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2/26/12 - Job Interviewing, To The Extreme

Some firms are using offbeat interview practices to get a real-time look at how prospects tackle problems, think on their feet and work as part of a team.

By Tiffany Hsu, LA Times,0,2901045,full.story

Danielle Bemoras showed up for her job interview with a social networking company prepared for some tough questions. Instead, she found herself in the middle of a psychology experiment.

The company had invited a fellow job seeker to the dinner meeting in Chicago, looking to see how the rivals would handle the pressure of a joint interview.

Awkward? No question. But Bemoras just rolled with it. She avoided alcohol to keep her head clear. She skipped the sushi to prevent chopsticks mishaps. And rather than try to upstage her competitor, she was respectful and collegial.

"I was in a sorority and had gone through that type of thing during rush," said Bemoras, now 22. Her clutch performance won her a marketing internship followed by a full-time position with SceneTap, a digital night-life guide headquartered in Austin, Texas.

Welcome to "extreme interviewing."

No longer satisfied with sorting through resumes and screening applicants the traditional way, some companies are using offbeat interview techniques to test the mettle of job seekers. Skills, education and good references are still important. But firms increasingly want a real-time look at how prospects tackle problems, gin up new ideas, handle change and work as part of a team.

To assess these amorphous qualities, interviewers at some firms have adopted aspects of reality shows, quiz programs or Broadway auditions.

Google Inc. is renowned for peppering candidates with brain twisters such as "You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown in a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?" according to the book "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?" Hewlett-Packard takes the same approach: "If Germans were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it?" Tony Hsieh, chief executive of online shoe retailer, likes to ask potential hires, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?"

Often, there's no right answer, said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder, an online job board and career consulting company.

"They want to know how creative job seekers are, how they respond under pressure, whether they're more right-brain or left-brain," Haefner said.

Some just want to see how well applicants can think on their feet. According to career website Glassdoor, recruiters at one marketing firm told applicants last year to "just entertain me for five minutes; I'm not going to talk."

Companies are running job seekers through a gantlet, in part because they can.

With about 12.8 million Americans still unemployed, employers are being deluged with resumes. That gives the screening process heightened importance — firms have loads of qualified people to choose from, but a bad hire could hang around for years. Two candidates who look identical on paper and handle traditional interviews well may perform quite differently when pushed out of their comfort zone with extreme interviewing tactics.

"Companies are being more innovative not just in finding people who fit the work but also those who fit the culture," said Charles Purdy, a career analyst for the Monster job listing website. "As the workplace changes because of society norms and technology, the classic job interview is going to change as well."

Enter Twitter. Minneapolis advertising agency Campbell Mithun asks candidates for its internship program to apply in a series of 13 Twitter messages. Limited to 140 characters with each tweet, candidates are challenged to show their stuff in a small space.

"We're looking for digitally savvy, creative thought leaders, and the 13-tweet process gives applicants a real opportunity to demonstrate these capabilities," said human resources director Debbie Fischer.

New York-based social media marketing agency Likeable Media recently conducted an interactive group interview on Twitter to fill a social media manager position. The interviewer tweeted questions and candidates answered using a common hash tag that allowed them to see one another's messages.

Syracuse University graduate student Alyssa Henry, one of the participants, said the "free-form" style put her at ease. She didn't get the job but said she's grateful for the experience.

"I'm used to communicating using that platform, and it also took some of the pressure off since there wasn't someone looking at you waiting for an answer," said Henry, 23. "You're getting to have that first conversation with a potential employer without that stressful crunch-time feeling. I got to be myself."

Reality shows such as "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" have also influenced the interview process by putting the spotlight on social IQ. How an employee clicks with a team and affects its chemistry can be as crucial as an individual's unique talents.

Cole Harper, chief executive of SceneTap, which provides real-time information on the crowds at nightspots in Austin and Chicago, said good people skills are crucial for his employees.

The online start-up takes groups of applicants out to bars to see whether "they get along and play nice in the sandbox or get paranoid and defensive and throw each other under the bus like on 'The Bachelorette,'" Harper said. He said job seekers who spend their time trying to one-up other applicants are usually nixed.

"The last thing you want is for someone to spend their energy trying to prove they're better than someone else," Harper said. "At a small company, if one person fails, it's going to hurt the entire business."

Even candidates for entry-level jobs are facing tougher scrutiny.

Want to sling sprinkles at Pinkberry? The chain requires applicants to brainstorm commercials for its frozen yogurt and then work in teams to devise a marketing plan for a hypothetical product such as a paper cup. Those who make it to the next level have to answer questions such as "If you could invite three leaders to dinner (living or dead), who would you invite and why?"

That's a lot of effort to screen workers, often for entry-level jobs. But Pinkberry said the effort pays off. Such exercises "allow us to see immediate impact on team connectedness, demonstrate service and leadership skills and unveil entrepreneurial spirit," the company said in an email.

But while some applicants reveal a creativity that might have been smothered in a more conventional interview process, others expose tics and weaknesses that might have remained hidden.

Digital marketing company Acquity Group asks job candidates to come up with a pitch on the spot to promote the virtues of that company.

Jim Newman, Acquity's executive vice president of operations, recalled a promising job seeker who seemed confident and articulate through his presentation. That is, until he inserted some X-rated imagery into the pitch.

"It was awkward," Newman said. "Otherwise, he was pretty good. But then all of a sudden it was like, 'What is this guy going to say when he's in front of a client?' He didn't get the job."

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Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times,0,2901045,full.story