I have had exactly one non-panel interview in my entire professional career. It was with the Executive Director of the library system I was applying for at the time, a position several levels above the one I was applying for. I had lunch with the director as part of a full day of interviews and presentations, all the rest of which had a minimum of 4 interviewers in attendance. Come to think of it, even my lunch was not a one-on-one interview—an HR person was present, though they didn't do much talking.
Panel interviews are near-universal for government positions, and the vast majority of for-profit companies use them as well. Even initial phone-screen interviews are often done by a panel of interviewers.
Panel interviews are miserable for everyone involved. Candidates don't perform as well in them, the panelists are never satisfied with how they go, and they make the hiring process slow to a crawl.
Panels intimidate candidates
Let's get something out of the way: good interviews are about assessing how well the candidate can do the job based on their answers (which, in turn, should be based specific examples from their past experience). If you are the type of manager to say, "I want them to be intimidated. I want to see how they react under pressure," then stop reading my blog. There are too many things wrong with your view of the manager-employee relationship for you to get anything out of better-boss.com. With that taken care of, let's explain why panel interviews are problematically intimidating to candidates.
All interviews are intimidating. The interviewee is literally there to be judged. In an interview with a single hiring manager, that manager can set the person at ease somewhat by being a person themselves. A little small talk, a little humor about how interviews are awkward, etc. The candidate can see you as a human being outside of this situation.
This is impossible with panel interviews. As the number of people in a room increases, the social complexity of the situation multiplies. There is simply not time for every panelist to make a connection with the candidate. They are only judges in the eyes of the interviewee. It is a sea of strange faces deciding your fate.
During the interview, the interviewee tracks reactions, body language, and so on from multiple people, not just one. This is automatic—most people have no way to turn this on or off. Invariably, some panelists will be giving off body language that throws the candidate. This has happened to me even in a two-person panel. I was mostly speaking to one interviewer who had been giving me open, positive body language. Then I glanced at the other person, who was stone-faced. It completely threw me. Had I been dealing with the stone-faced person alone, I probably would have had the presence of mind to think "Oh, this is just how they look when they're listening." Because I was interviewing with multiple people (and interviews are already a massive cognitive strain), I simply did not have the mental resources to process it.
Panels practically guarantee biased selections
Those of you who have participated on panel interviews, be honest: have you ever given your full, unvarnished opinion of the candidates during selection?
The only person who can even think about stating their honest opinion is the senior-most manager in the room. Everyone else is at least subconsciously aware of the power dynamics going on. This isn't a matter of trust or openness. It is human nature. Yes, if you don't trust the senior-most person to reward candor, then of course you won't give your honest opinion. If you do respect them, though, then you will hold their opinion in high regard. You will trust their opinion of who to hire over your own, so you'll wait for some indication of who they liked.
None of this necessarily happens consciously or intentionally. As a hiring manager, I've seen it many times with my employees. The moment I give any indication that my opinion varies from theirs, they start trying to see it my way. This happens in spite of the fact that I want diverse, honest opinions from them. It is the cursed part of management authority at play.
Panel interviews are tailor-made to select whomever the senior-most person likes. You will appreciate the irony if you are aware of the history behind panel interviews. They were originally put in place to promote diversity.
Panel Interviews are a Scheduling Nightmare
This part is for all my HR folks out there. The scheduling burden typically falls to you. Thank you for dealing with it.
Scheduling may seem like a small problem compared to the two above. It is in third place, but it is still a major organizational issue. The idea of a panel interview is that the organization gets a diversity of opinions about who would fit the role. You get the direct manager, a second manager, a coworker, someone from a separate department who would interact with the employee occasionally, and someone from HR to ensure nobody asks any problematic questions. Assuming a properly busy workplace, it will be a minimum of 3 weeks out before everyone's schedule is open. Then there is vacation to deal with.
The day of, one person falls sick. Your organization has rules about how many people need to be on the panel. It can't just be anyone, either. We have to ensure that various roles are accounted for. Do we proceed with fewer people or swap in someone who doesn't technically fit the rules? Are we even allowed proceed?
Panel interviews are a huge part of the reason that positions go unfilled for months, leaving work undone and the current employees overtaxed.
If panel interviews are so terrible, why are they so common? There are some very good reasons. Stay tuned, our next post will explain.