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Your job candidates have arrived, but you don't plop them down for a two-hour writing test nor insist they discuss their professional strengths and past career challenges. No, you usher them into a dark room, handcuff them to a bench and insist they work together to flee their—

Escape room!

Because as far as your company is concerned, how the candidates play the game will tell you if they are team players, appreciate different perspectives, delegate authority and communicate well.

Escape rooms, laser tag, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, board games, capture the flag—all are unorthodox ways that some companies are sizing up job candidates and potential recruits.

Yet while games may sound like a welcome relief from dry interviews and even drier written assessments, skeptics warn that they may be an inexact way to assess an applicant's strengths and weaknesses and may even lead to legal troubles.

While Not Ubiquitous, Games Have Potential  

The number of companies using games and other unorthodox candidate assessments is probably low, said Gary Swift, managing director of GolfSupport.com, an online golfing-equipment retailer based in the United Kingdom. The popularity of such games, he said, seems to be prevalent at creative companies, such as tech startups.

One study published in March 2018 in the Journal of Nursing Education reported that the University of Nebraska Medical Center created four escape rooms to show how nursing students could use their skills during health care emergencies. In teams of four, the students solved puzzles reflecting patient health scenarios that included depression, asthma in children and injuries from a motor vehicle accident.

"It could potentially just be a fad," Swift acknowledged, adding that some companies may be turning to these games because they are becoming frustrated "with the traditional recruitment process of sifting through [resumes] and then carrying out interviews and assessments."

There may be other dynamics driving the use of unorthodox assessment tools.

The need to enhance the job candidate's experience might be one, said Mike Cox, president of Cox Innovations, a management consultancy in Houston.

"Technology has helped shift the ultimate 'buying power' in the recruiting relationship from employer to candidate, at least when dealing with top-tier candidates," he said.

"Consequently, there is a burden on companies to not only make the candidate's recruiting experience positive but also unique and memorable."

Companies may also try to stand out by appearing innovative, cutting-edge and trendy, he said.

Cox senses that some of these unusual assessment techniques "will become proven over time and will gain prominence slowly," although they are used by only a handful of employers.

"I doubt we will ever reach a point where they are ubiquitous," Cox continued, "but I can foresee a point when they are common enough to no longer be considered unorthodox."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Internally and Externally]

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Companies Willing to Give Games a Try

GolfSupport.com surveyed 1,456 companies from a variety of industries to find out if they were willing to use games or sports activities to find and assess new talent.

Among its findings:

  • More than half said they'd consider reviewing candidates using glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, which is played with only the course and the golf ball illuminated by ultraviolet lights.
  • Almost 3 in 4 would be interested in using laser tag, typically played in dark, tunnellike rooms where each team tries to "tag" members of the opposing team by "shooting" light beams at opponents' sensors, worn on vests.
  • About 2 in 3 would consider using a cooperative board game, such as Pandemic, Mysterium or Forbidden Island, in which a team of players works together against the game itself.

The Knowledge Academy, which provides training for professionals, found that of 684 companies and job seekers, large majorities would be willing to use similar games during job interviews.

So how does it work? In general, assessors observe the game and take notes from a distance, typically concluding the activity by asking candidates questions about their experience.

Those interviewed for this article noted that each activity tends to draw out specific skills or strengths. For instance, the board games assess teamwork; laser tag assesses strategy and communication; glow-in-the-dark golf reveals ambition and confidence; and escape rooms measure problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork. 

The games "are a great way to access a candidate's soft skills," Swift said. Candidates' "soft skills are about the way they carry out essential tasks and their ability to creatively solve problems or work within a team. According to LinkedIn, 92 percent of talent professionals say soft skills matter as much as or more than hard skills when they hire, and 80 percent say they're increasingly important to company success."

The Drawbacks

An unconventional approach to interviewing, recruiting or assessing candidates may serve some purposes, said Keith Wolf, managing director of Murray Resources, a Houston-based recruiting and staffing firm.

"If being able to participate and enjoy a series of games is essential to jelling with the team because they're all Frisbee golf fanatics, then it could make sense," he said. "However, your best accounting candidate may be brilliant and just what your team needs, but too introverted to enjoy a game of tag with a group of strangers."

Cox agreed that there may be instances when games and sports say something about a candidate.

"How somebody reacts to having their ideas unfairly challenged is valuable information for anybody who is going to be asked to operate in a team," Cox said. "Traditional interviewing would likely ask the candidate to provide an example of when this happened in the past and how they handled it. While this is helpful, its usefulness is … subject to the candidate selecting an inherently positive and not necessarily representative example.

"However, if that same individual's behavior in such a situation was observed within a game, the company would likely be receiving much more useful, authentic information."

Cox noted that games should complement traditional interviewing techniques, not replace them. Moreover, he cautioned, companies can run legal risks when using games to assess job candidates.

"The most common risk is that an employer gets accused of making a hiring decision that indirectly is driven by a protected attribute. For example, an activity that involves significant physical exertion could expose an employer to claims that the activity enabled discrimination based on age or disability." 

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