From paying candidates not to work for them to asking them to drive the CEO’s car, employers are finding unique ways to put a prospective employee’s soft skills to the test.
BY JARED LINDZON
The evaluation process for those interviewing at Zappos begins long before sitting down at their offices and ends weeks after they receive a job offer, unbeknownst to many.
Because the company is based in Las Vegas, the online clothing and shoe retailer often flies in its candidates and offers them a shuttle ride from the airport. “The interview starts the second they’re in the shuttle, or when they hit the front desk,” says Christa Foley, the company’s senior director of culture and head of talent acquisition.
Foley explains that both shuttle drivers and front desk staff are instructed to report on the conduct of every candidate who arrives for an interview. “If someone is not pleasant to what they might consider someone in a lower position, that’s something we want to know,” she says.
Foley says that in its more than 15-year history, the company of over 1,500 has seen many candidates who were rude or pushy to drivers and front desk staff, only to turn on the charm when the recruiter arrived. They’ve also seen plenty who have wowed the staff, swaying the odds in their favor before the interview even begins.
Zappos is just one of many employers that have come to recognize that a traditional résumé and interview isn’t necessarily the best indicator of whether or not a candidate will be a good fit. That’s because both candidate and employer are (naturally) trying to paint the best pictures of themselves in interviews, résumés, and job postings. But, down the line, those exaggerations or inaccuracies can prove problematic.
Though many employers base hiring decisions at least partially on the institutions and employers listed on a candidate’s résumé, others feel those points are irrelevant. Instead, they value traits like self-awareness, adaptability, ability to multitask, and a power to inspire others. If asked in an interview, most will claim to possess those skills, which is why some employers are plunging candidates into unexpected, real-world scenarios as part of the evaluation process.
“The technology is changing so much what we do that it’s not useful to have any specific hard skills necessarily, because our needs are changing all the time,” says Gabriel Fairman, CEO of content localization platform Bureau Works. “I do not look at a résumé before the interview, because that will completely misguide me.”
PLEASE DON’T WORK HERE
Fairman says he’s spent his time as CEO finding ways to “deconstruct” the traditional interview process, expressing little patience for the charade of perfection that has come to define the interaction. There was even a time when he dressed up as a janitor to see how candidates greeted him, but he eventually felt that method was a little too deceptive.
Now he tries to provoke honesty and transparency by starting the interview listing all the company’s shortcomings, and urging the candidate not to work for him. “That changes the tone of the interview completely,” says Fairman. “If we start off the interview by being very truthful about who we are as a company, that’s an invitation for the candidate to also be honest and truthful.”
Fairman explains that while some will take him literally, others will push back, and engage in a more honest conversation about their own motives and ambitions, as well as their shortcomings. Not only does it help him better understand the true character of the candidate, but Fairman believes it begins the relationship in a more honest place, as neither party has to live up to an impossibly high expectation.
The tactic seems to be working. According to Fairman, there have been no unwanted departures in the previous 24 months, 96% of employees evaluate company culture as “good” or “great” in internal reviews, and Bureau Works maintains a 4.9 out of 5 rating on the employer review website Glassdoor.
Zappos, for its part, uses a similar method, offering trainees a full month’s salary to quit midway through the month-long onboarding process. “It’s more expensive to replace someone as time goes on, and they’re probably not doing their best work for you if they’re not happy,” explains Foley. She adds that the percentage of those who take the company up on its offer has dropped from about 8% to under 1% in recent years, which she attributes in part to the input of shuttle drivers and front desk staff.
THE PING-PONG TEST
Applicants to the internet marketing services company TechnologyAdvice once had to react to a curveball—actually, several dozen—following a formal interview. According to CEO Rob Bellenfant, the company used to engage every candidate in a game of table tennis as part of the evaluation process.
“We were not judging anybody’s ability to play the game, we were looking at the metadata,” he says. “Do they take risks? Do they ask questions to learn about the rules? Did they ask questions about how they were being judged through this test? How hard did they try? Did they give it a lot of effort or treat it like entertainment?”
Bellenfant also asked candidates to rate their own abilities before and after the games, which helped him evaluate their level of self-awareness. While some candidates declined to engage, those who did demonstrated an openness to new experiences. Though he no longer puts candidates through the ping-pong test—as it takes too much time and resources—he says the process taught him a lot about his own team members as well.
“We learned a lot about what our different teams valued across the company, and how some hiring managers put greater emphasis on different components of the table tennis test,” he says. “For example, the sales team values competitiveness. Other teams don’t.”
DRIVE MY CAR
Ron Kaplan has an even more nerve-wracking and potentially dangerous way to evaluate the personality traits of potential employees. The former CEO and current chairman of composite deck manufacturer Trex always conducts interviews in the morning and concludes by offering to take the candidate to lunch. As they approach the parking lot, however, Kaplan hands over his keys, insisting the candidate—who likely doesn’t live near their Winchester, Virginia, headquarters—drive his car.
“What I really want to see is whether or not they can multitask,” says Kaplan, adding he believes it’s one of the most valuable traits for senior managers. “What I want to see is how comfortable they are receiving multiple directions and getting questions at the same time. You can very quickly figure out who’s comfortable in that situation, and who isn’t.”
Kaplan, who’s been a company CEO or president for more than 20 years, says he developed the unconventional evaluation method after experiencing problems with hires who had stellar résumés.
“I’ve fired three Harvard MBAs in my life. They were all supposed to be really smart, and I’m sure they are, but geniuses are a dime a dozen,” he says. “What I look for is someone with the ability to attract talent, motivate talent, and hold them accountable. That doesn’t jump off a résumé.”
Other indicators Kaplan looks out for include how they describe their home life (“I’m not trying to make a judgment; I just want to see if they’re happy with it, whatever it is,”) and how concise their answers are to basic questions. (“If I’m asking someone if it’s raining and he’s telling me about cloud formations, I’ve got a problem.”)
While employers like Kaplan still confirm that candidates have the skills needed for the job, that’s only a baseline evaluation. Instead of superficial conversations between two parties trying to inflate their own value, he and others are finding unique ways to test the traits they believe are a better indicator of employee success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.