The art of the job interview is often an underestimated skill. A job interview is not simply about showing off one’s technical knowledge, but also the art (and craft) of understanding one’s potential employer, understanding impression management, showing passion and interest, framing one’s qualifications for the position, and making the perfect delivery to win the job. On the part of an interviewer, it is also not just about snagging the applicant who shows superior cognitive abilities. This article discusses the psychology behind employment interviews, covers a brief background on the validity of job interviews, personality relationship to job performance, case studies and then brushes on some applications to engineering.
Pools of past researches have shown that interviews are tools consistently used by organizations to evaluate prospective employees (Harris, 1989; McDaniel et al., 1994; Cable & Judge, 1997; Ryan, McFarland, Baron, & Page, 1999; Wilk & Cappelli, 2003). These interviews may be structured or non-structured. According to the practical guide by U.S Office of Personnel Management, structured interviews refer to formal interviews in which the applicants are asked similar questions in a given order, are rated using a common scale and all interviewers are in agreement with acceptable responses. Conversely, non-structured or informal interviews negate the characteristics described above – non-uniformity, biased, but more comfortable and more tailored to the interviewee.
Validity of employment interviews
While non-structured interviews have been known to show low correlation to job performance, structured interviews on the other hand have demonstrated through researches and surveys, a higher correlation to success at the job. This is because unstructured interviews usually ask open-ended questions, which may not necessarily correlate to the actual job whereas the structured interviews even give a chance to further assess the interviewees’ response to understand the thought process for a more valid assessment.
However, there are factors that affect the validity of these studies, such as interviewer bias, ingratiation on the part of the applicant, etc. Given the impact of non-uniformity over the interviewing process, it has been shown that when conducted properly, interviews are good predictive measures of job performance. Yet debate still exists; one side questions validity while the other suggests there is no other reasonable alternative. The onus lies on organizations and job applicants to make good use of these research findings from employment interviews because job interviewing is really an art that should be mastered, not over-looked. The importance cannot be over-emphasized.
For the purposes of this article, interviewing psychology will be narrowed down to two perspectives- organizational and individual psychologies. These two categories reflect the two parties involved.
According to Judge, Cable & Higgins, 2000, there exist benefits in hiring employees based on the P-O (Personnel-Organization) fit. P-O fit refers to the similarity between the traits of an individual and that of an organization. It should be noted that organizations, just like human beings, have their own ‘behaviors’. The organizational characteristics refer to the net attitude or values exhibited by majority of the employees otherwise known as the work culture of a place. For instance, while some companies may maintain a very serious atmosphere, others may be more lax or in better terms, more laid-back. These behaviors may even differ between different groups or departments within a given company. Researches have shown that there are a variety of attributes being compared between individuals and organizations such as interests, needs, culture, goals etc. (Kristof, 1996; Judge & Cable, 1997).
Whatever the classification there may be, it is generally believed that interviewers have the tendency to find people who share their values and work culture. In other words, people desire applicants with whom they can relate and work with everyday.
This article would be incomplete without mention of the “Big Five” Personality Dimensions (Extraversion, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience). Many personality psychologists have converged on the structure and concept of personality agreeing to these five dimensions as a common classification of human characteristics (Barrick & Mount, 1991). While variations on “Norman’s Big Five” have evolved out of continued research, the basic framework of the Big Five is consistent across alternatives due to its comprehensiveness and robustness. It should be noted that these constructs are relatively independent of cognitive ability (McCrae & Costa, 1987). The constructs, outlined below, will be introduced and defined in relation to their impact on job performance. Figure 1 also shows qualities expected from the various personality types.
This trait is synonymous with sociability and assertiveness of an individual. Extroverts are generally known to be talkative and active whereas introverts are opposite.
2. Emotional Stability
This is associated with different emotions such as worry, insecurity, anxiety etc. In terms of relationship to job performance, absence of emotional stability is seen as a hindrance to getting work done and therefore, this trait is considered a valid indicator.
This deals with likeability of an individual, which stems from attitudes such as being courteous, good-natured and tolerant (Barrick & Mount, 1991).
This is one of the most important dimensions because it shows significant correlation with all job performance criteria (job proficiency, training proficiency, and personnel data) for different occupational types (professionals, police, managers, sales, and skilled/semi-skilled) (Barrick & Mount, 1991). It refers to meticulousness, diligence, being responsible and organized and is said to correspond to dependability. These qualities are associated with task accomplishment and hiring managers recognize the importance of this personality trait in signaling efficient and valuable employees.
5. Openness to Experience
Different people have described this dimension in various ways. Some people have called it Intellect, some others Culture but in general, it connotes broad-mindedness, curiosity and imaginativeness.
From the analysis above, it could be seen that these personality dimensions help provide a means of studying the differences between different people. Conscientiousness, in particular, is demonstrably significant as it relates to job performance. Studies have argued the merits of the other four, including an important study by Barrick and Mount. Barrick and Mount argue that Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability rank highest as valid job predictors. To them, Conscientiousness reflects the way individuals organize themselves to complete a task while neuroticism inhibits work.
This is arguably reasonable for the average job, but for engineers, it is possible that Openness to Experience should be emphasized more than Emotional Stability. Openness to Experience signals someone who embraces challenges and has an imaginative mind- a mind willing to take risks that could yield high returns. It describes an individual who would come to speed with an organization even though he/she has not been there for a long time.
On a different note, Extraversion could be a dimension of high importance in area of sales and management. Sales personnel and managers are expected to be outgoing to be able to relate with customers and employees respectively and therefore for jobs that require a considerable amount of interpersonal relationships, Extraversion could be a valid predictor. Suffice it to say that this is one of the areas where the lines are usually drawn for majority of engineering and non-engineering jobs. Of course, grey area exists for some jobs such as Sales Engineering and similar trades.
Engineers are stereotypically known to provide solutions and therefore when conducting interviews, they will appreciate someone who shows similar capabilities. Consequently, Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience may be the target predictors for job performance. This is because as discussed earlier, Conscientiousness deals with getting tasks done and Openness to Experience deals with imagination. This combination obviously echoes ‘Engineering’ not to undermine their importance in other non-engineering jobs. Conversely, most non-engineering occupations deal with human relationships, which therefore call for Extraversion, Agreeableness and perhaps even Emotional stability.
Engineers could however cultivate these other qualities to be more-rounded. Engineering is not only about getting work done but also about doing it in an enjoyable fashion. Therefore, it is essential that engineers be agreeable as well as capable in their field. Agreeableness is a personality that is highly valued, especially in companies that have high regard for their work culture. This is especially true nowadays when there are many engineering graduates to choose from such that hiring managers are looking for additional qualities that stand out. However, care should be taken not to go overboard with this trait especially for applicants. (See Case Study 2)
While interviewing at Company X (name withheld for privacy purposes), I asked the Supervisor of a division what he liked the most and what he disliked the most about his group, and he expressed the desire for people to be more willing to take risks and jump onto emerging technologies. According to him, most people preferred to remain in their comfort zones, thereby doing things the same way. He added that the division was born out of the risk taken by another parent group years ago. Luckily, it had yielded a lot of returns for the company and he felt it was time to go onto something new.
This example demonstrates that Openness to Experience is a quality sought by the Supervisor. One could also project that given two interviewees of the same technical ability, but with a difference in personality dimension – Openness to Experience, this supervisor would most likely hire the applicant with this ability.
Company X offers another example. One of the hiring managers in a group told me about a college senior who had recently interviewed with her. According to her, the boy was very smart and answered all his questions correctly but he did not get the job because he tried to hug the interviewer at the end of the interview. One can infer that being overly social is considered a red flag.
The last case study is from a friend, who happens to be an editor at Tufts. She gave an insight on a headhunter’s view of the type of candidate desired for a corporate director. She noted that board members mostly discuss business over lunch or dinner and therefore, the ideal candidate was not one who just knew the facts, but also one who is highly sociable.
With these examples, one should make sure not to be on the extremes. Figure 1 below sheds more light on the traits expected from different personality types.
Relevance to Engineering Students (ECE Seniors)
While this article may not relate directly to our senior design projects, it definitely finds some application in student-sponsor interviews before and during the project, and also in interviewing people in order to outsource a subsystem.
The personality constructs may help give an idea of what sort of customer one expects. Is he/she fun to work for? Is he/she consistent? Does he/she define a problem and change it with time?
On the part of outsourcing, relevant questions could be ‘Does he/she get tasks done or not?’ ‘Does he/she fit our group in order words, can we all work together or does he/she have a negative attitude?’
In general, mastering personnel psychology and the art of interviewing could save a lot of headache down the line. There are a lot of things once could infer from meeting with a client or customer.
Truly, the art of the job interview should not be over-looked. It definitely takes more than just technical competence to find a place in companies especially in the world of today where there are many engineering graduates. Therefore as seniors, it is advised to cultivate other positive attributes other than just being a book-worm or ‘just nerdy’ as the engineering stereotypes go, since the technical knowledge may help one do the job but the other skills are required to get one’s foot in the door in the first place. Seniors (and other readers as well) should take note of this while embarking on their job search or Graduate School search (This is also relevant for graduate school interviews.)
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I would like to thank Patricia Bailin, my editor for painstakingly reading through my article and for her honest critiques. My sincere thanks to the Engineering Librarian, Ms. Vagts for her suggestions and to Professor Lasser for this challenging exercise.
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