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5 Reasons Panel Interviews Don't Work (and 6 Ways to Improve Them)

March 24, 2016

panel-interview.jpgThere’s a clear irony when it comes to panel interviews. On the one hand, many organizations use them and most people, at least those on the side of asking questions, prefer them to one-on-one interviews. It seems logical that having more than one person observe the candidate, will reduce bias and inaccuracy. On the other hand, every time anyone does a review of the effectiveness of the various types of interviews, panel interviews always underperform compared to the more traditional individual interview. So why would companies continue to use something that clearly isn’t as effective?

Why Are Panel Interviews Attractive?

There are number of logical reasons why panel interviews are attractive to companies:

  • Ease: By and large, they are easier to conduct for the interviewer. Instead of having to guide an entire one hour interview by oneself, as a member of an interview panel you might just need to ask 1-2 questions, maybe a couple of probing questions, and take notes. It’s a lot less stressful.

  • More Engaging: They seem to be more dynamic and interactive than one-on-one interviews. Because there are more people involved, there tends to be more back-and-forth between the people conducting the interview and the person responding.

  • Scheduling Efficiency: The biggest plus for panel interviews is that they’re more efficient – at least as far as scheduling resources goes. If you had four interviewers conducting one-hour one-on-one interviews with five candidates, that’s twenty hours of interviews that need to be scheduled. That could take several days, if not weeks, to accomplish. But, if you were able to get all four panel members together then they could run five candidates through in a five hour period, plus some time for breaks, lunch, etc. In other words, while there are still twenty person hours involved, you could accomplish all five interviews in one day.

  • The Pressure Cooker: Companies like to see how people respond under stress and the feeling is that panel interviews are more stressful for candidates than one-on-ones. This is probably true. It’s much more intimidating to sit across from 3-5 people than just one. The issue though is that most companies overemphasize stress tolerance as a core competency. If it is an essential part of the job then the added stress might be relevant, but if not, you’re going to give much higher ratings to people with comfort in front of larger groups, even if that has nothing to do with their job. Many incredibly gifted, hard-working, creative, and introverted people tend to perform terribly when placed in such situations.

  • Reduction of Bias: The primary reason that panel interviews are typically created is to reduce bias and allow for multiple observers of the same candidate behavior. The belief is that if more than one person observes the candidate’s responses, the multiple raters are able to discuss the candidate data, come to a consensus on disagreements, and end up with the most accurate candidate ratings possible. This is quite logical, however, the data does not support this increase in accuracy.

The Reasons Panel Interviews Underperform

OK, now that we’ve covered the reasons why people use panel interviews, here are the reasons they tend to underperform:

  1. Loss of Data: Limited time means limited competency areas that can be covered. While panel interviews allow multiple people to observe the candidate during a shorter period of time, it comes at the expense of competency coverage. Let’s say there are six really important job-relevant competencies that you want to cover in the interview. In a 1 hour panel, you realistically have less than 10 minutes per competency to get what you need. If you did four one-hour interviews, each interviewer could pick three competencies and you could spend 20 minutes on each, which would ultimately give you 40 minutes per competency – or four times the potential data. This is probably the biggest issue. You are ultimately just capturing significantly less information in the same amount of time. Even if your panel consists of just two people you would be gathering half the information you could gather in two one-on-one interviews.

  2. Group Bias: Interviewers get biased by the reactions of other interviewers. If you’re conducting an interview on your own there are already plenty of factors that can bias your opinion, but at least they are only your biases. When you get together on a panel and the mood starts going in one direction or another, positive or negative, then Groupthink starts to come into play and those biases tend to snowball. A poor answer to one question tends to get magnified in a group interview, and vice versa.

  3. The Boss’s Impact: People don’t like to contradict the boss’s opinion. If you are a member of a panel and your boss is also on the panel, which is not uncommon, you will be more likely to shift your questions and your ratings towards your boss’s position, even if you wouldn’t have done that on your own. It’s just human nature. In a group interview, especially if a higher ranking employee is on the panel, you will be more likely to self-manage your behavior and possibly your ratings, to be seen in a favorable light.

  4. Dominant Personalities: Strong individuals tend to dominate panel interviews, whether or not they are a good interviewer or not. Panel interviews can easily get derailed quickly by a dominant person on the panel who either monopolizes the time with his questions or takes the whole interview on a strange tangent. It’s hard to get an interview back on track, especially if the dominant individual is your boss or someone in a higher position.

  5. Biased Decisions: Data integration too often gets adversely biased by initial opinions. Talking about how you thought the interview went immediately after it’s finished, and before everyone has had a chance to make their individual ratings interjects a strong biasing factor. Imagine that the moment the interviewee walks out the door, the ranking member of the panel says something to the effect of, “Wow, she was impressive!” Do you think that might impact how you rate that person?

How to Improve Panel Interviews

Despite all the possible negatives, there are enough intuitively appealing reasons to conduct panel interviews that companies are going to continue to use them. So, if you find yourself heading down the panel interview path, here’s how to get the most out of them:

  1. Make them 50% longer: One way to capitalize on the scheduling efficiency of the panel interviews and overcome the loss of data, is to make them longer. From a scheduling standpoint, you will still be more efficient than one-on-one interviews, plus it will allow you to gather that much more information than the typical one hour panel interview.

  2. Assign questions to specific people: If you don’t assign questions to people then inevitably some people dominate the interview while others get pushed aside. Assign questions for specific competency areas to everyone on the panel.

  3. Assign a timekeeper/facilitator: Avoid the interview bully by assigning one person to keep track of time, keep the discussion moving and also to ensure that the interview doesn’t get off the rails and go down some strange tangents.

  4. Only cover key competencies: We’ve already seen that you lose the ability to gather information when you are in a panel. So, only focus your limited time on the most important competencies for the job. In most cases that number is five or less.

  5. Don’t talk about candidates until all ratings are made: Another important role for the facilitator is to ensure that people don’t talk about the candidate. Once the candidate leaves the room, everyone should finalize their notes and make their ratings – on their own – before making any comments.

  6. Make ratings, average them across the panel and then discuss: There is a lot of research on data integration and it always points in the direction of the value of averaging all of the ratings and then discussing. Trying to reach consensus before the ratings are calculated opens the door for too many unnecessary biases.

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Matthew O'Connell, Ph.D. Matthew O'Connell, Ph.D. was the Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of Select International, which was acquired by PSI. For more than 20 years, he was a driving force when it comes to designing, evaluating and integrating selection tools into systems that meet the specific needs of Global 2000 organizations. He is the co-author of the business best-selling book, Hiring Great People.