The origins of the job interview

Historic image of a job interview

It’s easy to take things for granted. Take job interviews, for instance. It certainly seems like we’ve been anxiously hurling ourselves into these one-on-one interrogations since the beginning of time. Yet, 100 years ago, the job interview was still in its embryonic state.

Let’s go back a bit and take a look at the conditions that gave rise to the job interview as we know it.

The 19th century and the rise of the unskilled worker

In the later Middle Ages, productive humans divided themselves up into guilds. There were guilds for bakers, cobblers, and merchants, to name a few, where everybody looked out for everybody else, masters taught apprentices, and apprentices grew up to be masters. Life was good.

Then one day, somebody decided that there simply weren’t enough things being made, and that the best way to increase production was to take the guilds and divide them up even further. Trade guilds were divided and subdivided so thoroughly, in fact, that they weren’t really guilds any more, but rather individuals with a whole lot of free time on their hands, desperate for something to do.

Then, the men behind the industrial revolution – with names like Stephenson and Hargrave and Cockerill – started devising miraculous machines, and continued to encourage the dividing trend by dividing work itself. It was no longer necessary to master every tedious step in the production of something.

Now, one merely needed to master one simple repetitive task, perform that task, then pass the item being produced on to somebody else. And so it went down the line until – voila! – a group of mostly unskilled labourers were suddenly producing all sorts of things that could be sold for spectacular profits. It was the perfect marriage of labour and machinery.

And then, Thomas Edison happened.

The 20th century and the birth of the personality test

Home-schooled and self taught, Edison accomplished what probably couldn’t be accomplished today. He changed the world through innovation without possessing a degree in anything from anywhere.

As a telegraph operator at Western Union, Edison revolutionized the way people communicated with each other over long distances. Later, he invented a contraption that captured and released sound – the phonograph. Later still, in 1879, he made it possible to illuminate the world when he patented the first commercial light bulb.

It’s not surprising, then, that such a relentless innovator should be credited with inventing the job interview too. Or, at least one crucial element of it: a highly idiosyncratic personality test given to the many potential employees eager to work for him.

Though the fundamentals of this kind of test actually appeared a few years earlier. In 1917, the US Army developed a set of 116 questions to evaluate the psychological suitability of recruits. The purpose of the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet was to try to determine whether they would be able to withstand intense levels of stress, and assess their ability to work with others. Created with the input of psychologists, the questionnaire was intended to divide applicants into personality categories, giving a sense of what “type” of person a recruit was, and, whether or not that type could adapt to the role of a soldier.

And with that, the personality test was born.

Edison, on the other hand, wasn’t looking for good soldiers. He was seeking sophisticated, intelligent employees that possessed know-how and the same kind of restless, innovative drive that dominated his own mind.

News clipping about Edison's famous job interview personality testBy 1921, thanks to increased college enrolment, the pool of educated individuals available to employers was plentiful.

However, the autodidact in Edison wasn’t impressed by degrees. Eventually, he concluded that no amount of education guaranteed the kind of quick-wittedness he was looking for.

After firing one too many hires, he wrote up a 146-question test covering everything from world history to cosmology – and had applicants take it before he’d even consider hiring them. Newspaper articles were written about how notoriously difficult it was. Even Einstein allegedly couldn’t pass it.

The 21st century and the increasingly competitive market

Today, anyone who has been interviewed would probably recognize the fundamental elements of the Woodworth and Edison tests.

We’ve all heard the stories about Microsoft applicants being asked, “How many golf balls does it take to fill a 747?” Or the SpaceX interviewee invited to answer, “When a hot dog expands, in which direction does it split, and why?” Or how a Whole Foods Market hiring manager wanted to know, “Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?”

And, many of us have heard about Amazon’s “Raising the Bar” method of hiring, where five or six employees volunteer to take turns grilling applicants, ruthlessly hunting for recruits deemed to be as good as, if not better than, themselves. It’s like getting the soldiers to do the recruiting (and certainly a way to cut costs on hiring managers).

As in Edison’s time, the job interview has come to reflect the employers’ quest to find employees with more than mere technical competency. Companies are looking for staff who can function in challenging environments while exhibiting wits quick enough to match the CEO’s high standards.

Whether it’s an in-person interview, over the phone, or on Skype, the fundamental principles haven’t changed. In an increasingly competitive and global market, the egghead with the greatest amount of degrees won’t always come out on top. Sometimes it’s the person with an aptitude for quirky questions and an ability to stay cool under fire who will ultimately win the game.

See also:
Management lessons from NASA’s James Webb
7 interviewer mistakes you need to stop making right now
8 interview mistakes hiring managers make


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