How to Take Your Candidate for a Test Drive

One of the greatest fears of a hiring manager is to spend hours reviewing resumes and conducting interviews only to hire someone who oversold her skills and isn’t qualified for the job she was hired to do. Interviews can be misleading–even if interviewers ask behavioral questions and seek examples from past experience–because many candidates have practiced the “right” answers that don’t necessarily reflect their actual skills.

The best way to evaluate skills is to see a candidate actually perform those skills, but many hiring processes aren’t set up to do this in a way that is useful to the interviewer or fair to the candidate. Although engineering and sales interviews almost always include a skills demonstration, most other departments still hire candidates based on first impressions and guesswork. If the hiring managers at your company are looking for a more concrete way to evaluate candidate skills, here are four considerations to help them implement a demo component to their interviews.

Set Boundaries

Although it might be nice to think that your top candidate is thinking about nothing else but the delightful prospect of working for your company and that she wants to work for you so badly that she’d be happy to do it for free, that’s probably not the case.

Top candidates are likely juggling multiple interviews–sometimes while they still have a day job. Keep an eye on the scope of any exercise that you create for a candidate. If there is a take-home component, it shouldn’t require more than an hour or two to complete from a qualified candidate. If you’re creating an in-office exercise, make sure it doesn’t greatly lengthen the time a candidate would need to spend interviewing with you.

Determine Goals

Are you hoping to see how a candidate thinks? Ask her to talk through the steps she would take to solve a hypothetical situation that’s similar to one she might encounter on the job. (Incidentally, this is a much better way to “see how someone thinks” than asking her how many grains of sand are on the beach or whether she’d rather be a hedgehog or an aardvark.)

Do you want to assess a candidate’s data and reporting skills? Give her some sample data to review and ask for her hypotheses.

Do you need a candidate who can work quickly under pressure? Make sure the activity is conducted on site during the interview and set a time limit.

Keep it Ethical

Asking a candidate to complete an exercise that mimics the actual work she would be doing in the role is essential. But asking a candidate to do actual work for your business without compensation is unethical. Fabricating a completely hypothetical exercise might be too lofty of an expectation for a busy hiring manager, though. Here are two suggestions to quickly create a data-analysis exercise.

  • Take your existing real data but swap the numbers and categories. For example, Simply Hired found that job growth overall vastly outpaced the growth of jobs described as fast-paced over the past two years. A useful candidate exercise would flip these numbers and ask the candidate to explain why employers are describing their jobs as fast-paced so much more this year compared to previous years.
  • Use real data from six months ago. Pull the type of data you would actually like a candidate to review–but only after you have already provided your own analysis. This will allow the candidate to see the exact work she would be doing in a way that doesn’t tempt you to pass her work off as your own

Be Explicit

Set expectations with your candidates about the purpose of the exercise, what factors you’re evaluating (creativity? grammar? accuracy? speed?) and how long the assignment should take. If you are providing a take-home assignment, explicitly state that they should spend no more than an hour or two on it. Otherwise, they may spend many hours trying to make their submission perfect.

Responses From the Field

While it’s aspirational to want to provide “real world” testing to candidates before hiring them, staffing departments and hiring managers need to balance what is helpful to the company with the overall candidate experience.

I have routinely asked my top candidates to complete an exercise before hiring them. These exercises have ranged from a 15-minute Q&A around sample data to a two-paragraph writing assignment. Over the past couple of weeks I circled back with my past hires and asked them for their feedback to those exercises.

One candidate, who was ultimately hired to manage marketing content and reporting, reviewed a content report from the previous year during her interview for about 15 minutes. I then came back into the room, and she verbally presented her findings and hypotheses. Because she didn’t know some of the nuances of our business, she was totally wrong on most of her findings. But her thought process was logical, her findings made sense for the amount of data she was given, and she rose to the challenge approaching the exercise with curiosity and enthusiasm. I hired her shortly after. Reflecting on that exercise, she said, “As the interviewee I felt the activity gave me more insight into what the job entailed, and it helped me with my decision [to accept the offer]. I was not quite prepared for it, and it caught me off guard a bit, but analyzing data is something I have a knack for and probably what made the job such a good fit.”

Another candidate was hired into a sales role. Since part of his job would be to review company data and present findings to potential clients, his exercise included a small hypothetical data sample and a series of written questions about the data. This exercise also took about 15 minutes to complete. Regarding the exercise, he said, “I think these kinds of activities are good. I was surprised by it, but not intimidated. It was nice to have a chance to showcase my skills, and it felt constructive. It was presented well because you explicitly said what you were looking for. And reviewing the results together was also helpful.”

If conducted right, a candidate exercise can be a valuable tool for both the employer and prospective employee.