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Why businesses should strive for a more relaxing interview process

Job interviews are rarely calming affairs, but an overly stressful application process can taint a candidate's entire view on the company. There's a better way

Published: May 9, 2023 10:00:00 AM IST
Updated: May 8, 2023 07:17:33 PM IST

Why businesses should strive for a more relaxing interview processWhile job interviews have always been stressful, for many the pandemic-related transition to remote interviews exacerbated the problem. Image: Shutterstock

Some recruiters believe that the high stress of a job interview presents an opportunity to evaluate the candidate's performance under pressure. A stressful interview, however, is at best a poor judge of future job performance, and at worst, harmful to the organization’s reputation, both as an employer and a brand.

According to recent research led by Julie McCarthy — a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management — candidates who exhibit higher levels of anxiety during job interviews are less likely to feel the evaluation process was fair, and less likely to recommend that employer to others.

“That has a broader implication for the organization,” she says. “[The candidate] will be less likely to use that organization’s products, they may be more likely to litigate, they are less likely to recommend that organization to others, and the list goes on.”

While the reputational impact might not be as extreme for smaller organizations, those that put tens or hundreds of thousands of applicants through their interview process could see a significant impact on their bottom line. For example, McCarthy points to a study in 2014 by Virgin Mobile, which found that the telecommunications giant suffered US$5.4 in annual losses from candidates who unsubscribed from their services following a negative application experience.

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McCarthy adds that while employers often use the interview to evaluate the candidate’s calm under pressure, a majority of roles won’t require them to demonstrate such skills on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, employers hiring for roles that do require them to manage stress should seek better ways to evaluate that skill.

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“Strong organizations will look at a job and conduct a job analysis to identify the core competencies that are really required to do well,” she says. “Then they will design their selection system so that they are intentionally examining those competencies through the kinds of questions that they ask.”

McCarthy also notes that while job interviews have always been stressful, for many the pandemic-related transition to remote interviews exacerbated the problem. The change of format is less comfortable to those who haven’t engaged in a remote interview before, she says. Recorded interviews can add to anxiety, while the ability to see your own image on-screen has proven to be emotionally taxing, she adds. Indeed, one of her recent studies shows that pandemic related stress has had a significant impact on levels of interview anxiety, which in turn has a detrimental impact on attitudes towards the hiring organization, as well as interview performance. (Between April and August 2020, McCarthy and her co-authors, Donald Truxillo, Talya Bauer, Berrin Erdogan, Yiduo Shao, Josh Liff and Cari Gardner, surveyed more than 8,300 applicants globally for the paper “Distressed and Distracted by COVID-19 During High-Stakes Virtual Interviews,” which was published in 2021 the Journal of Applied Psychology.)

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While pandemic-related restrictions may be easing, McCarthy says that many organizations will continue to use automated video-based applicant screening tools as a precursor to in-person evaluations moving forward. As a result, we need to continue to understand and develop best practices in video interviewing techniques, she says.

Through her broader program of research, McCarthy has identified several ways employers can help reduce interview anxiety.

During in-person interviews, she says a little bit of small talk can help ease tension. Furthermore, interviews that require more than one evaluator should be conducted at a round table, rather than having everyone facing the interviewee..

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There are at least three other elements employers can implement to reduce applicant anxiety and increase perceived fairness in a remote setting. First, it’s important to provide clear instructions, and to be transparent about what each element of the process is intended to evaluate. It’s also important to assure candidates that the application process is intended to evaluate tasks and skills that are familiar and isn’t intended to throw them off. Finally, thanking applicants for their time and effort can go a long way.

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Other tactics that have proven effective include injecting some humour into instructional elements and providing candidates with some degree of choice. For example, employers can let candidates decide the order in which they complete different parts of the evaluation.

“The perception of having some control can be really important, particularly in a world where so many things feel so out of our control,” she says.

The study was originally published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2021.

Julie McCarthy is a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management with the department of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]