The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled, “Tech Companies Say They Can’t Find Good Employees. The Companies May Be the Problem.” This article looks at a study done in November of 2020 that examines whether tech-industry job interviews are too stressful to be useful. So we decided to take a look at the study for ourselves to see what we could learn. We came away with some insights that we felt we should share.
If you want to read the study for yourself, here’s a direct link to it. And we suggest that you do. A lot of the content is handled via video, so it’s really easy to digest.
What does the study say?
This study – by Mahnaz Behroozi, Shivani Shirolkar, Titus Barik, and Chris Parnin of NC State University – took 48 Computer Science students and give them a whiteboard examination problem to solve. This type of technical whiteboard interview is commonly administered to software engineering candidates, and it’s designed to let the candidate vocalize their thinking process while being monitored by an interviewer.
The study separated candidates into two groups, a public group and a private group. The public group was asked to solve the problem in front of an interviewer, while the private group was allowed to solve the problem without an interviewer present. (For reference, 26 people were in the public group, and 22 in the private group.)
As it turns out, performance went down by about 50% when an interviewer was present, and those who did the test with an interviewer in the room reported higher levels of stress than those who could solve the problem privately.
This seems to suggest that this sort of interview weighs performance anxiety more heavily than actual problem-solving skill. While the intent is to weed out those with low problem-solving skills, it ends up instead weeding out people with high problem-solving skills who struggle with performance anxiety.
One of this study’s most shocking discoveries is that this test impacts women at a higher rate then men. In fact, 100% of women in the private group were able to solve the problem correctly, while no women were able to solve it in the public group. This suggests that these tests are strongly biased against female candidates. In an industry that’s notoriously male-dominated, interviews that discriminate (even unconsciously) against women can have a profoundly negative impact on the talent pool.
How does this impact non-tech industries?
Even though this study was done for the tech industry, using methodology specific to that industry, we think we can extrapolate some concepts that apply generally.
Most importantly, this shows that overly stressful job interviews can eliminate high-performing candidates if they struggle with performance anxiety. You might be tempted to argue that if a candidate can’t handle the stress of the interview, they probably can’t handle the stress of the job, but we don’t think that’s necessarily true. In fact, we suspect that this sort of thinking is part of the problem.
The interview process is by no means a 1:1 comparison to the daily tasks associated with the job. Interviewing is a completely different skillset than performance at most types of careers. People who perform poorly in interviews are only showing that they lack interview skills. In fact, even this might not be the whole truth; it’s possible that the interview process itself is flawed rather than the individual. If it’s the interview that’s broken, then it’s the responsibility of the company to fix it. Not addressing this might mean losing some of your best potential talent.
Missing out on top talent is a mistake that no company or organization wants to make. It’s impossible to say how many organizations eliminate highly qualified candidates with a broken interview process, but we’re going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably a lot. The study we shared backs us up on this.
No matter the industry you’re in, it’s important to analyze your interview process. Is something in the process causing otherwise qualified candidates to be eliminated? If so, you need to change the process immediately.
If your interview process is unconsciously designed to eliminate high-performance candidates, then you’re missing out on some of the best talent in the industry. Don’t let that talent end up at your competitors; examine your interview process and see how you can improve it.