• Merran Brown

A Brief History of the Job Interview




When you think of Thomas Edison’s best-known inventions, you probably think of the lightbulb, the phonograph, or the motion picture camera – but Edison made another contribution that affects people across the globe: The job interview.


Chapter 1: A leaked invention


Until the 19th century, most professional roles were filled by family members, apprentices, or by appointment. The industrial revolution spurned a huge demand for low-skilled labour, and it was relatively easy to replace workers whose performance wasn’t good enough. Trains and automobiles began to make the world smaller.


By the early 20th century, jobs were becoming more sophisticated and more college graduates were entering the workforce; but Edison was frustrated by their performance. As the shrewd manager of a growing business empire, he needed a better way to screen applicants.


· Where is the Sargasso Sea?

· What was the first line in the Aeneid?

· Who discovered the X-Ray?

· How is window glass made?


If you had showed up to Edison’s office for a job interview, these are some of the questions he would ask you. A few frustrated applicants told their story to the New York Times. Einstein himself took the infamous Edison test, and failed. Despite the fuss, or perhaps because of it, other employers began to mimic and modify the idea of testing their applicants. Thus the job interview was born – or so the official story goes.


Chapter 2: The rise of interview orthodoxy


Historically speaking, it isn’t clear how long it took for a set of common questions to develop; but by the late 20th century, every job applicant knew what to expect.


· What are your biggest strengths?

· What are your biggest weaknesses?

· What’s the hardest decision you had to make at your previous job?

· Where do you see yourself in five years?


These aren’t bad questions – they became orthodox for a reason.

Employers want to know where their candidates have been, where they’re headed, and what kind of work ethic and personality they bring to the table. The problem is, formulaic questions breed formulaic answers.

Chapter 3: Interviews in the age of cyberspace


The arrival of internet and social media turned many companies away from orthodox interviewing techniques. Hiring processes became more transparent, and competition for top talent became global. We began to wonder if the interview process had devolved into a stiff-collared formality that didn’t really get to the bottom of anything.


The answer for some companies was to be completely unorthodox. Creative teams incorporated elements of gaming and competition. In the early 2000s, Google was infamous for presenting candidates with zany questions that bear a curious resemblance to Edison’s:


· How many golf balls can fit inside a school bus?

· Why are manhole covers round?

· How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?


As companies cycled through various strategies, cyberspace continued to evolved. Video conferencing allowed live interviews to be conducted globally. Skills assessment tests and application screening software reduced the number of working hours required for hiring processes. LinkedIn became a global hub for the professional world.


As companies competed more aggressively for talent, the way we thought about job interviews continued to change. Aligning goals and creating mutual benefit became the modus operandi, although it remains easier said than done.


The future of the job interview


There are some technological developments on the horizon that could bring further changes to the way job interviews are done. Voice analytics are one of the more interesting ones. Both Australia and the United States recently issued patents to Sonde Health for its “vocal biomarker technology,” which is said to detect physical or mental illness in a speaker’s voice. Combine this with a smart bracelet that measures biorhythms and you have a good old-fashioned dystopia on your hands.


Perhaps the answers we seek aren’t as high tech as all that. Perhaps human analytics – i.e. people who develop advanced knowledge of people and markets to create better hiring outcomes – are ever and always the wave of the future.


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