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Psychological Safety in the Interview Process

Psychological Safety in the Interview Process

By Kiahnna D. Patton

Kiahnna D. PattonTime to interview! Whose palms are sweaty? Likely the candidate’s, and maybe yours too as the hiring manager. I remember when I first started interviewing candidates. I was probably just as nervous as they were and barraging myself with a ton of questions.

Questions like:

  • Am I asking the right questions?
  • Am I making the candidate feel comfortable?
  • Do I appear comfortable?

Nervous feelings elicited by those questions and a healthy dose of self-doubt were especially heightened when the interview was for a critical role. Thankfully, I learned early not to strictly look for the unicorn candidate, but that knowledge didn’t take away the anxiety around making a wrong hire. What an employee relations nightmare and expensive misstep that could be!

Interviewers respond to their anxiety in different ways. Today, I want to reach those hiring managers who can’t resist intentionally making candidates sweat it out. This article speaks to those who fall into the “grill ’em” category and may not always get the talent they’re looking for because of their adversarial approach, even when it’s unintentional. We’re going to take a closer look at how psychological safety can be applied to the interview process. And I’m going to make a very broad-sweeping comment and suggest that recruiters are generally skilled at this, so this article is for hiring managers who may not interview candidates as often or who need a little help.

I adore the topic of psychological safety. It applies so far beyond the workplace. So, what is psychological safety, and what’s the case for it in the interview process or otherwise? Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t face negative consequences for speaking up, making mistakes, or taking risks. Here’s a graphic I like that shows what a psychologically safe workplace might look like.

Psychological Safety in the Interview Process

I’ve never understood why some interviewers aim to trip people up during the interview process. What’s the goal? Where’s the benefit? I say, stop the nonsense! Create a psychologically safe process that allows interviewees to be transparent, to think more clearly, to have less anxiety exacerbated by meeting with you, and one that allows for space for the two (or more) of you to decide whether or not it is a match.

You can ask questions to understand how a person deals with pressure, but if they’re not applying to be a firefighter or little league coach, why the stress test? Stop playing interview dodgeball with people. Play catch instead.

Here’s how you apply it to the interview process:

  • Be clear about what the role is and is not. It’s not uncommon for new hires to say they felt deceived because the job posting differed from the actual work they were responsible for, and for others, the questions during the interview did not align with the job description.
  • Share what makes the work environment psychologically safe.
  • Share what the candidate can expect of teammates and leaders if they make a mistake.
  • Be transparent. If it’s yet to be safe, what are you doing to remedy that? Where are you on that journey?
  • Give honest feedback and don’t be afraid to do so during the interview. Of course, do this without creating unreasonable organizational risk or violating the law.
  • Share ahead of time the specific topics you’d like to cover during the interview.
  • Pay attention and be curious.

I will go a little rogue here and suggest that candidates be allowed a do-over. What if you had the chance to go back and address questions or topics you thought you could have answered better or more fully to give a more accurate picture of your qualifications? What if you realized you made a mistake with something you said but could use your one do-over to correct it. And this is beyond the usually one-sided thank you note. It is a conversation. I love the idea of giving a one-interview do-over. I’ve never heard of this being done, but I think it would be a wonderful way to demonstrate psychological safety.

Think about what might result if you demonstrate psychological safety from the beginning of the employment relationship through the end. What might you be able to create in the work culture? “Studies on psychological safety point to wide-ranging benefits, including increased confidence, creativity, trust, and productivity,” according to CNBC post ( Hopefully, in the age of the great resignation and the oh-so-popular trend of new hire and candidate ghosting, more companies are doing away with the nonsense. Hire right, hire safely, hire on!

Kiahnna D. Patton is senior human resources business partner at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and a nonprofit founder.



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