The power imbalance in hiring

Hiring for Tech
May 18, 2020

A seesaw, where one side has six boxes, and the other side has one box. The side with one box is lower, despite only having one box.

Let’s admit it: interviews simply aren’t balanced. Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. While I believe it’s more relevant in a strong hiring market, it may be more impactful during the current recession.

One truth every interviewer must internalize is this: the interviewer has power over the candidate. In a recession, that’s probably not controversial, but it holds true even when companies say there aren’t enough qualified candidates.

How much does an interview cost?

If I want to interview at a company, there’s a high cost, even if the cost is not monetary. I first have to prepare for the interview. I wish this wasn’t the case, but today, the reality is that preparation is necessary. I also have to take time out of my work schedule. Interview typically happen during regular work hours. This may be an hour out of my schedule, or it might be the whole day. For an onsite, I may even have to fly somewhere and stay at a hotel for the night.

For the interviewer, the cost is very low, both in effort and money. The time commitment is spread out across many individuals. At many companies, recruiters talk to candidates first, schedule interviews, etc. Even for full-day onsites, individual interviewers probably only do a single one-hour session. To make those sessions easier to conduct, companies usually have standardized question banks the interviewer will pull from. Everything is done by phone/video conferencing, or is situated in the interviewer’s office.

The company as a whole definitely may be spending money and losing productivity through the hiring process. But the costs are spread out across many candidates, and for the individuals involved, their time commitment is built into their job responsibilities. So, an interview costs a candidate much more than it costs any single interviewer.

What do I have to lose?

The same dynamic above leads to a strange incentive structure. If a candidate doesn’t get the job after an onsite, they’ve lost a bunch of time. The preparation time can apply to other interviews, but the time taken off work is gone. This is especially a problem for those trying to break into a good job in the first place, meaning they don’t currently have much vacation time or flexibility.

But in the same situation, the individual interviewer lost an hour, and they go back to work like nothing happened. Because interviewing is part of their job responsibilities, participating in the hour-long session was expected. And that’s the fundamental issue with the interview process: the interviewer doesn’t have much incentive to hire the candidate.

The effect on the interview

All of this is reflected in how the two parties perform in the interview. The candidate has a lot on the line, so the process induces nervousness. Their default state is not being hired, so they have to prove they are hire-worthy.

The interviewer, in contrast, is relaxed. If the candidate gets rejected, the interviewer goes back to their regular work. No big deal.

For this reason, it’s really important the interviewer realize there’s a power imbalance. They need to put in additional work to make the candidate feel comfortable, as well as account for the candidate’s nervousness. After all, that nervousness is only natural.

Interviews present challenges for candidates, and much of it comes down to the power imbalance between candidates and interviewers. Even with a generally good hiring process, with carefully selected questions and friendly interviewers, the power imbalance needs to be accounted for when evaluating the candidate.

I don’t know if I can change the mind of a company that wants to take advantage of the greater-than-usual imbalance during the current recession. But for any company that’s still hiring and wants to treat its candidates with respect, keep in mind the best candidate for the job may be one who’s feeling the most stress.

This post was sent out on the May 18, 2020 edition of the Hiring For Tech newsletter. Subscribe to get future editions sent to you by email, once a week.

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