How Experiential Interviewing Can Help You Hire Better Talent

By Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A. LCPC
Society for Human Resource Management
May 8, 2018

Experiential interviewing has the potential to create win-win outcomes for employers and candidates alike. For employers, it’s an opportunity to observe candidates doing real work (rather than just talking about it.) For candidates, it’s an opportunity to showcase their skills and gain firsthand knowledge of what the job entails.

When Carrie Silvers (not her real name) interviewed for an HR assistant job with a large insurance company, the hiring team was initially skeptical about her relational skills.

“There were long pauses between sentences that made her seem socially awkward,” said Scott Wintrip, founder of The Wintrip Group, a Florida consulting firm and author of High Velocity Hiring: How to Hire Top Talent in an Instant (McGraw Hill Education, 2017).

Working in tandem with hiring managers, Wintrip designed a hands-on experiment to determine whether Silvers was suitable for the role. To test her employee relations skills, a current company employee was asked to role-play a disgruntled employee so that Silvers could demonstrate what she would do to defuse the situation.

“She blew everyone away with her ability to calm the employee down,” Wintrip said. Watching her in action, they realized that those awkward silences masked a genuine skill for listening and empathizing. She further allayed their concerns with her explanation of her seemingly slow delivery.

“She explained to the employee that she needed to take a little time to think through what she wanted to say because it was important to get it right,” Wintrip said. The hiring team was so impressed with her skill that they made her an offer on the spot.

Designing an Effective Process

To begin integrating experiential interviewing into your hiring process, Wintrip recommends creating a hiring profile that details the specific skills and qualifications needed for each open position, along with a non-negotiable list of deal-makers and deal-breakers. Use the information to design a scenario that enables candidates to produce relevant “sample work”: Programmers write code. Sales reps make a sales call. Marketers create promotional materials.

Ideally, candidates will also have a chance to interact with future co-workers to evaluate how well they work together. Programmers can debug code together. Sales candidates can team with sales managers to develop an effective sales pitch. Marketers can collaborate on a marketing campaign.

“Planning is key,” Wintrip said. “Any time you try something new, it’s going to be clunky at first.”

Serah Morrissey is complex director of human resources for Westin Edina Galleria in Edina, Minn. High turnover rates are commonplace in the hospitality industry, a challenge that she attributes to two inter-related problems. First, hiring managers make offers without fully vetting applicants; second, candidates accept offers (because they need a job) without really understanding what the job entails.

“Instead of asking theoretical questions, we decided that it would be better for everyone involved if the candidates actually showed us how they would perform in the job,” Morrissey said. “That way hiring managers can observe candidates in action and candidates can get a real sense of the job.”

Morrissey worked with hiring managers to stage guest rooms. Then, to test the housekeeping candidates’ attention to detail, candidates were asked to find the housekeeping no-no’s (e.g., crumpled tissues under the bed, hair in the sink.) These experiential interviews have helped minimize staff turnover.

Persuading Hiring Managers

Although there hasn’t been any turnover in the HR department since she joined the company in 2016, Morrissey believes that experiential interviews are an effective way to evaluate candidates for HR roles, as well. For example, a benefits specialist might be asked to compare two dental plans or write a memo explaining a recent hike in insurance premiums.

When asked what she’d look for if she needed to replace herself, she zeroed in on one of her greatest challenges.

“My job is to train managers and guide them through the paradigm shift moving from [using] dialogue” to experiential interviewing. Toward that end, she might recruit one of those resistant managers to role-play his reactions and then ask candidates to demonstrate how they would persuade him to try a different approach. An astute candidate might also ask her for proof that experiential interviewing works—information that she would happily share.

“Those managers who have adopted experiential interviewing have hired better quality employees, and they have far less turnover compared to those who rely on traditional interviewing,” Morrissey said.

This dovetails with Wintrip’s decades-long, multicompany research showing that 95 percent of the candidates who were hired because of a successful experiential interview stayed in their positions for at least one year.

Despite that success rate he, too, has found that many hiring managers are reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace this approach.

“Hiring has been stuck in its old ways for a long time,” Wintrip said. “It isn’t going to change overnight.”

Rather than trying to change the entire organization, he recommended focusing on the early adopters. Not only are they likely to be natural trailblazers, but their success may persuade “doubting Thomases” to give it a try.

“Shout their successes from the mountaintop,” Wintrip said. “Or better yet, ask them to shout their successes from the mountaintop. … Success becomes infectious.”

Improving the Candidate Experience

Experiential interviews are popular with candidates as well.

“It’s like test-driving a car before you decide to buy it,” one candidate said. “You have a much better idea of what you’re getting.”

Wintrip is convinced that when companies focus on improving the candidate experience, they are also strengthening the employer brand—an important key to attracting top talent in a competitive market.

After receiving numerous complaints from candidates about the lack of communication from hiring managers during the hiring process, HR managers at Intuit, a San Francisco software company, jettisoned their traditional approach in favor of a more dynamic, experience-based process.

A proprietary assessment tool called Assessing for Awesome (A4A) was the centerpiece of this new approach. To create the tool, they asked hiring managers and high-performing employees to identify key skills and attributes that were necessary to be successful in the role. Then they developed a format that allowed candidates for technical positions to showcase both hard skills and soft skills. This included:

Speaking for five minutes about themselves.
Speaking for 15 minutes about two or three projects that they were proud of.
Preparing a 15-minute presentation on a case study or coding exercise.
Participating in a 25-minute question-and-answer period.

At the two-year mark, data showed that experiential interviewing improved the candidate experience as well as the quality and speed of hires. Another welcome benefit was that hiring managers became more invested and engaged in the process from beginning to end.

Job Auditions

In the LinkedIn Talent Solutions 2018 Global Recruiting Trends survey of 9,000 talent leaders and hiring managers, job auditions were identified as an effective hiring tool to minimize interviewer bias, assess soft skills, improve candidate experience and create a strong employer brand.

Job auditions (or pre-employment tryouts) add a unique twist to experiential interviewing. By paying candidates to do real work over a period of days or weeks, employers gain greater insight into each candidate’s abilities and personality.

Mogul, a women-only social media platform in New York City, attributes its low turnover rate to the inclusion of a “trial run” as a final step in the hiring process. After several rounds of interviews, candidates spend a day in the office doing the actual job. This allows hiring managers to observe and understand the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses—and it gives candidates a chance to immerse themselves in the culture, meet their future co-workers and test out the fit.

It seems to be working: Not one employee has quit the company in the last three years.

Entelo, a San Francisco recruiting software vendor, gives prospective hires a slightly different approach. The company gives finalists projects to work on at night or during weekends. The paid trial period lasts two to four weeks, and approximately one-half of these finalists receive full-time offers.

At Weebly, a San Francisco web hosting service, candidates work a “trial week” as a last step in the process. (Candidates who can’t take a week off from their jobs are offered flexible schedules.) During that week they are paid to work on a standard project. On the last day, candidates give a project presentation to a small group. About 75 percent of the candidates who make it to this step receive offers within an hour. (The remaining 25 percent either didn’t perform well or didn’t pass what the company called the “a-hole test.”)

CEO David Rusenko credits the trial week with saving the company from having to fire people later on. And he believes that it makes it easier to integrate new hires into the company because they already know what the work is like and are familiar with the people they’ll be working with.

“Allowing candidates to show not only who they are but what they can do helps them shine,” Wintrip said. “And it helps hiring managers more accurately assess the candidate’s qualifications in order to make the best possible decision. This way, there are no surprises or disappointments.”

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.

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