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Rise of the 12-step job interview

By Eric SchellhornSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2003

There was a time in corporate America when the boss took 20 minutes to size you up and skim your résumé before leaping to his feet and barking, "Kid, I like the cut of your jib. Welcome aboard!"

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But today, with employers comfortably ensconced in the labor-market driver's seat, hiring decisions based on instinct are practically unheard of.

Indeed, it's not at all unusual these days for a candidate to be grilled by six, eight, or even a dozen interviewers on various rungs of the corporate ladder as part of the overall screening process, say human-resources executives, headhunters, and other experts in modern hiring practices

"Many companies have made bad hires; now it's their market, and they're determined to find the people they want," explains Marie Raperto of the Cantor Concern, a New York City recruiting firm. "Even someone seeking a mid-level job has to be prepared to go through six or seven interviews," she adds. "It's endless."

"It's payback time," adds John Dooney, who advises the Society for Human Resources Management on its own hiring techniques. "Companies are picky, picky, picky."

Some headhunters and job seekers are skeptical about whether subjecting candidates to multiple interrogators increases the likelihood of finding the best people.

"Corporate America doesn't know how to select the best person, so what they do instead is cast a wide net, then deselect until they're left with the least offensive candidate," says Timothy Pickwell, a San Diego corporate attorney who sat for several interviews with more than a dozen different organizations before landing a position at a southern California restaurant company last year.

"You can't even get nine people to agree on where to go for lunch," he adds. "How can you expect them to agree on a person?"

But in an age where companies routinely boast about their teamwork ethos, nonhierarchical cultures, and commitment to "cross-functional" collaboration, it's easy to see why consensus now plays a major role in hiring.

Many companies known for attracting top-flight talent say they believe that gathering a wide variety of perspectives is essential to ensuring that the right person gets the job.

"We've used a group process for many years," says Melanie Jones, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, a firm often hailed as being among the most worker-friendly US companies. "We're all about people, and so we're interested in how [candidates] respond in group environments."

Particularly when it comes to executive positions, "there's a likelihood of numerous interviews, because a lot of people need to buy into the hire," says Marus Jastrow, a staffing manager for Sun Microsystems.

Ms. Jastrow says candidates are often the ones who benefit most from multiple meetings.

"When they get here, they'll find it easier to acclimate, and they'll be effective more quickly," she says.

Problems with group hiring arise when junior staffers or peers are given veto power in the final decision, says Bob Woodrum, a partner at executive-recruiting giant Korn/Ferry International.

Recounting a recent incident in which a candidate was dismissed by a Fortune 100 client despite having favorably impressed 11 of 12 interviewers, he notes that "everyone has a different agenda," and that such agendas - whether personal or political - can conflict with the organization's best interests.

"This was a case where 11 people had said, 'This guy's a hire.' But one person said the candidate wasn't enthusiastic enough, and that was it."

Experts readily acknowledge that there are both effective and ineffective ways to go about group interviewing. The worst examples involve situations in which a candidate is passed around to several interviewers who riddle him with the same set of questions.

This can make for a frightfully tedious experience for the job-seeker; it may also compromise the value of the sessions for the employer.

"When people all ask the same things, something interesting happens: The candidate gets better as he goes along," notes Lynn Nemser, an independent hiring consultant in Pittsburgh. "Well, guess what? You've given that person a dozen chances to refine and improve his answer."