Improve Your Interviewing Technique

by Michael Shelton

Employing staff members who take a genuine interest in youth and who possess a strong work ethic are essential to the success of a camp season. Camp administrators often feel proud when they hire candidates who display these qualities. But it is these same administrators who also hire the staff who are less than successful, those who are terminated before the season is over and cause no end of frustration to supervisors and co-workers. How can an administrator hire two such opposite individuals?

Camp administrators and those responsible for hiring realize that the way candidates present themselves during the interview process may not match their true character in the actual camp setting. Many recommendations, such as background and reference checks and interviews with family members, have been suggested to deal with this problem. These practices, however, have not markedly reduced the number of bad hiring decisions. It is becoming increasingly obvious that it is imperative for the interviewer to augment his abilities in order to more fully realize the chance for a successful match between a candidate and the camp. Successful hiring assumes an equal amount of responsibility from both the candidate and the interviewer.

No research has been performed specifically at camps to illustrate the problems inherent in interviewing. However, large corporations have invested much money and time in analyzing their hiring practices. Two consistent findings have been released.

The first is that the confidence of the interviewer in his abilities in no way correlates with the actual success rate. Although many administrators believe that they have a "special touch" in hiring just the right people, all available evidence refutes this. Successful hiring appears to be more related to luck than skill. The second finding is that practice does not necessarily improve interviewing skills. A person who has years of interviewing experience will make just as many bad hiring decisions as a novice.

Large and small businesses are increasingly turning to science to assist in the hiring process. The findings of science — particularly psychology and biology — have dramatically altered the understanding of the brain and how it makes decisions. This knowledge can be utilized by the camp industry.

Bad Hiring Decisions Explained

There are thousands of sensory stimuli bombarding a human being’s senses every second from outside (e.g., noise, smells) and from within (e.g., a headache). If a person had to pay attention to all of these, then life as we know it would be impossible. The brain fortunately filters out almost all of these stimuli so that only the most relevant are consciously processed. This automatic and constant filtering has a major drawback though; we are consciously oblivious to 99 percent of what occurs around us.

The 99 percent of filtered incoming sensory information does not completely evade the brain; information we are not consciously aware of continues to affect our actions.

Hypnosis presents a perfect example. Most people have witnessed a stage hypnotist performance in which selected members of the audience present amusing behaviors under the guidance of the hypnotist. A person in a trance state instructed to stand up and leave the room every time the hypnotist gives a subtle signal (e.g., picking up a pen) will perform this activity each time that signal is given even though the individual retains no memory of the suggestion. Hypnosis clearly illustrates that individuals will follow instructions hidden from the conscious mind.

One finding from hypnosis research applicable to hiring is that people will create an explanation, no matter how outlandish, for their actions. When asked why he left the room, the above hypnotic subject might respond, "I needed some air" or "I needed a stretch." The person will create a completely false explanation to justify the otherwise irrational behavior. Medical personnel dealing with stroke victims have also witnessed this type of rationalization in action. Individuals who find themselves paralyzed on one half of their body may completely deny this state and explain that the reason they aren’t moving their left arm and leg is that they are "too tired." These individuals may tenaciously hold on to this belief for several weeks.

Unconscious Motivation Impacts Decisions

Human beings have an underlying need to explain events; this is built into the brain. Unfortunately, the brain is more focused on speed than accuracy. The brain simplifies complicated situations and interactions in order to better cope with the innumerable stimuli that bombard it every second. The brain makes decisions for us based on this simplified evaluation of input.

In spite of educated efforts, hiring decisions are often based on these quiet unconscious processing of the mind. An interviewer makes a hiring decision within two to five minutes of meeting a candidate —
often before the formal interview has even started. In this short period, the candidate may not even have had time to sit down and introduce himself. The candidate may on a purely unconscious level remind the interviewer of a beloved aunt or wear glasses that resemble those of a disliked rival. The interviewer does not consciously detect these subtle cues but his opinion of the individual is nevertheless affected.

The interviewer makes his choice based on these unconscious motivations and then rationalizes the choice of the candidate. Thus, the candidate that has impeccable qualifications but recalls to the brain the rival will not be hired due to some quirk or problem that the interviewer can somehow find, while the truly under-qualified candidate is heartily welcomed to the camp even though the true reason is that she subtly suggests the beloved aunt. The human brain is an expert in creating reasons for hiring decisions even though the reasoning might be as fallacious as found in a hypnotic trance.

Candidates are chosen not because of their qualifications but rather because of the effects they have on the unconscious mind. Interviewers never realize that they are doing this because they are experts at rationalizing their decisions. This is an explanation for the questionable hiring success rates interviewers experience in spite of confidence and practice.

The Team Interview Concept

There is a solution for this dilemma. It is important though to reiterate that the brain automatically makes decisions for us without our awareness in order to simplify our reactions to the thousands of stimuli affecting us every second. The goal is not to change this functioning of the brain but rather to work better with this hardwired programming.

The first step of the solution is awareness. The knowledge that hiring decisions are highly influenced by unconscious processing of the brain allows the interviewer to be more focused on the actual decisions he makes. Awareness is not enough, however, to cause dramatic change.

The second step is team interviewing. Each person has different unconscious motivations and cues. While one interviewer may find a candidate a strong contender based on unconscious motivation, a second interviewer may find the same candidate worrisome based on different unconscious cues. Having three interviewers meet with each candidate separately and then discussing their reactions will assure that a hiring decision is based on objective criteria for the candidate rather than on one person’s unconscious cues. It strongly appears that better decisions are made with a team interviewing approach — three short interviews for each candidate — rather than one lengthy interview held by a single interviewer. It is possible to have the team interview the candidate as a group if time is short. This approach has not worked as well though due in large part to the group dynamics that occur in such a scenario.

Conduct structured interviews
Research has demonstrated that structured interviews elicit the most valuable information. Most interviews, however, are loosely assembled with a content that changes dramatically from one candidate to the other. Prior to beginning interviews, each interviewer should be taught what basic skills, experience, and competencies are sought. Interviewers should also seek the same competencies in candidates. Experts recommend that to minimize unrealistic expectations from both the interviewer and the candidate a maximum of six competencies should be sought in candidates. This is in striking contrast to many camps’ job descriptions, which are several pages long.

Team interviewing utilizing a structured interview format will improve hiring decisions. If large businesses use this as a standard practice, then it would behoove camps to also adopt the technique. This will, for many camps, lengthen and complicate the hiring process. However, good staff members are the most valuable assets to the success of the camp. Can you afford not to use this technique?

Michael Shelton is a performance enhancement consultant, particularly focused on camp administration, living in Pennsylvania.


Originally published in the 2000 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.