Time to get rid of panel interviews
I recently applied for a job and managed to move to the final round of panel interview. On the 4-member panel were 2 of the senior management staff, the direct reporting manager of the incumbent, and a HR representative. The most senior manager was seated in the middle; the following 2 ranking managers were seated to her right and left respectively; the HR representative clung to one edge of the table, taking notes.
I didn’t manage to secure the job in the end, but it was interesting to observe the dynamics of how the panel managed the interview. Essentially, the entire panel deferred to the most senior member to drive the interview, they keep glancing at her for cues before doing anything and there were occasions when they wanted to respond but were overridden by her.
There was no discernable structure to the interviewing process, and when I failed to impress the senior member, she became visibly impatient and ended the interview abruptly, even interrupting my turn to ask questions.
In spite of my disappointment as I walked out from the interview room, all I could think of was how stifled the other panel members looked and how unproductive it had been for them.
Why we like having panel interviews
For many organizations, conducting a panel interview is still the default screening method favoured by the management.
The candidate would be invited to 1 or 2 rounds of discussion with a panel of interviewers to be assessed for their suitability. They would usually be 2 to 5 stakeholders who would work with the next incumbent, usually the reporting managers (1-2 levels up), a peer teammate, and a HR representative.
There are many presumptions about panel interviewing which makes it so popular.
It is perceived to be fair and objective, the decision-making process appears to be a collective effort from a group of interviewers; each interviewer, with their respective expertise, would give their personal evaluation of the candidate, and everyone’s input would yield a well-rounded assessment of the candidate’s suitability, theoretically speaking.
A panel interview is also perceived to be administratively efficient: instead of having several sessions to meet separately with each stakeholder, the candidate only needs to attend 1 interview session where he could meet all of them.
But having frequently been on both sides of the interviewing table as an interviewer and a candidate, I find that an effective and efficient panel interview is in fact more an exception than the norm.
Panel interviews are rarely fair and objective
As with any discussion that involves a committee, there is a usually need for an arbitrator to facilitate an objective decision-making process. This role should ideally go to the HR person, but as highlighted in my anecdote, there is a natural tendency for the panel to defer the decision-making to the ranking member, most often to the member who is most vocal or forceful of personality.
The panel interview is essentially social in nature because it comprises real people with different personalities, and regardless how professional each panel member may be they are subject to many cognitive biases that arises from groupthink and the inherent interpersonal dynamics. This is aggravated by the fact that the panel members are typically not peers but are of different hierarchy levels.
Typically, almost all the panel interviews I have participated in do not have any control processes or structures in place to manage such human factors and ensure neutrality. ‘Weaker’ panel members are pressured to conform, and impose self-censorship, their silence is perceived as consent, leading to an illusion of unanimity about the final decision. This is especially prevalent in Asia where the corporate culture is still conservative, non-confrontational, with strong deference to seniority.
The most objective panel interview I experienced was one where the most senior panel member was also a trained facilitator, and he used his expertise to hear everyone’s opinion and to enable the panel to come to a consensus without himself influencing the rest. However, such scenario is extremely rare in today’s context because not all senior panel interviewers are trained facilitator, and not all facilitators on the interview panel have the seniority or personality to drive the interview.
Panel interviews are not effective or efficient too
Typically, line managers or subject matter experts are included on the panel to access the candidate’s technical knowledge and skills. But unless the candidate is trying for a role that entails skill sets which could be demonstrated over presentation or speaking, having a panel interview is an extremely limited method of assessing someone’s capability for a role because it cannot effectively assess tacit knowledge. While there are interviewing methods that could draw out the candidate’s skills based on their past experiences, they could be conducted more effectively on alternative settings or even be automated.
I personally attended an interview where 2 interviewers went through a ponderous STAR interviewing based on 30 scenario questions. We were not even midway past the questions before the secondary interviewer became visibly bored while taking notes and began stifling her yawns. She was not the one doing the questioning. I am guessing she was looking forward to the end of the interview more than me, and I wondered how effective she was assessing me with her compromised attention.
Panel interviews are actually also not efficient. Although streamlining the screening process would theoretically benefit both parties, in practice it becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate the interview scheduling with more people on the panel. It is not uncommon to find that some companies can only schedule an interview 2 weeks or much later because their panel members are unavailable to convene until then. Delays will result in leakages from the candidate pool.
Ironically, many companies tend to insist on multiple rounds of interviews anyway, so the objective of efficiency is questionable.
Are you using panel interviews strategically?
Ok, I have made a case that panel interviews are ultimately not fair and objective, neither are they effective nor efficient. But my bias against this traditional format of interviewing is not simply from my own limited observations but based on Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s proven experiment where he demonstrated that subjective unstructured assessments (usually done at interviews) are ‘useless’ at determining the future success of a candidate, which could be overwhelmingly trumped by a mechanistic screening format using factual questioning.
I am not arguing that panel interview should be completely abolished; my contention is that many organizations choose it as their main tool of selection with the blind assumption that it is fair, objective, effective, and efficient. Panel interviewing has its strategic applications, but many organizations adopted it more as a default and not as a deliberate approach in their People or business strategy.
What are some of the strategic applications of panel interviews? I would suggest that these are mostly situations where subjectivity is a relevant factor of assessment.
Simulation of actual working environment
If the incumbent’s core job scope involves managing internal stakeholders in meetings and discussions, e.g. project managers, secretaries, administrators, coordinators, etc, then having a panel interview would make sense because it simulates the working environment for the candidate. In such case, the candidate needs to be able to handle the idiosyncrasies of the people whom he/she would be working with, vice versa.
Panel interviews are also highly pressurizing for candidates. If the role requires the incumbent to be regularly in the ‘hot seat’, then panel interview would be the perfect format for testing the candidate’s ability to handle the stresses of the job.
There are few enlightened organizations that arrange for the candidate to be ‘interviewed’ by peers and even subordinates of the incumbent. The purpose is to ensure a culture fit, by enabling the candidate and the co-workers to mutually assess each others’ personality and if rapport could be established. These are more casual sessions rather than formal interviews however the employees would have veto power if they are uncomfortable with the candidate.
Interview skills training
The best way to learn is to actually start doing. When I was a new recruiter, my senior colleagues coached me in interviewing skills by getting me to sit in at interviews where I could observe the processes, techniques, and nuances of the real event. To minimize disruptions during the interview, the trainee interviewers would have to be briefed carefully on their role and line of questionings.
Familiarity and the need to maintain status quo
Panel interview has been the most prevalent format of the screening process for the longest time. It is still the default method in the talent resourcing landscape. Management, HR personnel, and job seekers are most familiar with it and it would be extremely disruptive to explore alternative screening methods.
The possibility of having alternative methods might even be inconceivable to many traditional HR practitioners.
If your organization is not ready for change, it makes business sense to maintain status quo and stick with familiar hiring methods.
So what do all these mean for you?
When was the last time your Talent team reviewed the choice of using panel interviewing as the main mode of candidate screening for your organisation? Essentially, your choice of recruitment method should fulfill certain strategic objectives, and there should be constant reviews to ensure that those methods are relevant and effective in meeting those goals.
Unstructured panel interviewing is one of the inconsistent and unreliable forms of screening methods available, yet it is the choice of many organizations in their hiring process. If your organization augments your panel interviewing with certain prescribed interviewing methodology, e.g. behavioural, STAR, etc, to ensure reliability and consistency, then there should be processes in place to ensure that the panel sticks to them. Better still: you may want to consider using other screening methods that do not require so many resources and yet can be just as, or if not more reliable.
It may be time to review your use of panel interviewing, and get rid of it if it's serving your People strategy poorly.
It's time we move on from panel interviewing.