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Recruitment interviewing in Sri Lanka: Problems and prospects

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We conduct interviews to recruit people to organisations. One common myth is that you can sit in an interview panel without any preparation. Some even sarcastically ask, “What is there to learn about interviewing?” It certainly goes beyond common sense. I have seen in many Sri Lankan institutions, interviewing is taken rather lightly and as such obviously selecting someone who is not the most deserving. Today’s column is an attempt to shed light on the nature and features of recruitment interviewing in the Sri Lankan context.
‘When you hire people who are smarter than you, you prove that you are smarter than they are’, so said Robert Henry Grant. Hiring the right person to the right job is important in order to achieve right results. The old adage ‘people are your most important asset’ is not always accurate, says Jim Collins. He claims that rather than “people”, it is the “right people” that make up the best asset of an organisation. Crucial challenge is how.
According to the United States Department of Labour, a bad hiring decision equals 30% of the employee’s first year’s earning potential. In Sri Lanka too, I have personally come across several situations, where companies had to pay badly in the wake of wrong person being on-board. We see such cases prominently featured in media as well. 
Right hiring 
It is pertinent to mention what David Oglivy, as an advertising tycoon, had to say with respect to hiring: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs, but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants.” In order to hire people with potential, the hiring process has to be professionally designed and executed.
“My company’s assets walk out of the door every evening,” said Narayan Murthy, the founder of Infosys. With such a great emphasis on human capital, it is critical for every organisation to resort to means that offer quality recruitment solutions at competitive costs. This is where the realm of hiring starts.
If you compare hiring to a process, there are three key elements, namely, ‘recruitment’, ‘selection’ and ‘placement’. Recruitment is the way in which an organisation tries to attract the people from whom it will ultimately make a selection. Placement is the final step of assigning a suitable job to the selected candidate. 
Interviews in a nutshell
An interview can be regarded as a critical step in the selection process. It is in fact a conversation between two or more people (the interviewer and the interviewee) where questions are asked by the interviewer to obtain information from the interviewee. Effective interviews provide an additional basis for comparing candidates, supplementing information gleaned from the applicant questionnaire and investigation.
Interviewers need to do three things in an effective interview, viz, define, discover and decide. They should know clearly what they are looking for in the ideal candidate. Then they need to check whether those attributes are present in the candidates. Finally comes the decision. 
The above process can be further elaborated by referring to its stages. They include: Identify: Defining the requirements, Specify: Developing the person specifications and Codify: designing the ways of testing the required specifications. In doing the above, job analysis is a vital exercise that need to be performed.
Different types of interviews are used, the one to one, the sequential interview, the panel interview and group interviews depending on the needs, customs and time constraints of the employing organisation. Their contents and conduct may very as given below: 
Structured interview: This is an interview that includes a predetermined set of questions that is addressed to each applicant. Before the interview is commenced this set of questions needs to be determined. Questions are direct questions to get the direct answers, and desired answers or expected answers are also developed. 
An example of the structured question for the post of Management Trainee could be “tell three key functions that a manager has to perform”. Structured interviews have the advantage of providing the same information on all interviewees, ensuring that all questions are covered with all interviewees and minimising the personal biases of the interviewers
Unstructured Interview: Here the interviewer generally follows no set of format. The lack of a structure allows the interviewer to ask follow-up questions and pursue points of interests as they develop. The interviewees for the same job may or may not get the same or similar questions. A few questions might be specified in advance, but they’re usually not, and there is seldom a formal guide for scoring answers. This type of interview could even be described as little more than a general conversation.
Semi-structured Interview: This is a combination of the above two where there is a skeleton structure allowing flexibility to the interviewer to probe further when required. The structure prevents the interviewer to go in a tangent yet allowing the discovery of the candidate better. This form is quite popular in Sri Lanka. 
Apart from the above, stress interviewing and behavioural interviewing are two other specialised forms with specific intents. In a stress interview, the interviewer seeks to make the applicant uncomfortable with occasionally rude questions. The aim is supposedly to spot sensitive applicants and those who with low (or high) stress tolerance. This type of interview is more suitable for jobs which are composed of highly stressful duties such as military, security, and peace keeping, etc. 
Behavioural interviewing
Behavioural interviewing is my favourite form. Here the emphasis is on the behaviour demonstrated by the candidate. In many a time, I have seen a candidate with an impressive CV nicely printed in colour is not so impactful in the face of a proper behavioural interviewing. It is essentially probing the behaviour of a candidate in the past. We call it as focusing on “critical incidents”.
“Tell me a situation in the past where you had to achieve a result under heavy pressure”. Obviously, this is not a hypothetical question and the candidate cannot create an imaginary answer. It is the smartness of the interviewer to allow the free flow of expressions from the candidate and probe deeper based on the answers. It should be done in a friendly and encouraging way rather than becoming a “criminal investigator”. 
The key advantage of a proper behavioural interview is that it will reveal the authentic nature of the candidate with associated strengths and shortcomings. It takes more time than a typically rushed casual interview and as such some busy managers avoid resorting to it. Also, you need to know what to check with regards to the job in hand, and the key dimensions of the job and that’s why the interviewers need some preparation. The problem in Sri Lanka is that the interviewer reads the CV for the time during the interview and browsing is done while the candidate is answering to a question. 
Hence the pre-requisite for a proper behavioural interviewing is preparedness from the interviewers and also the sharpness in asking, listening, probing and logically concluding. That is why every manager cannot automatically become an effective interviewer. 
Issues with the interviewing process
There can be many issues associated with the interviewing process. Let me summarise them as five “I”s, namely, inability, inconsistency, irrelevance, irrationality and interference. Let’s discuss these in relation to Sri Lankan organisations.
Inability is obvious when the top-most people just rushes through the interview without any flair for the process. The danger is that the leader’s decision may be the final decision despite the concerns by others. 
Inconsistency is very common in Sri Lanka where connections are considered more important than competencies by some leaders. You pick your favourite despite the competency gaps, leaving more deserving candidates. 
Irrelevance is one headache at some interviews where the interviewing panel gets carried away with irrelevant details missing out vital facts and critical aspects. A smart candidate can manipulate such a situation if the panellists go on a tangent focusing only on one area.
Irrationality is also common among some leaders where they look for the perfect candidate without willing to pay the asking rate. It is an illusion to attempt to get the best in the market whilst being reluctant to reward. Also there are the situations where you pick a candidate similar to your appearance or coming from your college or village without any rational justification. 
Interference is rampant in Sri Lankan organisations. Particularly where a clear and coherent policy framework is absent. There will be outside influence to the interview panel through a prior message from a powerful person at the top to intentionally pick a particular preferred candidate irrespective of his/her competencies. The panel in this case becomes a cat’s paw of someone else. 
It remains to be seen whether the impact of above “I”s can be minimised in the context of Sri Lankan organisations. 
Way forward
Interviewing is an art and a science. One needs to have expertise as well as experience in successfully handling recruitment interviews. Defining the right requirement, discovering the right match and deciding on the right candidate are the vital steps to follow. Sri Lankan managers, administrators and leaders alike can improve on all these aspects in order to ensure that the right person handling the right job in the right manner in producing right results. 
(The writer can be reached through director@pim.sjp.ac.lk, 
president@ipmlk.org or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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