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Homework for Candidates – A Good Thing? No, a Great Thing!

homeworkHave you ever interviewed a candidate and, after an intense grilling, just couldn’t put your finger on what may be lacking? The data just doesn’t support any decision? It happens, and often. Unfortunately, managers are not often skilled in behavioral interview techniques. Interviews sometimes turn into conversations about what a candidate likes to do or where they’ve worked and what they did. This goes a long way in building rapport but it doesn’t do anything to discern how a candidate might perform if given the job, nor if they are motivated enough to succeed.

Some might say that testing is the answer, but that’s not always the case. Since online testing came into vogue, many candidates have found ways to beat the system – not that any of your candidates would do that, but it happens.

Another option is to grill them at the whiteboard, on the spot in the interview. This will certainly weed out the performers who do not work well under the most intense pressure when on the spot, but it doesn’t provide a good sample for people who might perform under “normal” work circumstances. Many technical folks are more introverted than not, and do not respond well in “on the spot” situations where all eyes are upon them. It’s not really a fair test unless you are hiring Secret Service protection.

We’ve found that one of the surefire ways to glean insight into how a candidate thinks and solves problems is homework. If you’re hiring a marketing manager, prepare a scenario for the candidate to review after the interview, i.e. “take a look at this landing page and tell me what you would do differently to increase click-through traffic to the sponsored links” or “take a look at our current product page and write a new blog entry about the product, how it improves efficiency, and blah.” You get the idea.

With developers and engineers it’s a little trickier. You might have a short coding assignment to solve an interesting logic problem. Here’s the key… they may complete the homework assignment, but you need to have them fully explain the code (in person) and why they solved the problem the way they did. Ask hard followup questions – “why didn’t you do X vs. Y?” or “if you did this instead of that, how would it impact the outcome?”

Here are a few tips on candidate homework:

  • Don’t give homework to all candidates. Reserve it for the ones you feel are worthy of serious consideration and of course the ones who you feel have great potential, but you just can’t get a complete handle on it.
  • Don’t give candidates real work for your company. This may be a no-brainer, but I’ve heard of situations where a hiring manager gave a candidate a problem that the team couldn’t solve and then used it, but didn’t hire the candidate. High potential for trouble.
  • Keep the homework to a manageable scope. Don’t assign homework that the candidate has to invest an entire weekend to complete. Keep it to an hour or two, max.
  • Put a deadline on it. It’s helpful if you can agree to the deadline, just in case the candidate has a heavy load or deadline at a current job. But don’t leave it open-ended. Agree to a time when the task will be completed. This reveals attention to punctuality as well.
  • Last, make it fun. Engineers like to solve cool problems – big or small. Designers like to design things. Marketeers like to be creative and write.

Give your top candidates a short, but fun and meaningful assignment. Talk with them about the deliverable after they turn it in, and ask tough questions about how they went about the task, why they did it the way they did it, and how they would expand it if given the opportunity. You’ll be amazed and pleasantly surprised with the results – not only in what you learn, but in the increased quality of your future hires.

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February 9, 2014
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