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Job seekers: Be wary of interviewers in a selling mode, study suggests

June 5, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 718-398-7642 or 917-903-9287, press@aom.org

Can your job interview go too well? Unlikely though that may seem, some new research suggests as much. The interviewer who seems eager to sell you on a job, it finds, has an increased likelihood of missing some important things about you and whether the position and you are right for each other.

"Interviewers often feel responsible for not only judging applicants but also attracting applicants to join their organization," begins a paper in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal. The study then goes on to find that "the more interviewers adopt a selling orientation, the less able they are to make judgments that accurately predict applicants' future success as newcomers." In other words, the effort to sell interferes with the process of evaluation, given the fact that "attentional resources are limited."

While this may seem to accord with common sense, in fact the finding flies in the face of a sizable body of psychological research which holds that making judgments about people is more or less intuitive and actually becomes less efficient when people devote explicit attention to the process. For example, one study found that immediately after meeting new group members for the first time, subjects were able to evaluate each other's extroversion and conscientiousness with a high degree of accuracy. Another study based on interviews with more than 400 job interviewers reported that those who focused on attracting candidates rated themselves higher in selecting the best applicants than did those who focused only on evaluating applicants.

In the view of the paper's authors, Jennifer Carson Marr of Georgia Institute of Technology and Dan M. Cable of London Business School, their finding likely helps explain "why so many hiring decisions that are based on positive initial impressions yield unsuccessful new hires." They also note the irony implied by the fact  "that interviewers' motivation to sell causes them to make the worst predictions about the applicants they are trying hardest to attract" and the further irony that, as earlier research revealed, this failure has escaped the notice of these professionals.

Although believing that their findings apply to many types of interpersonal relationships, "such as entrepreneur-venture capitalist interactions, business partnerships, or the formation of romantic relationships," the authors confine their recommendations to job interviews, "hundreds of thousands of [which] are conducted every day," and in which "interviewer judgments are the primary determinant of whether applicants received job offers."

 "Firms," they write, "should formally separate the applicant-evaluation process from the applicant-attraction process. This could be done either by having evaluation and selling conducted by different people or at different stages of the hiring process." While conceding that many companies "do not want to invest the resources (e.g., time, money, interviewers) to conduct different types of interviews," they urge that "it may be most beneficial to formally separate the assessment and recruiting parts of their interview process and to make this strategy and the associated evidence explicit to interviewers.".

The paper's findings emerge from two separate research endeavors -- a laboratory experiment in which participants simulated job interviews and field studies involving professional interviewers and actual job applicants.

In the simulation experiment, 64 subjects recruited through a university-affiliated research pool were randomly assigned to play the roles of interviewers or applicants for the position of customer service manager of a supermarket chain. Interviewers were instructed to both evaluate and recruit, but in half the cases special emphasis was put on the need to sell the job to the applicant.  At the conclusion of the session, interviewers were asked to rate on scale of 1 to 7 candidates' "core self-evaluation," which, the authors explain is "an appraisal of one's self-worth [that] also reflects beliefs in one's capabilities and competence." They add that "research suggests that core self-evaluations predict work outcomes better than any other individual dispositional trait, including conscientiousness."

A week earlier, all participants in the study plus a family member or good  friend of each had been asked to agree or disagree with statements that assessed subjects' core-self evaluations -- whether they were confident of getting the success they deserved in life, for example, or habitually completed tasks successfully or were generally satisfied with themselves. The key issue probed by the experiment was to what extent interviewers' assessments of applicants' core self-evaluations matched those of the applicants and their families or friends. The answer: When it comes to judging other people's core self-evaluations, interviewers are significantly less accurate when their primary motivation is selling.

The authors extended these findings through two field studies. The first was based on information collected at four points in time with respect to 109 working adults admitted to a leading U.S. MBA program -- 1) demographic information collected when they applied to the program, 2) data collected from the faculty members who interviewed them during the application process, 3) their degree of enthusiasm about the program nine months after acceptance; and 4) the number of job offers received two years after acceptance.

Profs. Marr and Cable found that, when interviewers had a low selling orientation, their assessment of applicants' core self-evaluation bore a significant relationship to students' subsequent enthusiasm for the program; in contrast, interviewers' assessments bore no such relationship when their selling orientation was high. Even more impressive, when selling orientation was low, negative ratings of core self-evaluation were associated with only a 2% probability that a student would receive four or more job offers, while positive ratings were associated with a 38% probability; yet, when selling orientation was high the probability of four or more job offers was virtually the same whether interviewers' ratings of core self-evaluation were positive or negative.

Parallel findings emerged from a second field study involving 35 interviewers assigned to match international teachers to school districts in the U.S. When interviewers' selling orientation was low, their ratings of applicants' core self-evaluations bore a significant relationship to 1) the teachers' willingness 18 months into their jobs, to volunteer and contribute above and beyond the strict dictates of their positions and 2) the alignment of the teachers' values with those of their schools. In contrast, when selling orientation was high, those relationships were statistically insignificant.

In sum, both field studies find that "interviewers' judgments about a single dispositional trait predicted important future work outcomes years later, including job-search success, citizenship behaviors, and perceived value congruence." And this result, the professors add in conclusion, helps "explain why employer reputation can help sustain a competitive advantage. Specifically, if unattractive firms have fewer applicants, interviewers are likely motivated to sell more frequently than interviewers in attractive firms with their choice of applicants. As such, the employment interview likely emerges as a less valid selection device for firms with poor reputations, suggesting a widening gap across time in the quality of the talent they can identify and hire."

Something, perhaps, for an applicant to keep in mind when a job interview seems to go too  well and for companies to ponder when they give marching orders to interviewers.

The study, "Do Interviewers Sell Themselves Short? The Effects of Selling Orientation on Interviewers' Judgments," is in the June/July issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education,  and Academy of Management Annals  .A sixth publication, Academy of Management Discoveries,  is currently accepting submissions and will begin publishing in January 2015.

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