Skills-based hiring has been making HR headlines and for good reason. Evaluating candidates for competencies is more reliable and effective and a critical step toward reducing bias and promoting equity in hiring. But embracing this approach means letting go of familiar yet ineffective practices that have become standard. Here are five common practices to avoid and what you can do instead.
Don’t Treat Interviews Like Everyday Conversations
Unstructured interviews without a predetermined set of questions may seem appealing with their open, free-flowing conversation style, but they typically fail to provide accurate information about a candidate’s ability to do the job.
In a piece about taking bias out of interviews, Swiss behavioral economist Iris Bohnet asserted, “While unstructured interviews consistently receive the highest ratings for perceived effectiveness from hiring managers, dozens of studies have found them to be among the worst predictors of actual on-the-job performance.”
Informal interviews run the risk of evaluating candidates differently based on the flow of the conversation or unconsciously favoring candidates from familiar backgrounds or with certain characteristics. This can cause you to place more weight on opinions about a candidate’s attributes rather than objective facts about their skills.
Do This Instead
Plan ahead for structured interviews. Before interviewing any candidate, think about the results you hope to achieve with your new hire and the knowledge, skills, and abilities—competencies—most likely to deliver them. Develop interview questions based on those competencies and use them with every candidate. Create a rubric or scale to rate their responses and focus on facts rather than opinions.
Don’t Ask “Tell Me About a Time When…” Questions
“Tell me about a time when…” questions ask candidates to recall anecdotes from their past professional experience. Behavioral questions framed in this way won’t give you useful information about a candidate’s ability to do the job in your unique work environment.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant shared in a Quartz article, “When you hire a new employee, their real-time critical thinking skills will prove essential. Their ability to frantically recall relevant anecdotes will not.”
These types of questions often come loaded with hidden bias. A Glassdoor article notes that poorly written “behavioral interview questions make it very easy to favor candidates who are members of ‘the club’ – people with shared experiences, such as certain colleges, interests, or demographics.”
And beware of behavioral questions that skew negative, raising red flags for candidates. “What is the biggest mistake you’ve made? What do you do when you miss a deadline? How have you managed working with a difficult colleague?” Asking questions like these may signal a problem in your organization. And it is unlikely that the candidate’s responses will accurately indicate how they would address these issues in an entirely different work environment.
Do This Instead
It’s okay to ask behavioral questions that draw on a candidate’s past experiences but frame them in a way that sheds light on their potential to perform well within your organization. Glassdoor offers this example: “Traditional behavioral interview question: Can you share how you have previously solved a complex engineering problem? Unbiased behavioral interview question: How would you solve this problem if you encountered it in this role?”
Our team recommends using both behavioral and hypothetical questions as long as they are open-ended, constructed to uncover specific competencies, and are not leading or biased. Preparing thoughtful follow-up questions will reveal that much more.
Don’t Ask “Rate Yourself” Questions
Asking a candidate to rate their abilities (for example, “Rate your expertise with Excel on a scale of 1-10.”) will not give you an accurate measure. Research shows that due to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, poor performers typically overestimate their abilities, while top performers typically underestimate their competence.
And there are bias implications here too. Owing at least in part to a pattern of being penalized for advocating for their achievements, women typically don’t self-promote as much as men. And negative consequences for self-promotion exist for other groups. A 2022 analysis by People of Color in Tech revealed, “Black employees who promoted their work were seen as less likely to ‘fit’ into the organization than those who didn’t.” Well-qualified candidates from groups that have been historically penalized for promoting their skills may be less inclined to rate themselves highly.
Do This Instead
Ask good questions to uncover the skills you are looking for (see above) and apply your own rating scale.
Don’t Ask About About Gaps in Employment
There are many reasons for gaps in employment histories, such as caring for family, dealing with health issues, being laid off due to economic circumstances, or simply deciding to make a career change and taking time to decide what comes next.
This information is irrelevant to a candidate’s skills and abilities, and asking about it not only runs the risk of putting them on the defensive but may expose your organization to legal liability if the discussion veers into disability, age, pregnancy, gender, family status, or other personal characteristics.
Do This Instead
Rather than focusing on gaps in employment, ask about the environments in which candidates were able to do their best work and what challenged them to grow. Think about your own work environment (norms related to how your team gets the work done, how you make decisions, etc.) and consider how the candidate might add to your organization’s culture. Understanding how a candidate’s skills and working style would complement your team will be a better predictor of their success than knowing what happened during off times in their work history.
Don’t Discount Candidates Based on Education and Credentials
Overlooking highly qualified candidates because they lack the “right” credentials or work experience can limit your candidate pool and unintentionally perpetuate inequities. As Byron Auguste, CEO and Founder of Opportunity@Work, explains in a Washington Post piece, “Employers have been sleepwalking into a system that screens out the majority of workers, including millions of people who possess sought-after skills.”
Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg highlights how the “push for hiring people with college degrees … has been particularly detrimental for workers of color who, due to historic inequities, proportionately don’t obtain college degrees at the same rate as whites.”
And education and work experience are rarely accurate predictors of success on the job. A recent McKinsey analysis found that “hiring for skills is five times more predictive of job performance than hiring for education and more than two times more predictive than hiring for work experience.”
Do This Instead
Before you pass over a candidate who lacks certain credentials or work experience, consider whether there might be alternate routes to developing those skills. If education or work experience is not essential to perform the job, leave them out of your job description, list them as preferred rather than required, or indicate that you are open to candidates who have developed skills through nontraditional pathways. This is an inclusive hiring best practice, drawing in as many qualified candidates as possible in the initial stages of your search.
For the research behind why a competency-based approach works (and why typical hiring practices like those listed above often fail), read our Case for Competency-Driven Interviewing.
And for step-by-step guidance on how to effectively evaluate competencies in your interview process while creating a positive experience for candidates, check out our Employer Guide to Interviewing.