For many American job-seekers, the basic steps of applying for work look roughly the same: you find the posting, write the cover letter, tweak the resume, email the PDFs (not Word documents — good heavens, never Word documents), and if you're lucky, you get a phone interview.
And then maybe you interview in person, and then maybe again. And maybe it's three or four interviews in a row, possibly with a panel of interviewers, and you maintain a stiff, pleasant smile through the whole ordeal. It's exhausting, and it also might be exactly the wrong way for firms to screen job candidates, for a few reasons.
More interviews means worse interviewers
One piece of evidence is a recent study published in the Journal of Business Research that finds doing just one interview per candidate is often better than more (and is almost always better than two).
The reason is deceptively simple. Assuming the firm knows its employees well and puts in enough effort on hiring, it would choose someone relatively experienced and who knows the company well to interview new candidates — maybe someone who has picked good workers in the past.
Let's call this relatively experienced person Katie, and let's assume she has the best track record at her company of picking good candidates. If Katie gets to pick 10 people out of a pool of 100 applicants, and there are 10 top candidates, or "targets," in that pool, she might be good enough to pick eight of the 10. In the study's terminology, eight out of 10 is Katie's "hit rate." Adding anyone else will, on average, shrink down the hit rate, because she's the best interviewer around; a second interviewer would be more limiting than helpful.
Even if the second interviewer were specifically trained to correct for Katie's misses and picked up the two people Katie missed, it would tend to result in a lower hit rate than Katie's alone. This is because the second interviewer would have been trained to be Katie's complement — that's different from being all-around better at picking targets than she is.
"Adding more interviewers under various conditions will not help you," says Mario Fific, an assistant professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University and one of the study's authors. "In most cases, a second interviewer would not improve the decision-making ability of the first interviewer."
The trick, of course, is in firms finding those good interviewers. But once that master interviewer is identified, a firm may have to add far more interviewers into the mix in order to improve over just that one interviewer alone. If Katie is moderately good, it could take four or more interviewers to surpass her hit rate, and if she's a strong interviewer, the panel might have to be as big as 10. And even then, it depends who those 10 people are; a more diverse group will do a better job than a more uniform group.
Weird questions can rule out strong candidates
Whether it's because of multiple interviews or just lengthy deliberations, it appears the job search got longer over time. As of 2009, survey respondents on the jobs site Glassdoor.com said their average job application and interview process was 12 days from start to finish. As of 2013, that was up to 23. These are online responses from an unscientific survey, meaning they are not perfectly reliable and don't reflect society at large, but the big jump does suggest that many employers really started taking their time with finding new workers. And other data show that job openings are remaining vacant for an unusually long period of time.
It's not just multiple interviews extending that hiring time; it's all sorts of new tactics employers are using to try to single out the best workers.
"They're doing the initial phone interview, group interviews, personality tests, they're doing taste-based tests," says Scott Dobroski, community expert at jobs site Glassdoor.com. "We are seeing every single industry become a little unorthodox with their interviewing practices."
One area where employers are increasingly getting unorthodox is interview questions. Firms are going beyond old saws like "What is your greatest weakness?" to questions that can verge anywhere from deep to downright silly. "What is your least favorite thing about humanity?" is an interview question that medical scheduling company ZocDoc has used, according to Glassdoor. "Do you believe in Bigfoot?" has been used at Norwegian Cruise Lines.
But do they work? Those sorts of questions can help an employer tease out the true personality of a candidate who might otherwise give bland, canned answers. And as NPR's Planet Money recently reported, unorthodox tests and questions can help determine whether a candidate would do well in a particularly demanding or emotionally taxing job, like working with angry customers at a call center.
But as far as upping the "hit rate" goes, subjective questions — particularly in areas like personality tests — can be limiting, particularly if a company is looking for a very particular answer, says one hiring expert.
"There are some companies that do that specifically until they find someone that fits the mold in which they've chosen," says Peter McChesney, co-principal and vice president at Palmer Legal Staffing in Washington, DC. "I think they overlook really strong candidates. and those things are not perfect."
Firms pay big money to headhunters ... and then second-guess them
McChesney's firm specializes in finding office support, legal, and management candidates for firms in the area. After screening and interviewing candidates, his firm will often pass those people's resumes on to employers. And after 17 years in the hiring business, McChesney says he has seen firms inadvertently throw away candidates his firm has already interviewed and deemed excellent because those firms found something they didn't like on a resume.
"They won't even see the candidate, and it's based just on the piece of paper we've sent them," he says. "Whereas we've already vetted [the candidates]."
That points to the kind of uncertainty inherent in the hiring process. The way he sees it, it makes no sense for an employer to pay his firm lots of money to seek out candidates, only to second-guess the firm's decisions after all that vetting based on one page. That employer, of course, has its own particular views about what it wants, even if it has hired someone to help them staff up.
This is why McChesney thinks the wave of the future is in video resumes, which give an employer can get a quick snapshot of the type of person behind a resume.
"I believe that over time you will see people that send their resume with a video. It's something that we're looking into doing, and that is looking at giving a snapshot video with resumes, because then you are seeing someone," he says.
So what's a firm to do, aside from asking for Youtube clips? One of the biggest is to be totally candid with potential hires. According to another Glassdoor survey, 61 percent of employees said their jobs didn't fit the expectations set up during the interview process. Morale and job responsibilities led the list. According to Dobroski, sending in trusted workers and not bosses to answer interviewees' questions about the firm truthfully (but perhaps with a positive spin) is one fix for this problem.
Employers may want to up their hiring game soon. For the last few years, American employers have had their pick of workers, but things seem to be looking up for jobseekers — as of December, there were 1.7 unemployed Americans for every open job, near pre-recession levels.
But all this evidence also suggests that frustrated jobseekers who can't seem to make it past the interview can take heart; the people looking at the resumes may not know what they're doing.