The History of Interviews According to Kevin Wheeler
When HiringBranch set out to create a “movement” around the No Interviews assessment model, we were essentially trying to create awareness around this radical possibility to challenge the status quo. Why? Because nobody likes doing interviews, they take too much time from candidates and hiring teams, on top of the fact that they’re unreliable in terms of hiring performance. As we began drumming up noise around rethinking the notion of interviewing altogether, we were elated to come across one passionate voice in the industry who feels the same way we do.
Meet Kevin Wheeler (We don’t know him personally, and this post is certainly not sponsored by him!). He’s the President and Founder of Global Learning Resources Inc., a former Professor at The University of San Francisco, and he’s had more senior advisory positions at HR companies than you count on two hands. He’s even volunteered for the Peace Corps! From where we sit, Kevin Wheeler is a modern-day hiring hero. There aren’t many voices in the industry who can speak with so much authority and life experience.
As such, we turn to Mr. Wheeler and our customer stories to help us unpack how we got to this sad state of interviewing that so many businesses and organizations are in today. Wheeler writes about the history of interviews on his website and in his newsletter which we highly recommend you subscribe to.
An Anecdote of Interviews Over Time
Job interviews are a formal technique today, deeply ingrained in most hiring practices with specific personnel dedicated to interviewing. Kevin Wheeler takes us back to the early 20th century, when hiring processes were much different, reflecting both the simplicities and inherent sociopolitical challenges of the time. He says:
“When I think back to the early 20th century, mainly before World War II, most jobs were filled relatively quickly. There were no employees who had the specific title of recruiter. There were clerks who made sure paperwork was completed correctly, but a manager typically found and hired who he wanted. Some jobs were filled without any interviews.”
While Wheeler’s use of gendered pronouns above was unfortunately accurate for the times, it makes sense that hiring processes would have been less structured and that candidates could be hired on the spot. The good years of the roaring twenties meant that jobs were everywhere in the backdrop of mass production, fueled by consumer credit for the first time ever!
Wheeler talks about how Henry Ford was hiring at the time:
“Henry Ford was famous for randomly choosing men to work on his assembly line from those waiting at the gates for a job. Higher-level jobs were filled after a brief interview with a hiring manager who decided based on a candidate’s skill but, more importantly, on soft factors such as potential, eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics. Workers had little protection from arbitrary firing, and it was easy to get rid of poor performers.”
After the war things took a turn in the opposite direction. There were nearly 5.5 million people being laid off of production lines dedicated to artillery, and other army supplies, in combination with another 10 million soldiers who needed to return to work as well. Women were also now competing for those jobs. During this time, employers became more selective, and this was at a time when racial tensions ran high.
Wheeler points out that the problem with randomly choosing people to hire is that it leaves room for blatant discrimination based on the hiring manager’s personal beliefs. It wasn’t based on any type of previous accreditation that’s for sure, it was only during that post-war era that formal skills training gained momentum, Wheeler explains:
“The rise of the Scientific Management system developed by Fredrick Taylor and the growing power of unions, along with legislation, drove the growth of the HR and recruiting professions. (…) Formal skills training only gradually gained acceptance after the war when thousands of GIs went to school on the GI Bill.”
As the world began recognizing dedicated skills and training in the workforce, hiring practices began to reflect them. Hiring managers needed to screen applicants for their number of years of experience, test scores or basic educational requirements. Wheeler describes the logic and discourse of job qualifications during the 1950s and 1960s:
“College enrollments soared, and parents pressured their children to pursue a college education. This was seen as fairer and served as a screen to eliminate the hundreds of people potentially applying for the same job. The problem with this approach is that the defined requirements were rarely connected to actual performance. (…) We now know that simply selecting people by generic measures like education and experience doesn’t work very well and discriminates against those with real skills who do not have the required credentials. These methods have also not reduced racial and sex discrimination.”
By 1972 and into the eighties, the shift towards more skilled labour was apparent, alongside a growing female workforce. There were significant increases in skilled professions, in contrast to steep declines in less skilled professions:
Interviews during these years focused on hard skills. This trend continues today, alongside others seen above. For example:
- There is a focus on experience and more is needed than ever before
- Manual skills are continuing to decline
- Technology is continuing to skyrocket, and has also helped us to cope with these changes in hiring
While the number of hiring technologies has exploded in the past eight years, the hiring industry has continued to hire and interview candidates much like they did 20 years ago, as TechCrunch illustrates below:
There are more tools available to help recruiters and talent acquisition teams do their jobs than ever before, but when it comes to the actual interview process, there hasn’t been as much innovation.
Advancing Interviews as a Practice
As a brand HiringBranch has boldly shown up at tradeshows with t-shirts that say “F*%k Interviews” because that’s how strongly we feel about getting rid of them.
First of all they are extremely time-consuming, especially for companies who have a high number of hires to make. As we stated in our post about the No-Interview Model “In the United States, the interview process could take up to four weeks on average, and up to six in countries like France and Brazil.”
Not only that, interviews are not a scientific way to select candidates, they’re typically based on a gut feeling. Under these circumstances, bias can be introduced and hiring performance rarely increases. Assaf Bar-Moshe, PhD and Head of Research and Development at HiringBranch breaks down this reality in a recent post:
“As much as they would like to, humans cannot entirely isolate their prejudices. This is more pronounced if the team has a large volume of assessments, which would not be evaluated by a single person. Having different people performing evaluations, means different opinions and different skills will be introduced into the process. No matter how you try to standardize the “rubric” or the evaluation process, there will be bias that gets into the evaluation process when it’s done by humans. Humans can have different opinions about the world around them, and they will possess different soft skills. They will also have a bias towards different accents or a different tolerance towards grammatical mistakes, and so on.”
Interviews slow the process down, leave room for bias, they aren’t proven to improve performance and nobody likes doing them. As Professor Bob Fjierstad from the University of Minnesota said (and we love quoting):
“An employment interview is an unnatural act committed by two semi-consenting adults.”
It’s funny because it’s true - interviews are simply uncomfortable, and yet as a workforce we consider them essential today as we have for decades now. While AI developments have made it possible for hiring teams to replace interviews with automated soft skill evaluation at scale (and in our customer cases these advancements have actually been proved to improve hiring performance) they are not mainstream.
Looking Back to Move Forward
The history of interviews provides the industry with context about our descent into madness. Ok that’s dramatic, but Kevin was right when he said:
“Don’t waste time on lengthy interviews and tricky questions. They don’t work.”
Interviews are unreliable, and they’ve never been good at measuring hard or soft skills. While the early days of job hiring didn’t include interviews, they did serve a role before advanced technology came into the picture that allowed for systematic evaluation of human soft skills. Previously these types of traits were unmeasurable. Looking back at how we got to the current state of interviews, we may start to feel more confident looking forward to automating the interview.
Image 1: Via US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Image 2: Via TechCrunch
Image 3: Property of HiringBranch. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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