Biases in interviewing

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This blog post is arguing that, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, giving inexperienced engineers the power to interview applicants for engineering roles risks causing these engineers to behave in a more cruel manner than they habitually do under ordinary circumstances, biasing the interview process.

The first thing that occurs to me is that it’s not just start-ups. I can’t remember when I first interviewed a candidate, but it can’t have been more than a year after graduating, and the company I worked for at the time was not a start-up by any means. Then again, I think the whole “start-up” distinction is pretty much a meaningless concept, or at best a loose grouping of organisation culture attributes that have relatively little correlation with size and method of funding.

The suggestion in the article seems to be that engineers apply standards that they themselves wouldn’t meet. I dare say this happens, probably in part due to the need for validation that some engineers suffer from. People who were among the very best in their local environment during childhood and early schooling are over-represented among engineers, and the inevitable process of meeting people who are better than you in later life (not everybody can be the best) presumably leads to a great deal of insecurity.

The Stanford Prison Experiment lends an additional angle to this picture: perhaps the very situation of being given interviewing power warps your judgment of the correct way to use that power. This is certainly something to be aware of and defend against, but personally I haven’t seen any evidence for it. If the effect is real, then it’s a very interesting question whether this is restricted to young and inexperienced interviewers, or whether the same effect acts on more experienced people. One of the more alarming conclusions of the original Stanford experiment was that this was not pathological behaviour but affected ordinary, apparently well-adjusted people.

I’m less worried about what goes on during an interview than I am about whether the end result of the interview is to accept the right candidates. Only very poor interviewers reject all applicants, and interviewers who deliberately reject strong candidates and accept weak candidates are even worse and hopefully very rare. Therefore the main issue is whether the criteria used are a good match for what the organisation needs, and whether there is any form of bias among the good candidates who do get accepted.

Reflecting my own interviewing behaviour, my biggest concern is that I’m too soft on candidates who are similar to me (articulate, broad range of knowledge, smart but not of the very top rank) and too hard on candidates who are different (among whom I’d include domain experts and people with unusually strong academic records). In so far as I suffer from this prejudice, I don’t think it’s limited to the interview room.

To me, the hardest problem seems to be determining the dividing line between fundamental company culture and the personal preferences of the workers. As Tom DeMarco points out (quoting Peter Drucker) in Slack, the whole point of a true company culture is that it doesn’t and shouldn’t change. Hiring against company culture in this narrow sense is counterproductive for all concerned. Hiring people who are a good fit for the culture but against one’s own preferences should enrich the company. Differentiating between these cases deserves careful attention.

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