The Only Way to Accurately Screen Applicants is to Watch Them

I have been hiring people, writing about hiring people and teaching people how to hire people for more than 30 years. Every year, I become more convinced that the only way to accurately screen people is to watch them in action. In other words, create simulations and run your most promising applicants through them before making the final decision.

There are any number of ways to accomplish this, ranging from the very simple to the very complex. Here are three that come to mind:

First, Southwest airlines used to conduct group interviews with prospective flight attendants. (I’m not sure if they still do this.) They would sit everyone in a circle and ask each person to stand up and talk about themselves and their background for a minute or two. What the applicants did not realize was that the evaluators were not judging each person on their speaking skills. They were watching to see how well the others in the circle attended to the speaker.

What they would observe would be everything from the applicant who demonstrated genuine interest in whomever was speaking to the applicant who spent all their time preening and perhaps showing impatience about having to go through this. Their reasoning for this exercise was simple. Which would you rather have on your flights; The attendants who were paying attention to customers or those who were self-absorbed when not serving meals or performing safety demonstrations?

Second, prior to the age of factory robotics, Toyota Motors would gather groups of applicants into a room. The evaluators would explain that in the corner were large boxes containing the components for 500 flashlights. The group’s job would be to assemble all the flashlights as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then they would simply say, “Go,” and watch what happened.

By observing individual and group dynamics, the evaluators could gain insights into the natural leaders, those with organizational skills, those with a detail orientation and so on. They could also ascertain those who lacked patience, those who followed others, those who talked more than they worked, and a host of other insights you would not pick up in an interview.

As a result, the evaluators could accomplish two tasks at the same time. First, they could determine who they wished to hire. Second, they could use these insights to determine which applicants would best fit which roles in the assembly process.

Third, the owner of a machine shop in Denver once showed me an aluminum puzzle he had designed. It consisted of about a dozen pieces. It wasn’t too hard to assemble, but it wasn’t too easy either. He would place the puzzle in front of applicants and ask them to assemble it while he watched.

What he was looking for, he told me, were several factors: How was their hand/eye coordination? How well could they see spatial relationships? How perseverant were they when they got stuck? How much patience did they display? How did they approach the exercise in general? Did they look at it with curiosity or as more of a chore? (This would indicate how they might approach projects day in and day out?) Time invested to create this simulation? Just what it took to design and machine the puzzle parts.

You may not own a machine shop, work for an airline, or oversee auto assembly. But the principles behind each of these exercises is adaptable. Including simulations in your screening process, even when there are few applicants to be had, is still a heck of a lot more accurate than three interviews and a resume review.

Smile ‘em In and Smile ‘em Out

I was reminded the other day of a story of an elderly woman who would stand at the entrance to her church on Sunday mornings before and after the worship service. She was there every single week simply smiling at everyone who entered. When the pastor asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m smiling them in and smiling them out. Doesn’t everybody need that?”

This story has stuck with me is because it illustrates one of the universal principles for determining whether anyone is going to be a good match for a job. The people who work most productively with others are those seek to work collaboratively. Therefore, it is essential that you screen for this attribute during the selection process, regardless of the position.

The sentiment, “Don’t hire people and teach them to smile. Hire People who smile,” has been attributed to a number of people. But regardless who first said it, embracing this principle is critical to ensuring productive, long-term hires, especially in customer care positions.

One airline with which I am familiar, used to use to an interesting strategy for screening flight attendants. They would gather groups of applicants into a circle. Then they would say, “Before we get started, let’s have everyone get up a take a minute to tell us about yourself. You can talk about anything you would like to share.”

This, of course, would unsettle some of the applicants. Few people like to be put on the spot like that. But what the applicants didn’t know was that the evaluators in the room weren’t watching the presentations. They were watching the audience. Predictably, some applicants would smile, pay attention and encourage those who were speaking. Others would glance at their smart phones, check their appearance, or generally grow bored with the process.

Which applicants would you want as flight attendants serving your customers? The airline felt the same way. Those with the “others-focused” demeanor were the ones to be hired. How can you adapt this strategy for use in your screening process?

Applicants can have all the qualifications in the world. But if they are not others-focused, they can be an energy drain on those around them and the firm in general. Look around. What can you do in your environment to promote this practice?