HR managers in job interviews – ultimately the goal is to choose the best candidates but do they have other motivators driving them?

A lot of attention has already been paid to the applicant and the different facets examined in behaviour used to create the best possible impression. This is documented by countless self-help books and numerous research papers. High time to look at HR in more detail. A brand new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology has now been published that deals with the goals and self-presentation of recruiters in selection interviews.

On the trail of self-presentation

How people try to create a certain impression is the life work of the famous sociologist Erving Goffman. He compared the behaviour of people to a play, in which props are used. For example, he noted that in most homes, more expensive curtains are hung at the front than at the back. Soon psychologists employed themselves with the phenomenon of ‘Impression Management’ (IM) in job interviews. Here, various tactics are used to create a certain impression.

Impression management in interviews

What certain impressions recruiters try to create is the goal of a study by Amnika Wilhelmy, Martin Kleinmann and colleagues. The researchers chose a colourful mix of methods from in-depth interviews with experienced HR managers and long-suffering applicants. Observations from interviews as well as the examination of notes was used. An overview of the key findings:

1. Recruiters want to find the best candidates. This finding is admittedly not surprising, but yes: recruiters firstly want interviews to be a success. They try to make their company appealing to candidates. Many recruiters show enthusiasm by smiling and laughing. It was also reported that HR managers specifically select spaces that are visibly decorated- somewhat reminiscent of Goffman’s curtains.

However, recruiters find themselves with a small dilemma: To find out whether a candidate really fits, recruiters want applicants to be as open as possible, but this comes at a price. Openness can be achieved when common features between the recruiter and applicant are emphasised, however, a certain distance must be established to evaluate properly. In some cases, recruiters try and distance themselves by constructing a sense of superiority. This may be necessary if candidates are somewhat “difficult” (eg. know-it-alls).

2. Candidates are human beings. Good news for all candidates around the world: recruiters are humans too! A key finding of the study found that recruiters do care about how candidates feel after the interview. Recruiters deliberately try to ensure that interviewees walk away with a good feeling and preserved self-esteem – regardless of the selection decision. One respondent to the study stated that his ideal outcome is when candidates think: “Even if they don’t choose me, it is still a very good company”.

3. Selfishness. Yes, recruiters are people: This means that not all recruiters have only good selection decisions and the reputation of their employer in mind, but sometimes also pursue self-serving goals. This may include showing themselves and their colleagues that they are a good interview or promoting their own careers. A recruiter in the study even boasted to be the toughest dog in the HR department.

An important finding of the study was also that there are significant differences between different interviewers and to what extent they follow different objectives. The good news is that recruitment success and corporate image are primarily on their conscience. After this is maintaining the self-confidence of the candidates and the concern of legality – which is achieved by respecting professional distance. Career aspirations were actually rather rare.

Are candidates and recruiters really so different?

Despite all the differences, there are many similarities in the behaviour of candidates and recruiters. They both emphasise mutual fit and use the same non-verbal signals. The main difference is that recruiters pursue more than one goal, and often know how they can achieve this. The study does not show how different influence tactics affect the validity of job interviews, however another study found that presenting too much of a positive light can affect the ability of recruiters to assess candidates properly.