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Interviewing After Hours

One CEO has gained attention for sending text messages to prospective hires at night and on the weekend, in search of employees "who are always thinking" about work. Will we see other companies turning to similar tests to evaluate job candidates? And would that be a good idea?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017
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Unfair infringement on private time or honest preview of the employee experience?

This is the question some have asked in the wake of a recent New York Times interview with Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, in which she described an exercise she uses to evaluate job candidates at the New York-based sports and men's lifestyle blog.

Nardini, who told the Times that she thinks about her work "all the time," apparently likes to fire off text messages to prospective hires at odd hours -- say, 9 p.m. on a weeknight or 11 a.m. Sunday morning -- just to see how quickly she gets a reply.

The goal, naturally, is to determine how committed an individual would be if hired for a position with Barstool Sports. In theory, those who respond promptly -- Nardini says she likes to receive a response inside of three hours -- would likely be more willing to go above and beyond once on the job.

You have to give Nardini points for making her expectations clear early on in the game, and for offering applicants a true picture of what life at Barstool Sports could be like.

That said, it's also reasonable to wonder whether receiving such a text might send some talented candidates running, afraid that their work/life balance would suffer if they came to work for the company. After all, several surveys have in recent years found that many employees would actually like to think less about their jobs when they're away from the office, but feel increasingly pressured to stay connected outside of "normal" business hours.

For her part, Nardini -- a former chief marketing officer at AOL who describes her leadership style as "punishing" -- claims she's just looking for employees who share her preoccupation with work.

"It's not that I'm going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive," Nardini said in the Times interview. "Other people don't have to be working all the time. But I want people who are always thinking."

Nardini certainly isn't the first corporate leader to try something a little unconventional to get a sense of how well a candidate's work style and personality might mesh with the job and the organization.

Google, for example, has a history of throwing curveballs at applicants, such as asking aspiring Googlers what song they would choose to be played when they walk into a room. Intel has reportedly asked would-be hardware engineers how they would design a spice rack for the blind. 

This type of query, however, is typically incorporated into an actual job interview being conducted at a designated time when an interviewee has consented to field all sorts of questions, odd or otherwise. But, unsolicited, after-hours text messages encroach on the recipient's personal life, which raises questions about what might come next. Will we see more employers adopt similar hiring "tests" in the quest to gain insight into how a potential employee thinks?

Some companies might find value in embracing such assessment methods to see if an applicant has what it takes to thrive with them, says Jay Meschke, president of Kansas City, Mo.-based CBIZ Talent and Compensation Solutions.

Barstool Sports is a good example, he says.

"They are probably deadline-oriented and move at the speed of light. They more than likely need people who are engaged in life and the world in general -- current event junkies."

Conversely, organizations in sectors where tasks and projects might not be as time-sensitive -- life sciences or engineering, for instance -- could tread more lightly, says Meschke.

While noting that a company with a firm grasp of its own culture could possibly use this type of assessment to "separate the individuals who will fit best," he also cautions that some worthy contenders could indeed be put off.

Fran Luisi reasons that many of these same applicants would likely self-select out of the hiring process if they saw an imposition on their personal time as a bad omen -- and that's not necessarily a terrible thing.  

"The texting at odd hours, for example, could really be a good measurement of who's going to be a good fit, if that's a common practice within the organization," says Luisi, the New York-based head and partner of the U.S. human resources practice at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson.

"So, if someone isn't comfortable with it," he says, "then they probably aren't going to be successful in that environment. That's not to say they don't have talent. They just might not fit in that particular job or organization."

Cheryl Hyatt, the Pittsburgh-based CEO and partner of executive search firm Hyatt-Fennell, acknowledges certain work environments -- high-level politics or news media organizations, for example -- sometimes require employees to work unusual hours, and to be available at a moment's notice.

In such situations, however, "the conditions of the working relationship are mutually understood and agreeable," says Hyatt. "There is time for a culture of communication to be established and negotiated."

In the hiring process, "you are missing all that context, and using the timing of a text as a litmus test will not give an accurate reflection of candidates."

A job interview, she says, "inherently exists in a very different set of circumstances than a regular work position. An interviewee might be in between positions and have more time than they usually would, or might be applying while currently employed with a full-time job and have less time than normal."

Given such considerations, evaluating applicants on the basis of their performance on an unexpected test could ultimately bear decidedly mixed results.

"Using non-traditional methods of interviewing can take interviewees by surprise. That can be helpful in fields that require creativity, innovation and quick-thinking," adds Hyatt. "However, destabilizing interviewees simply for the sake of doing so is rarely profitable. If you intend to use non-traditional methods of interviewing, it's important that you have a clear rationale and objective."


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