Some Companies Go Nontraditional to Find Right Fit

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 23, 2012
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Andrew Johnson, 23, landed the full-time job as master model builder at Legoland Discovery Center Chicago in March 2012, becoming one of four people in the U.S. and eight people in the world to hold the title of master model builder at the company.

But landing the job required facing his employer’s nontraditional screening process, which included submitting a one-minute YouTube video and participating in a public build-off with seven other finalists before a panel of eight judges—including an HR professional—plus a 100-member audience and NBC TV cameras.

Children in the audience were allowed to talk to the applicants as they worked on three timed Lego-building challenges. Audience members could vote on which candidate they liked best.

Legoland chooses to go nontraditional in its candidate screening because “there’s not a traditional day here,” said Cassi Weber, general manager of Legoland Discovery Center Chicago.

The person hired had to be creative at developing models for the thousands who visit the center, to interact easily with children and the news media, to enjoy working with Legoland guests, to be able to think and respond quickly, and to serve as the center’s “face,” Weber said.

The video had to show something the candidate had built with Legos, but the application process involved some traditional elements: cover letter, resume and online application. Those making the first cut had an initial phone interview with HR.

“It was a lot of extra work for us,” Weber said of the unusual process, but “we needed to test the skills of those [finalists].”

Welcome to the new world of nontraditional candidate screening.

In 2011, a Minneapolis advertising agency began asking candidates for its 10-week paid summer internship program to apply in a series of 13 Twitter messages over 13 days for a chance at an interview. Some of those interns have gone on to become full-time employees.

It “gave our applicants the opportunity to showcase their digital understanding and creativity while highlighting their personality and passion for advertising,” said Debbie Fischer, Campbell Mithun’s vice president/HR manager, in a news release. “We were blown away by tweets that basically created personal applicant campaigns by presenting content, industry insights, and, quite frankly, a lot of great humor.”

The process allowed applicants to take advantage of Twitter’s linking functionality to make their case beyond their 13, 140-character messages by connecting to video, pictures, documents, websites—anything they chose.

One applicant in 2011, for example, linked to scenes from a graphic novel, another to a video of her hitting the ski slopes. In 2012, another applicant invited fellow applicants to a tweet chat he created to talk about the application process and the advertising industry; the company could view screen shots of the discussion.

Using social media in this way, Fischer said, was “innovation at its best” and reflected the culture at the 79-year-old company where all employees are encouraged to tweet and be digitally savvy.

Relinquishing Control

It also required a different internal strategy.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking because there’s no case study to take a look at,” Fischer said of the HR challenge to a nontraditional approach. “There’s no benchmark. You have to relinquish control essentially, which is hard [but] to me the benefit is so great.”

It also required staffing the selection process differently and creating a system for monitoring and capturing the thousands of tweets, Fischer said.An online app allowed applicants to track their tweeting progress and compare their activity to others.

A group of 37 employees—the company’s Twitter Response Teams—assisted HR with tracking and responding to applicants. Once the application window closed, HR met with the Twitter Response Teams to discuss and lobby on behalf of the applicants and choose 32 finalists to be interviewed in person or via Skype.

Finalists underwent an average of three traditional interviews, including meeting with Fischer and former interns who became full-time employees.

The firm’s unorthodox approach changed little in 2012, except for devising a better way to track all the applicants, their tweets and links.

“It was a lot of work, and it was worth it,” Fischer told HR News. “It wasn’t a great process for just normal hiring, but I really do believe there’s a great ROI,” including the national exposure and drawing a more diverse group of internship applicants.

“It attracted the right candidate for us. This was speaking their language.”

Finding that right match between employer and candidate is what it’s all about.

“The worst thing for the candidate and the worst thing for [any] firm is to have a turnover situation in a short period of time,” said Brin McCagg, co-founder, president and COO of OneWire.

“The more you can do upfront … the better.”

OneWire, a New York City-based company that provides recruiting solutions to employers and job candidates, conducted a contest on Facebook during two weeks in January 2011 to find the most memorable job interview.

While some entries were entertaining, such as the interviewer who fell asleep, the contest underlined the “total mismatches in the [candidate screening] process, which obviously points to a lot of inefficiencies with the candidate and the firm,” McCagg said.

“The objective is to try to find the right people, sort through them efficiently and get the right candidates and put them through a test or evaluation or trial sales challenges or analytic test or whatever is appropriate for the position to get to the right person,” he said.

“A lot of companies out there just kind of wing it,” he said of the interview process.

Some employers have started asking candidates to perform tasks. A 2012 Forbes article highlighted how some organizations are requiring prospects for high-level positions to do more than answer interview questions. Candidates might have to give presentations, create a product or perform market research.

It’s a practice that’s permeated the interview process for some low-level jobs.

An unidentified job candidate for a shift leader position at a Pinkberry frozen yogurt store in Atlanta wrote on Glassdoor.com about an "American Idol"-esque interview in June 2010 that involved giving a 30-second commercial about the company in front of about 20 other applicants.

Another job candidate at a Pinkberry in Canada wrote of a full-day interview process that, along with traditional questions, included donning a hat and apron and handing out a platter of frozen yogurt samples under the interviewer’s gaze.

Some assignments might signal that the organization is trying to determine if the candidate has a long-term future with the company. A company that sells and serves coffee might have opportunities that allow a person who fulfills drink orders to rise up through the ranks. In that case, the company “probably is looking for a different type of person than just somebody who will be perfectly content to serve coffee every day,” McCagg said.

Then there are the oddball interview questions, such as asking a candidate to give five uses of a stapler that don’t entail using staples, or how he or she would prove a hypothesis that Germans are the tallest people in the world.

McCagg said he’s used such questions, noting they can be effective in understanding how a person thinks.

“If it’s a job that requires analytical skills, I don’t need to know the exact answer but I do need to know how a person answers a question,” he explained.

Asking the candidate to calculate how many golf balls fit into a school bus, for example, can demonstrate how to approach a problem, he said.

Unorthodox questions might give the interviewer a glimpse into the candidate’s personality, according to a 2011 CareerBuilder survey that found hiring managers are starting to use such questions to size up candidates better.

Some questions they’ve surprised candidates with: Are rules meant to be broken? Do you believe in UFOs? Are you a pencil or a pen? What do you do when you see a spider in the house? Can you drive in bad weather? If given a brick, what would you do with it?

The spider query could be a way of determining if the candidate delegates the problem; the driving question looks at whether a candidate can perform under pressure; the brick query is trying to plumb vision and initiative, according to CareerBuilder.

So is the nontraditional route the way to go for your employer?

Legoland’s Weber advised HR professionals and employers not to be afraid of the nontraditional approach in order to make the best hire.

“This really got us to the right candidate,” she said of the YouTube video and build-off. “Maybe we need to start going down some of those nontraditional paths” with other Legoland openings. Although, she added, “maybe not to the extent we did with Andrew [Johnson].”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related Articles:

Job Candidates Do the Darndest ThingsHR News, January 2011

Dress to Impress, Not Stress, the Hiring Manager, HR News, November 2010

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