An alternative to recruitment interviewing

| June 23, 2015

Looking at hiring new staff? Adam O’Donnell reviews how to ensure that you get an accurate picture of who is going to join your business.

I’ve had a few conversations recently with clients and colleagues about the shortcomings of interviews when recruiting staff.

It’s often said, accurately I believe, that we tend to hire someone on aptitude and fire them on their attitude. The challenge for managers hiring staff is that an interview is a useful tool for exploring aptitude but not much else.

Even a very skilled and experienced interviewer will struggle to get a clear picture of the candidates underlying attitude which will fundamentally shape how they behave over the longer term – how they work as part of a team, for example, or how willing they are to take responsibility for their mistakes.

Sure, we can ask the question as part of the interview but then is anyone really likely to tell us openly that they only help those who can help them or that they generally try to make errors look like someone else’s fault?

So if it’s so difficult to assess attitude, or character, in such a formal and controlled environment as an interview, how do we do it?

There is a way, it turns out, and it’s really very simple.

Take away the spotlight
When Sir Richard Branson produced his reality TV show The Rebel Billionaire he wanted to get an insight into the character of the contestants who would compete for a $1m cash prize and the opportunity to be the president of the Virgin Group for three months – insight he wouldn’t get from a simple interview.

Disguising himself as an elderly cab driver, he drove each contestant to their accommodation and watched and listened carefully. In front of the cameras, he figured, he’d see their best performance – the person they wanted him to see – but he wanted to see what they did when they felt that nobody was watching.

These insights, Sir Richard figured, would give him a good indication of how they would behave when the stakes, and their stress levels, were much higher. The person who stands by and allows an elderly cabbie to clearly struggle with their bags, he reckoned, would also quite likely allow team mates to struggle rather than help and perhaps even let them fail as long as they themselves got to look good.

Sweat the small stuff
Sir Richard was putting into practice the Buddhist philosophy that how you do anything is how you do everything.

It’s a concept that for decades has underpinned the process of selecting candidates for service in Special Forces.  During the selection course there’s rarely a time when a candidate isn’t under observation and not just the big stuff – quite often it’s the little things that give the greatest insights into a man’s character.  When he goes to fill his water bottles, for example, does he offer to take his teammate’s bottles too or does he just look out for himself.  When there’s a simulated casualty to be carried, does he step forward to take his turn even though he’s almost at the limit of exhaustion or does he hide in the background and let others do it instead.

The problem, of course, for hiring mangers is that they don’t usually have the luxury of putting their candidates through a game show or pushing them to the limits of physical and mental exhaustion.  So how do we incorporate this concept into our hiring process?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question that will suit every situation but there are a couple of principles that will help.

Principle 1. Know what you’re looking for
Get together with some trusted advisors and work out a (very) short list of qualities you regard as critical in new hires, then work out what the opposite would be.  Try to avoid motherhood statements and go for more concrete expressions where possible.

A good friend of mine once ran an out-bound call centre, but don’t hold that against him.  He knew that he could train people to do the job well but only if they weren’t afraid to hear rejection after rejection.

Principle 2. Know the signs
Ask yourself a question – “how and where else would these qualities show up?”
My friend realised that many people he employed (and then subsequently fired) would find excuse after excuse to not pick up the phone.  They would spend days reading and re-reading the scripts rather than trying them out and having the phone hung up on them.

Principle 3. Look beyond the spotlight
The trick is to not to create situations where candidates feel that the spotlight isn’t on, but to create situations where they think it’s on someone else.

My friend’s solution was simple – he met with potential candidates and pretended he was running late with another interview. Then he would hand them a script, put them at a desk and suggest that they give it a go to see how they got on before rushing off to his “interview”.  Then he went to his office and watched the light that would indicate when they picked up the phone.

Most would do nothing other than read the scripts, waiting for him to return so they could tell him how great they were.  Some would even lie and tell him how much they enjoyed making the calls.  Only a very small handful would actually pick up the phone and risk failure and rejection.

They were the ones he hired – the ones who just picked up the phone and gave it a go.

This step is limited only by your imagination – could you use a group discussion session, perhaps, where the syndicate has to go away and find a solution to a problem?  The twist is that one of the group would actually be an observer playing the part of yet another hopeful candidate, watching to see how people perform away from the spotlight.

Principle 4. Remember that one pixel doesn’t make a picture
Whatever you do, remember that it’s only one small insight into a person’s character.

Of course, we’re all prone to moments of fatigue, forgetfulness or lapses in judgement – that’s part of being human – and so one incident was regarded as exactly that; a lone incident.  Of course we can’t excel at everything – what we were looking for instead was the guy who would give every task his best shot and take responsibility when things didn’t work out or he fell short of the mark rather than try and hide his shortcomings or failures hoping that we didn’t see them.  What we were looking for in the SAS was a consistent pattern of behaviours that would indicate that the candidate was the sort of person we would at some point perhaps have to trust with our lives.  Or not.

Is it a perfect process? Of course not, but over the years it’s proved to be a lot more reliable than just asking them.



One Comment

  1. Avatar

    Petras Surna

    June 29, 2015 at 6:42 am

    I own a custom software
    I own a custom software business and have tried it all with interviewing techniques. The Microsoft way, the Google way, the gut feel way and on it goes. I don’t know if it applies to everyone but by far the most successful technique has been to ask candidates to do real work. Real work that needs to be done exposes weaknesses immediately and accurately. By immediately I’d say after 4 hours you will know a lot about someone on a real world task. Most employers go for theoretical questions to test candidate knowledge but I have found it difficult to simulate the real world of subtleties, nuance and multitude of factors we take for granted in what we expect employees to do.