With interviews, group efforts fail

Jessica Lawrence
Jessica Lawrence

In the mid-1990s there was a show on MTV called “Singled Out” in which 100 men and one woman were selected to answer a series of questions. Throughout the show, the group of men was whittled down, smaller and smaller, until finally only one man was left, making him an obvious and suitable mate. After an hour of eliminations, this woman was whisked away to an island with her newfound soul mate and they would, of course, live happily ever after. Or so we were left to assume. Sound familiar? Behold, the group interview was born. Thanks, MTV.

 Having endured many group interviews as a job seeker, I can say I’m not impressed. The group interview constitutes the fast food method of finding an acceptable employee. Note that I use the word acceptable and not perfect. I’ve endured this technique with as little as three people and as many as 31, and I didn’t feel at any time I received a fair or even adequate evaluation.

So, what’s the point of the group interview, then? Believe it or not, there’s little to no literature that suggests group interviews provide any advantage to either the employer or potential employee. In fact, there’s almost no literature that suggests anything at all.

Gary Kustis, a partner and senior consultant with the  Advanced Insights consulting firm, put it this way: “Group interviews appear to be one of those areas that has slipped past industrial organizational psychologists. There’s no research out there to suggest that they’re any better than traditional individual or panel interviews, but also no research to suggest they’re any worse. The only real reason to use them would be if you’re hard-pressed for time and have a lot of people to interview. That said, I’d think hard about the kind of questions you’d ask them, and I’d make sure that I had some other people there to chime in with their impressions afterwards when you’re ready to pick out who shined.”

Kustis is right. The only time  a group interview might work would be if an employer is short on time or  going to hire a multitude of people for the same type of position.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, there are two types of group interviews. The first is the type is usually conducted only in circumstances in which the job duties are clearly defined and numerous candidates can be informed or asked about job requirements — amusement park requirements for attendance or dress and grooming codes, for example.

Having spent a significant amount of time pursing jobs, I can honestly say that not once did one of my countless group interviews resemble that description. Every interview was a cutthroat experience — and not one based on dress or grooming codes.

The second example is the “fishbowl” interview that brings together multiple job candidates to work with each other in a true-to-life work setting. Another fishbowl interview pairs an applicant with a group of staff members to work on a true-to-life work issue. Either type of fishbowl interview helps an employer learn how an individual interacts with others to solve business-related issues as well as the individual’s depth of analytical skills and natural abilities as a leader or team player.  

In the legions of group interviews to which I’ve been subjected, not one involved working with other applicants or staff members to solve true-to-life work issues.

What every single group interview in which I’ve participated did consist of was questions and answers. The interviewers posed a question and I had to answer it. End of story. There was no creative process in which I was given a chance to demonstrate leadership or flexibility. I’d estimate that 80 percent of nailing a group interview is just being an orator, and we all know oration skills don’t necessarily demonstrate ability to perform other functions. What are we really looking for: A person who can speak well or a person who can do well?

So why have so many organizations adopted this as their newest way to find the right people to fit their needs?

It appears to me the group interview technique is a cop-out — passing the buck, so to speak. All it says to me is that the employer is trying to save time. They want the relationship, but don’t want to do the leg work.

Rather than take the time to really interview people and make a firm decision on the best-suited candidate, many organizations would rather ship in a bunch of potential candidates, throw the job on the middle of the table and see who can luck out with a couple of buzz words and the best answers to a couple of surface probing questions. Instead of digging deep into a few persons’ experiences, work ethic and philosophies, employers would rather deal in the smoke and mirrors of the quick hire. As a result, hiring becomes just a crap-shoot where you sometimes win, but more often break even or lose.

If you or your organization conducts group interviews, I’d challenge you to question what you’re really gaining by employing a technique that has yet to be proven effective. You can’t possibly learn anything from a candidate in a group interview that you can’t learn over the phone. Stop wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Think, too, about the message your organization sends by participating in this nonsense.

Oh, and thank MTV for setting the standard early on of how important business should be conducted.