Why job interviews are a persistent illusion

Why job interviews are a persistent illusion

A reader questions the validity of interviews and we consider how job interviews are a persistent illusion, in the December 1, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


interview illusionIt’s good I’m no HR expert because if I were I’d question my sanity. I just had another job interview where I could tell the interviewer was unqualified to assess me. Almost all the questions were general like, “What accomplishment are you most proud of?” She didn’t assess my technical skills or my understanding of the job at all, just asked questions so she could decide how cooperative I am. Is HR insane? Is it me, or is job interviewing all wrong?

Nick’s Reply

I agree that how employers interview is mostly wrong, and I’ll let you decide about HR’s sanity. But let’s dig into what happens in most job interviews.

Suppose you interviewed me for a job and I gave essentially meaningless answers to your questions. If you’re like lots of HR managers, you’d probably interpret what I said as useful information, and you’d rely on my nonsense statements to decide whether to hire me.

Say what?

The illusion of job interviews

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We’ve actually known for a long time that job interviews are a persistent illusion. That is, employers keep asking irrelevant and open-ended questions because they think they will “get to know a person” better. More astonishing, HR managers contend that these interviews are “structured” simply because all candidates get the same questions. Treating people consistently may make interviews seem fair, but it doesn’t make the information gleaned from candidates valid.

I believe such exchanges often yield little useful information. All we do is feed an illusion that we can make good hiring decisions based on worthless information.

Making no sense of job interviews

In a seminal study of job interviews done by Jason Dana and his colleagues at Yale University, job candidates gave random answers to an interviewer’s questions — but interviewers were confident that their resulting impressions of the candidates were accurate.

It’s not just contrived interviews in research settings that fool employers. Dana’s work suggests that unstructured interviews in real settings are poor predictors of success on the job.

Employers make mistakes when they interview this way due to a common cognitive phenomenon: We’re wired to try to make sense of information, no matter how little value it has. Dana says we have a “propensity for ‘sensemaking’” — we try “to make sense of virtually anything the interviewee says.”

Making sense of cognitive errors

V.P. Of Outcomes

“Behavior, skills, personality – none of it by itself accurately predicts how well someone will do a job. None of it means you can perform. I reference the interview to the outcomes I need — to the work that must be done. I don’t hire people because of what they say. I hire them because they can prove they can do the work!” – Buck Adams, Telecom V.P.
& Commanding General, NORAD, Ret.

How can we stop our brains from making such costly hiring mistakes? First, we should avoid hiring people because we like them. We should stop listening to our feelings about candidates, and learn to rely more on objective metrics. (See sidebar.)

Chatting with job candidates might be satisfying and fun. But if HR (or a hiring manager) fails to gather appropriate evidence, it will likely lead them to make hiring mistakes.

What really predicts a good hire?

Second, employers must rely on better information. More concrete, objective measures of a candidate will likely improve hiring.

Dr. Arnold Glass, a researcher in human cognition at Rutgers University, said, “It has been known since Alfred Binet… constructed the original IQ test in 1905 that the best predictor of job (or academic) performance is a test composed of the tasks that will be performed on the job.”

In other words, use a job interview to learn what a job candidate can do. Gather hard evidence. None other than Google’s notorious former head of HR, Laszlo Bock, said open-ended interview questions don’t cut it.

According to Bock, even a candidate’s GPA is a more objective, useful predictor of future success than how an employer scores a job interview.

Objective evidence vs. interview illusions

Dana cautions that information about a candidate gathered during an unstructured interview is likely illusory. Worse, it “can interfere with the use of valid information” that you take the trouble to collect and that can actually help you make good hiring choices.

HR and hiring managers need to curb their intuition and avoid hiring who they like. The more objective evidence an interviewer can glean from a job applicant, the more likely their hires will be good ones.

The purpose of any job interview is to assess whether you can do a job. That must be the crux of any hiring decision. Because employers have long been in the habit of asking peripherally useful and worthless questions, the value of most job interviews has become a persistent illusion. (Learn how managers can handle interviews better.)

What’s a job seeker to to?

What job hunters need to know is employers are persistently and generally wrong about job interviews.

If an employer subjects you to a friendly, open-ended discussion about your likes and dislikes, or quizzes you about what animal you would be if you could be any animal (or how many golf balls would fit in the Empire State Building), you’ve lost control of your job interview. It is then up to you to salvage the meeting. Gently break the employer’s illusion of interviews. Terminate the trivia game and the casual, unqualified personality test an employer seems to be giving you.

Help the employer get past the interview illusion. Help focus your meeting on the work. Help the employer understand exactly why you are really worth hiring by showing how you’ll do the job. (For a truly killer interview question, click here.)

Are job interviews an illusory way to assess job candidates? What should an employer ask? What should you convey to prove you’d be a good hire?

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In-Your-Face Audio Q&A: How to get a job

In-Your-Face Audio Q&A: How to get a job

Nick offers two fundamental audio lessons in how to get a job, in the November 24, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Audio Ask The Headhunter

get a jobWelcome to this special audio edition of Ask The Headhunter. I was recently part of a panel of headhunters taking questions from job seekers in a virtual gathering. We covered some important basic lessons about how to get a job.

Apart from having a lot of fun, we tackled what I refer to as in-your-face questions — the kind that most “experts” prefer to avoid because there are no canned answers.

Rather than the traditional Q&A column this week, my advice is in audio format. These are just two excerpts from a two-hour event. Total listening time: 5 minutes, 30 seconds.

I hope you enjoy this shift in format. Based on your feedback, we may try more audio!


Sixty to seventy percent of jobs are supposedly found and filled through people that know us. Networking sounds good but few people enjoy it or do it well because it’s, well, icky. How can I network without feeling dirty?

Nick’s Reply

If networking feels icky, you’re not doing it right. Networking should feel like making friends and talking shop. Length: 2:05




Natural Networking: An end to stupid networking

How Can I Change Careers? (PDF book): “A Good Network Is a Circle of Friends”


I’ve heard on business news reports that companies are not filling jobs because they are more profitable with a lower headcount. Do you find this to be true and how can I convince them to hire me anyway?

Nick’s Reply

It’s important to understand why companies avoid hiring when they can, and why they might hire you even if they have no job openings. It’s all about profit — and learning how to get in the door. Length: 3:30




How to get to the hiring manager

Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) (PDF book)

Got an in-your-face question about networking, interviewing and how to get a job? Let’s talk about it! Got a comment about the advice I gave in the two audio excerpts? Let’s talk about it!

Did you enjoy the audio format this week?

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Is this employer a Mickey Mouse operation?

Is this employer a Mickey Mouse operation?

How can you figure out whether a company is a Mickey Mouse operation before you start working there? A reader wants to know, in the November 17, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


Mickey Mouse operationOnce I determine that I can “do the work” for the prospective employer, and that I really do want the job, how do I find out if it is a Mickey Mouse operation? In my experience, it requires being an insider and six months’ time to determine that. Are there any ways to figure it out in advance? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it!” So it is with job offers — you might get one without knowing the truth about the company until it’s too late.

What is a Mickey Mouse operation?

“Mickey Mouse” means different things to different people. To me, it describes any poorly organized and managed company. To you, it might mean something very specific. For example, a company that’s successful but makes mediocre products, or one that has high employee turnover.

Whatever the problem is, it’s not unusual for job hunters to suddenly find themselves with an offer in hand, wondering why the heck they went after a questionable company. We sometimes pursue opportunities for no other reason than because they’re there, or because we are invited and we are too flattered to refuse.

Judge first, then apply

This is why I advise doing all the tough research before you apply to a company. This is why — contrary to conventional wisdom — it’s imprudent to pursue dozens of companies at a time. It’s also why I advise pursuing companies, not jobs. You need to know in advance whether the company is worth working for, and exactly why you’re talking to them about a particular job. That takes considerable effort and it requires making prudent choices about where to invest your time.

Don’t wait until an offer is made. Judge a company before you even apply for a job. I think you will find that a surprising number of employers will not withstand simple scrutiny. If they do, keep judging through the interview process.

Use the interview to vet the company

For more tips on how to judge an employer before and after a job interview, please see “How to pick worthy companies” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention. This PDF guide includes an expanded version of this Q&A column.

Can’t find information about a company because it’s not public? The guide also includes “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies.”

Of course, you can’t learn all you need to know through advance research. You must continue to ask the tough questions during the interview. Make sure the answers sit comfortably with you. While I agree that there are things you will learn only after months on the job, there’s a lot you can do to vet a company in advance.

Before the interview, cover these bases:

  • Start at the top. Research the industry the company is in. Is it sound? Are its prospects good?
  • Study the industry press and watchdog organizations. Do they demonstrate respect for this company? How do they portray the company’s status in the industry?

In the interview, don’t miss these points:

  • What does the company need to do to meet its goals? How does your job fit?
  • Who are the people in other departments who will affect your ability to do your job successfully? Meet them. Look for facilitators and debilitators.

After you have an offer, schedule a follow-up meeting before you accept:

  • Confirm the authority you’ll have in your job. People often confuse authority and responsibility. Some companies demand results without giving employees enough control and discretion over their work.
  • Get a close look at the entire written benefits package, company policies and employee handbook. Some companies are funny about divulging these critical documents, but you have a right to see them before you accept a job. The quality of a company is usually revealed in how it treats employees.

Avoid Mickey Mouse operations

Good companies comprise good people. The managers and employees you meet should be above board, honest and willing to candidly discuss issues that are important to a new recruit. Don’t be unreasonable or rude, but don’t settle for less than full disclosure.

If anyone is put off by your diplomatic inquiries about the company, the people, and the job, then look elsewhere because you probably won’t be happy working for Mickey Mouse.

What does “Mickey Mouse operation” mean to you? What do you look for when judging an employer? If you’ve made a mistake about a company you joined, what do you wish you had asked or looked for before you accepted the job?

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Do LinkedIn recommendations, endorsements & connections matter?

Do LinkedIn recommendations, endorsements & connections matter?

A reader admits there’s fake stuff in LinkedIn Recommendations and asks whether these “networking” tools really work, in the November 10, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


LinkedIn recommendationsHow important are LinkedIn “recommendations?” Some are true, some are made up and a person feels an obligation to lay it on. How can you improve them?

My issue is that I have been out of the job market for four years, my recommendations are old, and I don’t have many current recommendations that are relevant. I also wonder about “endorsements” and why a request to “connect” through a mutual contact rarely goes anywhere. Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

Let’s start with the basics: Your LinkedIn profile is your calling card. You should absolutely have one. But your profile doesn’t “market” or “sell” you. All it does is confirm you exist when someone looks you up.

LinkedIn recommendations

“Recommendations” are the section on a LinkedIn profile where people post nice things about you.

I pay no attention at all to LinkedIn recommendations and I don’t know anyone that does, except perhaps some wishful job seekers and naive recruiters. It doesn’t hurt to have recommendations. If you want to game this silly system, ask folks who posted the old ones to copy/delete/repost under new date. But I would not put much time into any of this.

What do LinkedIn recommendations mean?

Here’s the test for a recommendation posted on your LinkedIn profile: Would the person be willing to call an employer to provide a detailed reference for you on the phone and to answer questions about you?

My guess is that most won’t. That makes LinkedIn recommendations nice but not very meaningful. They’re window dressing. No employer is going to hire you because someone larded your profile with praise. They’re going to want to talk with your references.

The same is true about your list of “connections.” Should an employer be impressed if you have 5,000 contacts? I’m not. LinkedIn links are free. The ease with which LinkedIn allows us to portray “connections” makes them questionable at best. Then we have “endorsements” — I call this “credibility with a click.” It’s meaningless.

LinkedIn’s value to you

What would be more useful is to ask those same people (your fans who post recommendations) if they’d be willing to (a) serve as actual references and (b) make personal introductions via e-mail or phone. My guess is most cannot because they don’t know you or your work well enough.

The main value of LinkedIn to you is that it’s a huge digital directory you can use to check up on people you’re dealing with or want to meet. However, we all know that messaging your Connection A via LinkedIn to get introduced to their Connection B is not likely to get you anywhere. Times I’ve tried this, I get this reply: “Sorry, I’m connected to B but I don’t know her at all.”

That’s because connections are free, so most are worthless. You might as well search a phonebook to get an introduction! The best way to get introduced to a person is to actually talk with someone that knows them. Use the phone! (See Networking For Introverts: How to say it.)

LinkedIn’s value to employers

The main value of LinkedIn to employers is to to “check you out” after they’ve used other, better means to get interested in you. The problem is if they can’t find you there. So by all means, have a good, simple LinkedIn profile that “proves” you exist!

But don’t count on it doing much more. Contrary to what LinkedIn “profile writers” might tell you, your LinkedIn profile does not “market” you. At best, your profile is your resume — and it’s passive. Sure, loads of recruiters search LinkedIn for keywords to find candidates on LinkedIn. But all they find are keywords — not your value.

LinkedIn is not a professional network

At its inception, LinkedIn was founded as an exclusive professional network in which members “connected” only with people they knew or did business with. That’s where its integrity and value were to reside.

But the day LinkedIn turned into just another job board, selling “seats” to recruiters and “top positioning” to job seekers, the network turned into a souped-up digital phonebook. Founders Reid Hoffman and Jeff Weiner cashed out — and sold out a promising, powerful system of business relationships.

While LinkedIn offers millions of nodes in its network (that’s you — a node), the value of connections between nodes is negligible. LinkedIn makes money by selling access to its nodes, or members, to employers. It has abandoned the integrity of the links between people. That’s why connections are free. That’s why a node (a LinkedIn member) is not likely to introduce you to another.

The best way to meet people who can help you is through other people that actually have shared professional experiences with you. People that have gotten to know you. People who will speak up for you and who will engineer an introduction or referral to an employer that trusts them. LinkedIn simply does not facilitate that.

Invest in strong personal links

Most people on LinkedIn who don’t know you aren’t going to introduce you to their contacts – I won’t! So, limit your use of LinkedIn to looking people up — but only after someone has already made a trusted, personal introduction that includes an endorsement and a recommendation. There’s your truly valuable connection between nodes!

This means talking with people and developing relationships. LinkedIn messaging has become just another channel of junk mail that people ignore. Junk mail is anything from someone you don’t know who clearly doesn’t know you.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s who you really know that matters, and who really knows you. If you and your endorsers really know one another, what are you doing using LinkedIn to get introduced to “connections”? Make a phone call! And make it personal!

How do you use LinkedIn? Is it really an effective “professional network” or just a dumpster of all resumes? What could be done to make LinkedIn better? Most important, how do you really connect with people to advance your career?

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Before you risk your references

Before you risk your references

A reader wonders whether it’s right that employers demand references before the employer even talks to the candidate, in the November 3, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


referencesAfter I submitted my resume, I was asked to do on-demand video for eight questions. I had no problem on this part, then luckily I made it to the second part, an online interview. They confirmed my interview but wanted five references within 24 hours, and this needs to be done before the interview. The references will be sent a link to an automated survey, the system will gather their responses, and I will be given a rating based on their responses. The company said background and reference checks are very important and I agree with this. However, I do not want to burden my references before my interview with impersonal forms to fill out, especially because the job opportunity is uncertain. I would like to know how you feel about this process. Do you think I can tell them that I would rather provide references after they have provided a real human to interview me first?

Nick’s Reply

Has anyone from the company spoken with you on the phone? If yes, who, for how long and about what?

Reader’s Answer

I received all communications via e-mail and have not spoken to anyone on the phone. The e-mails are from a third-party HR agency and the company. My video interview is scheduled 10 days from now with 4 people. This is a healthcare company with operations in several states, and the position is a Senior Finance Manager. I really appreciate your feedback and response.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for the additional information. It reveals a lot. You must use your own judgment on this – it’s your “opportunity” on the line, not mine. But here are my thoughts.

Don’t use up your references

A company that does not give you the courtesy of at least a personal phone call does not deserve access to your references – especially when it’s all automated and handled via a third party. It’s unprofessional, rude and ridiculous.

I agree with you that such an uncommitted employer could be an unreasonable bother to your references. It could also compromise your references’ willingness to help you when you really need them. Good references can get “used up.”

Ridiculous demands

Your preliminary interview was automated via video. Even the request to do it was automated. So was the request for references. So far, there’s apparently been no human time spent on their end.

Now they will automate requests to five people for reference checks. Then they will automate the reference checks using online surveys. (By the way — five references is two too many for any employer to demand.) Finally, it appears the review and scoring of your auto-gathered references will be handled by more automation.

At this point, you and five other people will have devoted hours of time for the convenience of the employer. The employer may have devoted a few minutes of effort, if that. That’s ridiculous.

Judge the employer’s commitment

This is a lot to demand of a job seeker without as much as a phone call from the employer to demonstrate respect and real interest.

You and your references are not being judged, but processed. Worse, you may be processed by a third party that is not the employer.

I judge an employer’s sincerity and integrity by the level of commitment they make to job applicants. This employer expects personal commitment from you and your references. But I don’t see any corresponding personal commitment from them. I see no sign of sincerity or integrity. You could invest your personal time on all the automated tasks they set before you and receive an automated rejection with no explanation and without any real opportunity to win the job.

That’s unacceptable. More important, it signals that you are disposable.

Reference risks

My added concern is that the introduction of a third-party HR firm and an unknown fourth party (the company that makes the software) creates more risks. You may have no idea how your data will be stored and used.

  • Your references and your score may be re-used without your approval by other employers you have not yet applied to, but who buy reference reports from the same third-party HR firm. You could thus get rejected instantly by other employers without even providing references — and never know why.
  • People that serve as your references could be subjected to requests you don’t know about. It’s a common trick for a recruiter to request references in advance, then to solicit the references for the same or other jobs. (Yes, you could be competing with your references.)
  • Sometimes the goal is not to interview you; it’s to use you to gain entry to more senior-level contacts who are solicited as clients.

I’m not saying such shenanigans will happen. But I believe the more automated the hiring process is, and the more parties are involved, the more likely abuse is to occur.

Protect yourself and your references

I would not agree to the employer using automated means or third parties to check your references. Ask that an exception be made. “I respect my references and I don’t want them bothered with impersonal surveys. Would you please contact my references personally and actually speak with them?”

Whether you get that concession or agree to automated reference checking, data gathering and third-party processing, and if you agree to automated video interviews, ask for full disclosure in writing.

  • Who will handle your video interview and personal data about you and your references?
  • Where will it be stored?
  • Who can see it?
  • How long will they keep it?
  • Will your data be shared or sold?
  • If someone violates the agreement, what penalty will they incur?

Don’t sign waivers or permissions unless you really understand what they mean. Check the reputations of any parties involved.

This might all be on the up and up, and it may be worth your time. You are the best judge about how real this opportunity is. But I have little respect or trust for any employer that asks so much of a candidate before it puts its own real, human skin in the game.

What you can do

I would politely call a time-out. Thank them for their interest and confirm your interest in the job. Then ask to speak briefly with the hiring manager via phone before you provide highly personal information like references, or invest further time in interviews.

Ask the manager to briefly describe why they think you’re a good candidate. Then judge the manager’s level of interest and decide whether this is really an opportunity. A committed manager will have good answers and demonstrate enthusiasm about meeting you for a full interview, and will be content to wait until afterwards to personally speak with your references.

Do what you think is best, but please be careful about how you risk your references.

At what point do you provide references? How many? When do employers normally request them? Has a recruiter ever abused your references? What do you think of third-party reference checkers?

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