Lessons from Charlie: Make job interviews experiential

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I once heard the job interview process described as “two people sitting across from each other while lying.”

Maybe that’s a tad cynical, but even if there are no blatant falsehoods a lot of exaggeration and misrepresentation comes from both sides of the interview desk.

The Society of Human Resource Managers recently released a survey that shows nearly 50 percent of employees and 40 percent of employers feel misled and disappointed in the new job or new employee — even with multiple interviews, a job description, personality and skills tests, a good resume and references checks. So what can be done?

The Blue Mountain Humane Society may have the answer.

I couldn’t adopt my dog Charlie until he had stayed with me for a few days on a “get acquainted” visit. They wanted me to make an informed decision and living together for a few days was the best way.

I wanted a walking partner, someone to make sure I exercised in fresh air and got my mind off the challenges at work. And what is more relaxing than watching a dog run and jump with pure joy as he snags a Frisbee?

Our “get acquainted” visit made clear that Charlie had no interest in Frisbees or balls; he would sit and watch the Frisbee until it conked him on the head and then he took cover behind a tree. Our walks were anything but relaxing; he pulled the leash and lunged at every squirrel, cat, dog, baby stroller, bicycle or walker-assisted senior citizen.

But Charlie met my main requirement for a dog: he kept me distracted from work problems and made sure I was good and tired at night. After three days of living together I knew what I was getting with Charlie.

So why do so many people with the advantage of speaking a common language feel misled or surprised by the reality of the new job or employee? Charlie and I couldn’t interview each other, but we learned about each other by doing things together for a few days.

Recently I heard a small business owner, Matthew, describe his solution to finding the right person when he had a job opening. Matthew’s business makes custom designed commercial furniture, and he was tired of discovering that the person who claimed to be an expert craftsman had limited skills.

Matthew and his employees decided to limit the talking part of the job interview to just a few minutes and have the interviewee spend six hours, in two-hour segments — standing at the side of three different employees in the workshop. The job candidates weren’t told to do anything other than stand by the side of a working employee.

Matthew discovered that some interviewees would watch for a few minutes, ask a few questions and then start to help, some ably and others not so ably. But it was clear who was actually familiar with the equipment, who understood that safety gear must be worn and who was willing to get their hands dirty and jump in and help.

By the end of the six hour “get acquainted” day the job candidates had a good idea what the work was like and Matthew and his employees had a good understanding of each candidate and who would be a good fit for the open job. The questions the job candidates asked and how they interacted with the employees told Matthew more than a job interview across a desk ever would.

Years ago when I was a member of an interview team I would begin the interview by telling the job candidate about a difficult project I was working on. I would tell them that I had no idea what I was going to do. And then I would take a minute to straighten my desk and see if they took the bait.

Some expressed sympathy, but no curiosity, and some jumped in with bad ideas. But a few people would ask good questions and offer good suggestions and we could discuss and debate the work. I learned so much more than if I had asked the standard interview questions. The interviewees couldn’t easily misrepresent what they knew or how they thought through a problems as long as we were having a comfortable and casual discussion of a real life work problem.

The internet is full of sample interview questions and responses, but sometimes the best way to find out what a person would do on the job is let them show you.

An unemployed person can be hired on a temporary basis. An employed person can spend one day observing and chatting with your employees. In any case, everyone benefits from an interview process that doesn’t allow for misrepresentations.

The other advantage Charlie and I had: Dogs can’t lie.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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