Avoiding the Pitfalls in Virtual Interviewing
Chris Rock said, “When you meet somebody for the first time, you’re not meeting them. You’re meeting their representative.” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that, "Hell is other people." Both men point to the same truth. Most of us are so afraid of being judged negatively by others that we adjust ourselves when someone else is present.
Getting past the other party's facade has always been a challenge for interviewers, but video interviews scramble the hiring decision in new ways, introducing even more factors unrelated to predicting job performance.
Both parties have long sought a competitive advantage in interviews. People obsess over what they wear, and choose their words carefully in answering questions and crafting resumes and job descriptions. Video interviews are just the latest front in the perpetual arms race between employers and candidates. And executive search consultants like me are the arms dealers to both sides. Recruiters have an obligation to advise both parties, creating the right environment and expectations for a productive conversation. Every candidate wants to interview well, and every employer wants to cut through that carefully curated facade to see the "real person" behind the interview answers.
So what determines who will gain the advantage in this video arms race? Will it be better interview preparation on the part of the candidates, or will it be employers adapting their hiring practices to this new medium?
To help predict our winners, let's look at what changed:Power dynamics. Interviews are often discussed in terms of the power dynamic. Who has the upper hand? Is it an "employer market" where they can dictate the terms of employment, or is it a "candidate market" where candidates are receiving multiple job offers? Answer: it depends on how the pandemic affected your field of endeavor, if there were no layoffs, you might still be in a so-called candidate market (as odd as that sounds with the unemployment rate temporarily hovering at Depression-level highs). If layoffs happened in your field, then employers have the advantage.
Beyond the job market factors, work from home shifts another element of the power dynamic. Back in olden times (before February of 2020) candidates usually ceded the "home court" advantage, and attend job interviews in an employer's office. But now, both parties are at home, so who has the relative power advantage? Answer: It goes to whoever has more control of their home environment. (Amusingly, this puts the pets and small children of either party in the driver's seat.)
The effect of the video medium itself
Some candidates and some hiring managers are not fans of video conversations of any kind, and for good reason. If you are the kind of person who could rely on your "gut feel" or intuitive read of situations and other people, video can make that profoundly difficult. If that was never one of your superpowers, then video levels the playing field (when nobody else has X-ray vision, you can see everything they can see).
I've always found it pretty easy to "read the room" in person or even on the phone, but video blinds me - offering me none of that information. In the past I could present to a room full of people, or stay on the phone all day and feel connected. But video is like kryptonite, leaving me utterly drained within 2 hours. I'm also maxed at video conversations with about 3 other people. When I'm up to two Zoom rows on the screen with 5 or 6 people (like a typical panel interview) the experience leaves me flat. (Here's the research behind Zoom fatigue.) That said, I know lots of people who don't have this concern. Everyone is affected differently. (Happily in my firm, we have always chosen to interview on the phone, not in-person and not on video.)
So how does the video medium scramble the hiring decision? And who gains the advantage from video interviews, employers or candidates? Answer: Whoever relies the least on intuition, and whoever invests most in manipulating their video presence (with high speed internet, high end cameras and microphones, tweaked software settings, and thoughtful lighting and backdrops.) But should those factors really be determining your hiring decision?
if your goal in the interview process is to predict who would be successful on the job, how do you account for the distorting effect of the video medium itself? (Because for some people, half the fun of video is judging the background of the other person.) How do you avoid the superficial pitfalls?
Accounting for video-specific factors in the hiring decision
The challenge in adapting to video interviewing is realizing that these influences are both new and subconscious--you have no natural defenses. You just feel a certain way, without examining why. Do you feel bored, distracted, and exhausted? You might think the other party was to blame, but an in-person meeting with that person might have left you feeling energized and excited. Is that feeling really about you, the other party, or just the video medium? (Your feelings are rarely a reliable hiring indicator, particularly now. Marcus Buckingham's research demonstrated that our evaluations of other people reflect far more the rater than the person being evaluated.) If you want to have an optimally productive conversation with another person, you might need to take into account their preferred collaboration style, and their Zoom "battery life."
When we debrief with hiring mangers after interviews, they often shorthand their thoughts, saying something like, "I liked this candidate best. I think they would be a good fit here." And candidates say similar things. But those sentences are problematic. The candidate you "like the best" and the person who would be a "good fit" might have simply delivered the best video simulation of work. The engaging candidate who projects the best image in a video setting might be great as newscaster, but does that really predict their ability to achieve results in your work environment?
If hiring managers want to account for video-specific factors in the hiring decision, they will need to strip away the potential layers of video bias, and get beyond their feelings. This is possible by asking better questions during the interview, and then debriefing more methodically after the interview. The structure of the conversations help focus your mind on relevant factors and diminish the role of extraneous factors. Here is our initial thinking on how to evaluate a video interview.