values alignment.

Do candidates care about our mission?

Do they appreciate our values?

You can turn this into an interview question by asking candidates why they’re applying and what they’re hoping to get out of the role - just make sure you have scoring criteria like you would for the work sample questions.

Need help asking the right questions ? Let us help you! Book a demo to get the process started today. 

The big picture for correct interviewing techniques

Ignore the (prominent) bad advice around ‘standard practices’ 

Most interview techniques for the interviewer you’ll see are based on antiquated, biased practices. Here’s a lightning round of examples: 

Forget about taking notes: Most of us don’t have photographic memories. When we recall past events, our biases tend to fill in the gaps. Taking notes is not rude, so long as you let job seekers know why you’re doing so (for the sake of fairness)

Analyse body language: Only one thing should matter in an interview - does the candidate have the skills to do the job. Unless you’re an FBI interrogator, we’d advise against paying any attention to body language… interviews are scary enough as it is!

Ask about candidates’ previous jobs: We’re easily wowed by a big name company and flashy titles, but they don’t make someone the best hire in and of themselves.

Draw on common connections: Mutual interests or similar backgrounds can play a huge part in hiring decisions - but they shouldn’t. This has nothing to do with someone’s ability.

Hiring and interviewing is often seen as a skill that just takes practice to improve, but no amount of practice will help your interviewing techniques evolve on their own. 

You need a plan, backed by data and research, that will take all of the guesswork and discrimination out of your process. 

Next steps to improve your interviewing techniques 

These interviewing techniques for employers will likely present some changes to your current system, and that’s a good thing. If your company’s interview techniques haven’t changed in the last 10 years, then they’re not updated to take advantage of all the insight we have from recent research. 

By modernizing your interviewing techniques, your company will attract better applicants, make better hiring decisions that lead to reduced churn, and stay current. 

Applied is the essential platform for debiased hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our platform uses anonymized applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

Push back against conventional hiring wisdom with a smarter solution: book in a demo or browse our ready-to-use interview questions and talent assessments.