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How to Interview Your Applicants Based on Science

Imagine you’re the HR manager at a medium-sized company in Dubai.

A candidate walks into a job interview and you immediately notice a stain on their shirt and an overbearing perfume. You shake their hand; it’s not the most confident handshake you’ve had, and now you’re wondering if this candidate is really interested in the position at all…

You tell the candidate to have a seat and you proceed to use those split-second judgements you just made to justify why this candidate wouldn’t be a good for the role (just because of their stained shirt, perfume, and handshake).

And that’s why we need to know how to run unbiased interviews.

Bias is engrained in our DNA. As humans, we form opinions, make decisions, and reach conclusions based on unconscious biases. Our biases become especially apparent when we need to make choices; like picking friends, partners, employers, or interviewing candidates for that new Sr. Civil Engineering role on your team that has nothing to do with stained shirts and perfume…

So, how do we run unbiased interviews, properly?

Our hiring and interviewing process

Before we get into the nitty gritty of confirmation biases, situational interviews, and cognitive ability tests, let’s take a look at the basic steps of our hiring process at Oliv:

  1. Telephone pre-screening: Determines if the candidate’s qualifications, experience, workplace preference etc. are in line with your organization. It also saves time and omits unlikely hires.
  2. In-person interview: Gives you the chance to gauge communication skills/style, personality fit, and discuss past experience.
  3. Assessments/tests/trial day: Time to test the chops! These can be done on-site, at home, or any other way that is convenient, to test the candidates for job-related knowledge.
  4. Second/final round of interview: Gives you and the candidate an opportunity to ask final questions, meet with the CEO (every one of our new hires meets Jean during the interview process!), and get a better idea of what the company does.

How do you create your own hiring system?

Before you begin searching, plan out what qualities you want in a candidate. Ask yourself what the best candidate would look like and once you have that down:

  • Hire the people who are better than you. Especially at the tasks you need fulfilled or the skillset your team may be missing.
  • Search for your ideal candidates in the best places. Utilize university events, alumni groups, professional associations, and platforms like LinkedIn and Oliv to find who you’re looking for (and don’t settle for anyone less!)
  • Create structural changes to combat bias in the hiring process. Structure your interview process to include pre-determined assessments, tests, questions, and reviews. Include people of all levels but leave the actual hiring to the unbiased group
  • Build your process to make the candidate fall in love with the role, the team, the company, and the mission because “we spend more time working than doing anything else in our lives”.

Trust your first impression. Not.

Three things happen before an interview begins: Eye contact, communication, and handshakes. And unfortunately, we make decisions about candidates based on those three things within the first few seconds of meeting.

This practise of making hasty judgements is called “thin slicing”- where we use a few seconds of observation to make big decisions. When we like something, we find reasons to like it more, and when we don’t like something, we find reasons to dislike it. We do this during interviews too. A 2000 University of Toledo study found that making hiring decisions based on thin slicing during job interviews was as effective as a lengthy interview and deliberation process.

However, what’s really at play during the thin slicing, is confirmation bias, not accurate decision making. And there are plenty of other biases at play as we navigate through the world (like, 20 more of them!).

Employers often spend 30 minutes of an interview justifying their personal, first impression of the candidate and not in conducting a fair assessment of fit into the job.

Structure interviews for even the most unstructured roles

Structured interviews are just as predictive as cognitive tests. They help employers gauge a candidate’s past and future actions, attitude, and behaviours in real or hypothetical situations. Such questions are typically presented as “what would you do if…” or “tell me about a time where you…”; these questions focus on the why instead of the what.

Assess the best fit, literally

85 years of research on assessments and structured interviews tells us that when it comes to predicting employee’ work performance in a job:

  • Number of years of work experience predict 3%
  • Reference checks predict 7%
  • Assessments of conscientiousness predict 10%
  • Unstructured interviews predict 14%
  • General cognitive ability tests predict 26%
  • Structured interviews predict 26%
  • Work sample tests predict 29%

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Work sample tests win outright, even though they’re not perfect indicators, but having some sort of assessment or test ensures, at least up to 29%, that the candidate will be successful in the new role. We use assessments (e.g. writing algorithms or code for engineering/IT-based roles), work samples (e.g. writing blog posts for the marketing team), and trial days (e.g. day-in-the-life of the support department) for all of our new hires.

General cognitive ability tests are also great predictors because they come with objective right answers that take into account a person’s ability to learn new things as well as intelligence.

How many brain teasers does it take to find the best candidate?


Brainteasers (“how many tennis balls can you fit a bathtub?”) are worthless in an interview. Chances are candidates have already seen those brainteaser questions you’re about to ask them and googled the best responses extensively, so the questions aren’t going to get you any accurate or reliable information about intelligence, skills, or fit.

Pulling it all together

Using a variety of interview techniques and assessments yields a better result than using any single one, scientifically and situationally.

Give interviews the freedom to ask their own questions if absolutely necessary, but, to remain neutral, limit bias, and treat every candidate equally, have a pre-determined structure for interviews. It means less time spent preparing for interview questions and a more reliable process.

Examples of Structured Interview Questions

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As a team, we recently read Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, Ex-VP of People at Google. We couldn’t stop talking about it (so much so, we ended up having a workshop to implement some of the tips into our own team) and here are some of the questions and follow-ups we recommend from it:

  • Tell me about a time your behavior had a positive impact on your team.
    • What was your primary goal and why?
    • How did your teammates respond?
    • Moving forward, what’s your plan?
  • Tell me about a time when you effectively managed your team to achieve a goal. What did your approach look like?
    • What were your targets and how did you meet them as an individual and as a team?
    • How did you adapt your leadership approach to different individuals?
    • What was the key takeaway from this specific situation?
  • Tell me about a time you had difficulty working with someone (can be a co worker, classmate, client). What made this person difficult to work with for you?
  • What steps did you take to resolve the problem?
  • What was the outcome and what could you have done differently?

Job interviews carry a heavy load of vulnerability for the candidate. Give them the time of day and invest in every single candidate that you meet. Rest assured they will be sharing their experience with other people and whether you choose to hire them or not, it’s the right way to treat people.

As Bock put it, “they’re [candidates] making a bigger decision than you are… companies have many employees, but a person has only one job.”

What are your weaknesses?

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Set up hiring committees to make the final hiring decisions and not the direct line manager. This keeps the process structured, fair, and constantly improving.

So to sum it all up: invest in creating a structure for your interviewing process that utilizes assessments, minimizes bias, treats all candidates equally, and is able to highlight the talent and skills that your team may be missing.

Oh, and, don’t try to throw your candidates off with a “how many paperclips do you need to form a chain around the Moon?”

Unless you’re NASA, of course.

PS. We have a lot more yummy hiring tips, get them straight to your inbox

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