A new conversation-based screening method is being tested in job interview situations by researchers at the University of Sussex to help businesses identify the best candidates for a job. The psychologists behind the new model believe it could help to eradicate a common recruitment pitfall that costs the UK’s small and medium-sized enterprises around £70 million every year, with one in five new hires leaving within six months.

Controlled Cognitive Engagement (CCE) provides a model for interviewers rather than relying on first impressions. These ‘gut reactions’ are nearly always unreliable, according to the psychologist behind the model, Professor Tom Ormerod, Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

“Anyone who says that they can make a good first-impression judgement is a bad interviewer,” says Professor Ormerod. “First impressions very often turn out to be wrong. We show people how judgements based on behaviour, disposition and appearance are much more misleading than they are useful. So it’s very important for interviewers to have a technique that gets them beyond their first impression.”

Professor Ormerod believes that the prevalence of poor interview practice across the UK creates “a huge amount of scope” for his model to have an impact. “It is amazing how many interviews are conducted without the interviewers having any training whatsoever. There are plenty of companies who will offer you training but what constitutes a high-quality interview is not clear. It’s seen as an art but I’m trying to put some science into it.”

The research was announced to coincide with the official opening of Sussex Innovation – Croydon, the latest hub to be opened as part of the University’s expanding business incubation network. The site was officially opened today by the Minister of State for Small Business, Anna Soubry MP, and the MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell.

It is hoped that Sussex Innovation’s member businesses could be among the first to benefit from Professor Ormerod’s model, thanks to close working relationships with University researchers. Professor Ormerod will be working with Sussex Innovation to take the research forward. “We can see a huge amount of scope for it and, through Sussex Innovation, we’ll be able to help small businesses ensure that they get the workforce they need,” he said.

Mike Herd, Executive Director of Sussex Innovation, said: “For growing businesses, hiring the right people is critical. Recruitment is a vital aspect of scaling up a business – and hiring the wrong people at such a delicate stage in a business’ lifecycle can be catastrophic – yet many entrepreneurs do not have experience or deep skills in interviewing.

“When you make your first few hires as a start-up, you’re really starting to establish a company culture and a brand. Most businesses start life very closely linked to the personality and qualities of their founder, but in order to scale you need to bring in complimentary skills, and build for a future where not every decision has to go through you.

“One way in which we can often support our entrepreneurs is by helping to build that management team around them. Part of the package for these kinds of hires might take the form of equity in the company, so it’s even more important to get the decision right. It’s easy to relate to people with a similar background to you, but this can often lead to hiring people with a very one-dimensional set of skills. It’s much better for businesses to build a diverse team, thus ‘filling the gaps’ around the founder’s experience and knowledge.”