Actions to take: In all cases, remember the purpose of panel interviews: to increase the diversity of opinions about who to hire. Take steps toward that purpose. As an organization, design processes that reduce bias and groupthink. As a hiring manager, directly instruct your panelists to form their own opinions. As just one of the panelists, watch out for issues, but be politically savvy about pointing them out.
We've talked about why panel interviews are miserable. We've talked about why they are still the best option for most organizations. Now let's talk about what you should do when you find yourself on a panel.
Remember our short history lesson about the origin of panel interviews. They were created because, when left to their own devices, solo hiring managers tend to hire people who look, think, and act like they do. This is problematic from both a legal and from an effectiveness standpoint. You don't want a team full of clones tackling problems. They'll all come up with the same (likely suboptimal) solutions. Panel interviews were created to add more voices to the hiring process.
It is debatable how well panels succeed in that goal. But there are some things we can do to make it more likely. Whether you are part of the decision-making body that determines how panel interviews are conducted, the hiring manager running the process, or just one of the panelists, you have some power to make panel interviews more effective.
This portion is for those of you who have some pull within the organization to create and revise procedure and process. We know the goal of a panel is to get an array of opinions about who to hire. We also know that, due to power dynamics, people will want to defer to whomever has the most authority in the room. We need to create processes that promote the latter and fight the former.
Developing unbiased interview processes is a complex task. It would take a series of posts just to cover the basics. But the concept is simple: put processes in place that force each panelist to think for themselves and form their own opinion about who to hire. Clearly state the goal of panel interviews on your instruction sheet for panelists. Have panelists rate each question on their own and rate or rank the candidates as a whole on their own. Train hiring managers to encourage and reward diverse opinions (it can be very difficult to genuinely thank a person for disagreeing with you). Encourage panelists to avoid discussing candidates until after they have all formed (and written down) their choices for who is best for the job. Consider creating a structured method for having that discussion (e.g. "We go around the room and state our choice and reason for choosing. After everyone has stated their choice, we will talk about differences of opinion..."). Create guidelines for making the final selection, particularly when the panel is not unanimous.
Do everything you can to push the process away from groupthink and toward independent decision-making. In the end, your process is likely to leave the decision in the hands of the hiring manager. But give them the chance to hear others' honest opinions rather than what others think the hiring manager wants to hear.
Hiring Manager Advice
As the hiring manager, you have more power than anyone else in determining how well your interview process goes. If the organization has procedures and instructions as described above, a bad hiring manager can nullify all that work in an instant. If the organization doesn't have effective guidelines, a good hiring manager can informally institute them for their interviews.
When you are in this position, take time with the panelists. Most interview processes tend to happen all at once on a single day. Ask your panelists to arrive 30 minutes early. Use that time to reinforce the purpose of of panel interviews. Explicitly state that you are looking for them to share their honest opinions. Instruct them to avoid trying to please you or anyone else on the panel. Instruct them not to talk about their opinions until the end. Give a quick overview of what they should be looking for in a candidate and how they should be rating ("Focus on the content of their answer. The things they say, not how they say it. Judge candidates on the specific work behaviors they describe, and how well that fits your picture of what an effective candidate would do...").
Again, even in an organization that has all the right procedures in place, smart panelists are still wary about stating their unvarnished opinions. If you take the time to say these things, you will set your panelists at ease.
When you are part of a panel, remind yourself of the fact that there are politics at play any time you are in a room with higher-level managers.
Those who are new to interviewing or new to management in general tend to ignore the context of a situation. When asked for opinions, they will guilelessly say exactly what they think. I would love to live in a world where that kind of behavior is rewarded. It typically is not. That's not to say that anyone will slap you down for it. More often you just...won't get the kind of positive reception you expect for sharing your thoughts. If your opinion is different from the hiring manager's, you just made complicated the situation by sharing your thoughts.
Again, diversity of opinion is what hiring managers should want. This is exactly the idea behind panel interviews. The reality is, most hiring managers want to pick the person they like with as little fuss as possible and get on with their day. Most bosses think they are right and don't buy into the belief that their biases are influencing their decision. If you have a different opinion, it is because you are wrong.
So, as a panelist, pick your battles. Don't just roll over, but do be smart about stating your opinion. Probe with questions about the candidates rather than outright disagreeing. Don't exclusively talk about your choice of candidate. Instead, say positive things to say about each candidate (excepting those who were obviously duds). When it becomes clear that your choice is not the same as the hiring manager's, make a decision about whether it is worth pushing back. If you do push back, again, don't outright disagree. Instead, explore their reasoning. Treat it as if you are trying to learn, to understand why you came to a different conclusion. Using this method, you will be able to tease out whether there is any chance of bringing the hiring manager around to your point of view. Or you may come to agree with their choice. Both good outcomes.
In some cases, the problem may be egregious. Perhaps it is obvious to that the hiring manager is going with a candidate for a discriminatory reason. In those cases, don't beat yourself up for failing to react right then and there. In fact, that may be the least effective strategy. Immediately after the selection meeting, take time to thoroughly document the facts. Talk with trusted colleagues & mentors about whether to escalate the issue. There are risks to you, so don't make that choice lightly.
After you have done a few, panel interviews are a mundane affair. I remember getting so frustrated early in my career when I saw hiring decisions that were obviously based on frivolous details (Sure, their answers were great. "But did you see how wrinkly their sweater was?"). Accept the fact that, just like every organizational process, hiring is not perfect. Improve it where you can by using the advice here, and learn to live with the imperfections.
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