Can you trust the selection interview?

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

During a recent three-day workshop on agricultural labor management, presenters focused extensively on the selection of farm personnel.

During a recent three-day workshop on agricultural labor management, presenters focused extensively on the selection of farm personnel. During the last day of the seminar, class participants were divided into groups and had the opportunity to work on their interviewing skills.

The assignment for each of the four groups was to first come up with a basic description of a farm operation and then consider effective interview questions. Each group would have the opportunity to interview four separate equipment operator candidates. The assignment required a ranking of each equipment operator from best to worst.

While these farm managers and mid-level supervisors prepared for the interview, I met with the four ‘applicants.’ It was clear to all that they were not applying for a real job, but were helping us out in the seminar. Two of the equipment operators had been lent to us by neighboring farmers while the other two were employees for the large agricultural cooperative where the seminar was held. I knew that one of these two men only drove a tractor to empty garbage bins and do other like assignments at the plant. As I met with all four operators, I suggested to them, "Don’t be afraid to have fun here, and play the role of someone applying for a job. Feel free to make up any information you want to."

When the interviews were concluded, one candidate rose as the clear choice among three of the four groups, and the second choice of the remaining group. All four groups quickly and independently came to the same conclusion about the man who drove a tractor mostly to empty the garbage in the plant, and placed him at the bottom of the list as the least desirable. So much for my instructions "To have fun," I thought. This candidate had been candid about his experience.

The first surprise came when I asked the seminar participants if now that they had ranked the equipment operators, if they would like to know how the equipment operators ranked each group. As I have carried out this little experiment in many nations over the years, it is clear that while farmers are interviewing applicants, these applicants are in turn evaluating the farm employers, too.

The groups that score well with applicants tend to: 1) have all members of the interviewing team ask questions; 2) allow the applicant to speak more than the interviewers; 3) ask difficult questions but allow applicants to save face if they do not know the answer; 4) listen to and attend carefully to the applicant rather than allow themselves to be distracted or get bored; 5) have a sense of humor, while being respectful; 5) encourage applicants to ask questions; and 6) seem to be united in purpose and not at odds with each other.

Early on that morning, we had pulled the farm managers who knew any of the applicants away from the interviewing groups. I had suggested a practical test where the equipment operators had to back up a tractor (and make a corner) with an implement attached to it. They were to also develop one or two more practical tests.

After lunch these class participants were waiting for us by a course they had developed. They had situated bins in the place of fruit trees, and had spaced them in rows as if we were out in an orchard. Equipment operators were asked to then back up their tractor and implement down the road between orchard blocks, and then back up into a specific row.

The tractor operator who had refused to exaggerate his experience for the role play did a better job than any of us expected. The real surprise came, however, when the second applicant who had been provided by the farm cooperative had his turn. He had been the clear choice in the morning, after the interviews. Now, it turned out, he was having a great deal of trouble maneuvering the tractor without hitting the bins that represented fruit trees.

The cooperative had not told me that he was their truck driver, rather than an orchard equipment operator. Yet he had managed to come across so well in the interview that most groups had selected him as their first choice. I began to look at the faces of disbelief of the participants. "It must be the tractor," some suggested. The tractor the cooperative had provided was not very smooth, but both cooperative employees had had some experience with it and so chose to drive that tractor rather than a second tractor provided by one of the neighboring growers.

One of the axioms of employee selection is that interviewers look for information to help prove their perspective, and tend to discard information that contradicts it. "We want to see him drive the other tractor," they suggested. The driver did just as poor a job using the second tractor.

Practical tests are a much better predictor than interviews, of effective employee performance on the job. For more ideas on designing a selection process using practical tests contact the author at or download chapters two and three of the book Labor Management in Agriculture: Cultivating Personnel Productivity.

© 2004 by The Regents of the University of California. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

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15 November 2004