The pitfalls of X-Factor-style interview techniques

What are the legal guidelines for interviewing job candidates?

Decisions about whether to recruit a candidate must be based on job-related criteria and not on grounds of race, age, sex, disability, marital status, belief, sexual orientation or nationality.

What has The X-Factor got to do with it?

Simon Cowell’s antics as a judge on the television talent show have highlighted an alarming interview trend that is creeping into the business world. A combination of humour, personal jibes and cutting criticism are being used to flush out weaker candidates. Many top companies have ‘auditions’ involving a gruelling day of role-play or team exercises in a hotel or airport lounge. It is a hot topic because the number of tribunals following complaints about recruitment procedures is rising.

How can we ensure that our assessment centre is legally watertight?

If you are responsible for managing recruitment assessment centres for multiple candidates, look closely at the suitability of those facilitating the event.

Assessors should be trained HR professionals, not managers plucked from the shop floor to help out.

Avoid overly personal role-plays that may refer to a person’s children, family, age or health. You should also ensure that role-plays are relevant to the job’s requirements, and not designed to ridicule or humiliate.

Assessment centre activities require complex and expert planning, especially where an overnight stay is concerned. Cultural requirements should be respected. For example, Muslim candidates should not be expected to eat lunch during the fasting month of Ramadan.

What sort of assessment activities are risky?

Many assessments last a whole weekend. Yet monitoring the way candidates behave at the dinner table or in the bar over a game of pool is exhausting for them, and also creates potential banana skins for employers.

The way candidates are judged on some tasks can only be subjective. Instead, you should choose tasks that can be assessed against measurable criteria for each candidate, and be able to justify each task that you ask a candidate to carry out. For example, some assessors ask them to take turns telling a joke as a group ‘ice-breaker’. If one person tells an offensive joke and it goes unchallenged by management, it becomes implicitly accepted. An expensive sex, race or disability discrimination claim could easily be pursued if the joker is not dealt with properly.

Asking candidates to perform overtly physical activities involving strength or speed may also discriminate against disabled candidates.

What can a candidate complain about?

Candidates can complain if personal comments are made about their appearance. For example, in the first episode of the current series of The X-Factor, one candidate was told that she looked like a man in drag, while another was told he would be better off dressed in women’s clothes.

The way some of the feedback is couched and appearances mocked in The X-Factor are clearly bad examples of how interviewers should speak to candidates. If a manager made similar inflammatory comments in an interview or assessment centre, a candidate could lodge a complaint, and your company could be hauled up in front of a tribunal. The legal implications could involve claims under sex, race or disability discrimination laws.

Notes made by assessors should not refer to people in a derogatory or discriminatory way. Comments such as ‘brown hair, big nose’ or ‘blonde, big breasts’ should never be used. Remember, under the Data Protection Act, candidates are entitled to see any notes made about them.
In the real world, such behaviour comes at a very high price – compensation is unlimited in sex, race and disability claims.

What is the worst that could happen?

The most high-profile gaffe of the year so far was the case of 35-year-old manager Saeed Akba, who tried to conduct a naked interview with a female candidate.

Akba left the interview room and returned naked – apart from a clipboard. When the candidate refused to strip off as well, Akba put his clothes back on and attempted to continue the interview as normal.

He said that he had wanted a “bit of excitement”. But what he actually got was three years’ probation, and a listing on the sex offenders’ register.

Comments are closed.