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You’re hired! UB researcher discusses history of job interview

Thomas Edison's frustration in hiring workers who could meet his expectations prompted him to devise a questionnaire that was the first of its kind and became a model for how to evaluate job candidates.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 1, 2016

“In 1921, (Thomas Edison) devised 146 questions that he asked job candidates. This questionnaire was the first of its kind and became a model for how to evaluate job candidates.”
Paige Sarlin, assistant professor
Department of Media Study

Any list of designs and devices credited to Thomas Edison is usually one entry shy of an accurate accounting of his prolific output.

In fact, the provenance of this pervasive invention is rarely mentioned at all.

It’s the job interview.

Its modern form is attributed to a frustrated Thomas Edison, according to Paige Sarlin, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study, who will discuss the history of the job interview at the next Scholars@Hallwalls lecture at 4 p.m. March 4 at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo. All Scholars@Hallwalls events are free and open to the public.

“With Scholars@Hallwalls, we invite members of the UB community and the broader public to come together over wine and cheese, and hear exciting new arts and humanities research,” says Libby Otto, associate professor of modern and contemporary art and executive director of the Humanities Institute. “Rarely do we stop to consider this nearly invisible, yet hugely influential form of information gathering and exchange.”

This research pursuit grew out of Sarlin’s larger project that examines the history and social significance of the media interview. That work will culminate with the forthcoming book, “Interview Work: The Genealogy of a Cultural Form.”

“I found the job interview to be a fascinating inter-text to that story,” she says. “On some level, it’s the opposite of the interview as media text because the job interview is never meant to be public. It’s a private, ephemeral experience.”

The job interview emerged during an early 20th-century shift in American hiring practices.

Technology changed the dynamic, and in this new world the established idea of first-come, first-hired was not always a rational approach.

Edison’s needs and those of his companies were more complex. Efficiency and profits were determined by more than mechanical production.

Edison had to ignore the generic hiring hall model and turn instead to college campuses to fill critical vacancies. And though professional schools were, at least on paper, producing the people he needed, in practice he soon discovered that having a degree implied a range of ability and knowledge. Many of the mathematicians, engineers and physicists he hired failed to perform to his expectations.

An exasperated Edison watched a parade of professional flops exit his many companies not long after they entered.

Something was flawed.

So the inventor and entrepreneur, who improved upon as many existing devices as he created, dedicated himself to bettering the hiring process.

“In 1921, he devised 146 questions that he asked job candidates,” Sarlin says. “This questionnaire was the first of its kind and became a model for how to evaluate job candidates.”

Prior to Edison’s refinements to the hiring process, the U.S. military had introduced new ways to place recruits in regiments.

“During World War I, the Army developed the Woodworth Personality Test, a 110-question psychological evaluation developed to assess how a potential soldier would interact with others,” says Sarlin. “While Edison’s questionnaire measured a job candidate’s knowledge and intelligence, these evaluations gauged an individual’s social skills and their ability to work in a group.”

Although Edison’s framework didn’t concern itself with the social aspects of work, his questionnaire and the Army’s testing blended to deepen the interview process.

Eastman Kodak started interviewing applicants shortly after Edison introduced the practice, and it wasn’t long before the job interview started entering American business practice as quickly as Edison’s phonographs and Kodak’s cameras were entering American homes.

What Edison codified eventually became the open interview process, less structured and more conversational.

Sarlin says another shift in the 1980s coincided with the development of the IT industry along with legal precedence and employment legislation that drove the free-form job interview back to something that is today closer to what Edison devised nearly 100 years ago.

“One of my chief interests is the significance of technology in the transaction of the job interview,” says Sarlin. “Ever-changing technologies necessitate training, but new technologies also facilitate the training itself.”

From Skype interviews to forms of online interview, technology is the job interview’s constant backdrop, giving rise to its creation and refining its development.

In addition to her book, Sarlin also is developing a documentary film on job interview training.

Curiously, despite a century’s worth of evolution — and perhaps to Edison’s perpetual dismay — the job interview process is not a reliable tool.

“The return of the structured interview has made things a little better,” Sarlin says. “But the job interview is still not strongly predictive of job performance.”