In December, I wrote about the unusual recruitment policy of the UK Intelligence Agency, GCHQ and its use of an internet ‘viral’ puzzle, spread via social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to find suitable applicants. It is clear that GCHQ is not the only organisation adopting a novel approach to recruiting. In these times of high unemployment and gloomy market conditions, firms are using ever more extreme physical and mental interrogations to find suitable recruits.

Interviewers have turned to techniques more commonly found in reality television, quiz shows and theatre auditions to find their ideal staff.  In search of “digitally savvy, creative thought leaders” Campbell Mithun, an advertising agency, require job applications in the form of a series of 13 Twitter messages. Deverell Smith, a niche recruitment company finds agents for some of the UK’s most exclusive real estate firms. It has turned to speed-dating techniques to match ‘pre-screened’ applicants with property companies in a series of ‘roadshows’ around Britain.

According to the career website, recruiters at one marketing group told applicants to “just entertain me for five minutes; I’m not going to talk”. Google receives a million job applications a year and hires only one of every 130 people interviewed. Every candidate is said to be the subject of a 50-page dossier, detailing their academic, professional, and social history, as well as their overall “Googliness”. Google isn’t looking for the smartest, or even the most technically capable, candidates. Google is looking for the candidates who will best fit Google. It has been said that the US Internet and software corporation has asked candidates questions, such as, “Would you rather be an Apple or a Banana?” and “Why are manhole covers round?”.  Although Google does not comment on the specifics of its hiring process, it is reliably reported that it sets possible recruits various scenarios to comment on, and problems to solve. One, recently described by the Wall Street Journal is as follows: You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?  

One reason for some of these rather bizarre approaches to recruitment is suspicion that traditional interview techniques are ineffective. The recruitment process can be extremely expensive, especially for skilled positions. When the additional costs of training and high staff turnover are factored into the equation, finding appropriate personnel who will stay with the business for an extended period of time is an economic imperative, especially in highly competitive markets. The worst situation is to spend significant sums on the recruitment and professional development of an employee, who promptly leaves to join a key competitor.

So, what is the basis for doubting traditional selection techniques? Research has shown strong primacy and recency effects; in other words interviewers tend to remember only the beginning and end of interviews. It has also been shown that interviewers make up their minds about candidates early on in the process and all else that follows is a subconscious, selective process to justify that initial judgment.  A study completed by Nalini Ambady, an experimental psychologist at Harvard, examined the non-verbal aspects of good teaching and concluded that first impressions were critical. Ambady ultimately proved that observers could accurately rate a teacher based on a short, two second video clip.  Another study conducted by Tricia Pricket, a graduate student who wanted to test the adage “the handshake is everything”, had observers look at the first fifteen seconds of taped interviews as a basis for rating applicants.  The astonishing finding was that the untrained observer results had a high correlation to those actually conducting the interviews. People react very differently in a range of situations and what interviewers perceive as a candidate’s character may simply be the consequence of the nature of the interview and questions asked.

The lesson, therefore, is that the design and application of the selection process is fundamental to the success of the outcomes. There is significant evidence that “work sampling,” the use of tests similar to the work being performed, is a better predictor of future performance than the usual job-interview chit-chat. Google does a lot of work sampling, such as requiring coders to write code in the interview. The rationale for the creative-thinking questions is that they test the type of mental processes used in inventing a new product or developing a new business plan. In the Second World War it was discovered that promising pilots could be identified by asking: “Have you ever built a model airplane that flew?” May be the question asked at Capital One: “Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 how weird you are”, isn’t so strange after all?

IB-style questions

1. Describe four methods of recruitment.

2. Explain how staff turnover is calculated and how high staff turnover may be a problem for a firm.

3. Analyse the advantages and disadvantages of interviewing as an effective method of selection.

4. Discuss how the corporate cultures of organisations like Google affect their recruitment and selection processes and assess the potential impact of these on future commercial performance.

Additional resources

A number of websites have lesson plans relating to HRM and the recruitment, appraisal, training and dismissal. You might like to look at the following and see if any of these ideas here could be adapted for your classroom?

Bized: Critical Review of Human Resource Management

Bized: Recruiting Staff

TES: Interview role play

OCR: Sample content and lesson plan for recruitment in Travel and Tourism