Hiring by audition instead of interview

In my experiences on both sides of the hiring process, I’ve found the concept of an interview to be very frustration and irrelevant.   Even as a hiring manager, I struggled to make the interview relevant.    A candidate presents on his resume his experience, training, and credentials.   Each of those can be confirmed if necessary by checking the references or asking for proof of the training or certifications.    Meanwhile, there is this obligatory face to face meeting where we are supposed to make the final choice.

What exactly are we trying to determine in the face to face meeting?    I read a lot of articles about how important it is to seek out information that is not in the resume.

  • This is an opportunity to test how thorough his knowledge is, but this essentially says we don’t trust the references or the certifications authorities, and if we don’t trust them then what’s the point of being impressed by them?
  • This is an opportunity to determine whether the candidate is a good fit: the candidate will stick around for a while and will not present a caustic presence that will cause other people to leave.   I’ve hired people who confirmed my expectations of good fit only to have them immediately leave due to personal reasons.   I’ve hired people who disappointed my expectations.   In my experience, the interview process was worthless for this project, but that probably indicated I need more training at becoming a better interviewer.  I welcome more training but I doubt it will really change things.
  • This is an opportunity to introduce the candidate to the work environment and principle players (bosses) so he can decide whether it would be a good place to join.   This opportunity makes some sense, but most candidates will agree to the conditions even as they complain during the interview about the location, facilities, or the commute.   They’ll take the job offered despite the obvious displeasure.
  • This is an opportunity for a subjective assessment of the candidate as a likable person.   It is an opportunity to discriminate on aspects that have nothing to do with the job.   I am convinced this is the primary purpose of the interview.   We throw in tests or trick questions to obtain objective facts to conform with our emotional assessment of the candidate’s likability.

In most organization the job interviews is the central ritual of the hiring process.   On one corporate job website, there is an extensive guide for preparing for the interview.  The guide starts off with a congratulations for being invited to the interview because it shows you already met the requirements of the job.   The guide then explains the ritual of what to do to have a successful interview.    My complaint is that the guide does not answer why the interview is necessary at all since they’ve already admitted that the invited candidate’s references and credential prove that he’s qualified for the position.    They are not going to learn anything new that is job related.

I recognize that the interview will talk about the job and provide quick questions to test the ability of the candidate to recall specific details on short notice.   However, I object that this tells them nothing new about those capabilities.   The interview offers nothing about how the person will perform in the real job.

For a personal illustration, I once landed an interview because of my experience working with complex SQL.   In the interview, they tested me by asking me how I would write a query to solve a particular problem that involved counting records into a set of arbitrary categories.    I came up with a solution by creating a temporary table to define the categories and then using a left outer join to apply the categories with an option to catch the null with a default answer.   Although the problem was simple, I reasoned their real problems are probably much more extensive and they needed the flexibility of having a separate table to manage the category definitions.   They were disappointed because they wanted to know that I was familiar with the CASE statement and its peculiar syntax.   It turns out their work involves extensive use of complex CASE statements.  I was able to show them that I knew a case statement, but I also indicated my dislike of them because they are so hard to maintain.    In effect my entire interview performance came out negative.   The interview gave me no opportunity to show that I’m very cooperative to adapt to whatever the local customs are.   The interview did not give me the opportunity to demonstrate that if they are comfortable with some approach that gets the job done, then I will have no problem following their preferences even if it was not my first choice in my last job.

The point of the illustration is that the process of the interview focused on challenging me on what was on my resume.   The only thing they were going to learn was to confirm my claims on the resume.   This may be useful information.  I know of some people who have worked years with SQL but only with the most basic join syntax to work with normalized tables.   However, I think it is a waste of time to assess this in an interview.   A simple reference check or a phone screen could answer that question.

The interview is a social ritual.   It’s purpose is like an initiation ceremony of determining whether an outsider may be admitted into the tribe that is the work place.    What amazes me is that interviews retain such a firm grip on its pivotal role in the modern hiring process.    There must be something I don’t know about how truly effective it is to find the best candidates.

I’ve interviewed many qualified people for single opening and often came away with the impression that each of them would have worked out fine.   In fact, I often leave the process wishing I could hire every one of them because each had something additional to offer.   That additional value wasn’t learned in the interview — it was right on their resume.    In the end I had one position and a recommendation to make.

The time between the interview and making an offer is when a decision is required.  We may like all of the candidates but we can only open one offer at a time.  That offer may require time to negotiate and we need to inform the others that we are no longer considering them.   After the interviews are completed, we have to make a commitment to the one candidate that is most likely to accept the job because if he doesn’t accept we have to start all over again.

The purpose of the interview supports the critical decision of which one of the candidates should receive the offer.    Perhaps the most important information we gain from the interview is whether the one we pick will accept the offer.

Meanwhile, we rejected the other candidates.   I do recall a few interviews where it was obvious he would not accept the offer, but this is a tiny minority.   Most were eager to accept either because they needed the work or they were excited by the opportunity.    They would have accepted the offer if we had extended it, although they typically try to negotiate.

My complaint in this post is  that the interview does very little if anything to help us pick which of several qualified candidates should receive an offer.    We know we have qualified candidates before the interview.   We can check their references.  If necessary, we can ask for background checks or drug tests.   We can do all of this without the face to face interview.

The only reason I can think of that explains why interview remains an essential part of the process is that tradition demands it.    Okay, I can think of another reason.  It is an opportunity to invoke the subjective assessment that the candidate is not a good fit.   It is an opportunity to discriminate.

By exploiting our capabilities to verify qualifications outside of an interview, we could simply drop the interview process entirely.   We can select one at a time from a pool of qualified candidates and simply ask them if they would seriously consider an offer that we are prepared to make.  If they decline, we’ll offer to the next one.

I would prefer a lottery approach from a pool of qualified candidates over going through the interview ritual.   However, I would much prefer to retain the opportunity to meet in person before deciding who should receive an offer.    I just prefer that process to not be an interview as it is commonly practiced (at least in my experience on both sides).

The alternative to an interview is an audition.   In many business environments, we need people to perform their duties.   In a sense, conducting business is a performing art.    The performing arts have a useful model for selecting candidates.    Just like in business, the performing arts will select candidates that meet some minimal qualifications of training and experience.   But instead of calling in the candidates to an interview, they call in the candidates for an audition.   A musician may be sent an unfamiliar score, or an actor will be sent an unfamiliar script only short time before the meeting.  During the meeting, the candidate will be required to perform.   The evaluation is focused entirely on that performance.

This is what I really want to learn in an interview.   How well does a candidate perform.   Some interviews do this by asking surprise questions and this does say something about how the candidate responds to surprise questions.   But that’s not very interesting to me.   Most of the time, the questions are not complete surprises.   Most of the time, the job is like that actor’s script: we know what we need to do.   What the manager wants to know is how well the candidate performs a task that the candidate specifically prepares for.

A realistic assessment would be to send in advance a realistic work assignment with a realistic lead time to prepare for it.   The in person meeting would involve the candidate performing the task or presenting the result.

For example, a sales job may involve the candidate receiving in advance some promotional material that he would be expected to sell this to the hiring manager during the in person meeting.    This is not an interview involving questions and answers prying into the candidate’s background.  This is a performance evaluated solely on how effective was this particular sales simulation.

An audition for software development may involve the following.  I would send in advance a set of sample data and some working code and ask that he become familiar with it.   During the meeting, I would present him with a system with that same same sample but with a new data set that causes a problem or a new requirement that requires a modification to the algorithm.    As in an audition when someone inside the group plays the accompanying part, I may have someone play the role of a colleague to work together to solve the problem.  But the meeting’s sole purpose is to evaluate that performance and get direct observation of the the key question of whether the candidate can perform.

This audition process appears to be very rare.  It may be prohibited (or the candidate may refuse) because is it an audition.  Consider the case of the actor acting from a script during an audition.  During that audition, the actor is performing.  That performance is not compensated.  An audition is a request to perform uncompensated work.    Even though the job is contrived, it is still asking the professional to operate at his professional capacity to deliver a work product.

If this is a problem, there is an easy work around.   Pay the candidate.   Essentially it is a very short contract to perform one hour of work at market rates.   We’ll evaluate that effort but he delivered it as a professional.   In fact, this compensated audition may be even more powerful by making it clear this is a serious professional performance.

As an aside, this is analogous to an older concept of an probational employment period.   The candidate is hired to do work for an initial fixed period of time when he is not a full employee.   At the end of the probational period, a decision is made to whether to extend a full employment offer.  If the offer is not extended, the job ends at the end of the probational period.   For a variety of reasons including liability for wrongful termination lawsuits, this practice is discouraged or avoided today.    It is a shame because this is the opportunity to observe from a candidate what matters most to a business: the candidate’s ability to perform.

The interview itself is a question and answer session that mostly involves topics the human resources department can handle.  Questions about the candidates job qualifications can be resolved prior to the interview with reference checks or confirmation of credentials.    This type of interview may be valuable to convince a candidate to accept an offer.

To convince the team that a candidate can perform, we need an audition.


2 thoughts on “Hiring by audition instead of interview

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on recruiting the unconscious mind | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Hiring by audition instead of interview | Hypothesis Discovery

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