Talent Auditions Can Punch Up Stodgy Interviewing Practices

By Roy Maurer Oct 18, 2017
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​NASHVILLE—Favoring performance-based talent showcases over traditional selection and interviewing has proven successful for one company recruiting for some of the world's most elusive talent.

Data scientist and statistician are among the fastest growing jobs in the U.S., spurring organizations in nearly every industry to come up with creative strategies to find top-quality candidates. One approach emanating from the scrum—data science competitions, or "datathons"—can be used in many job fields to augment traditional interviews, said Justin Pinchback, head of talent strategy at Citadel, a Chicago-based global investment firm.

Citadel has recently been sponsoring what Pinchback calls "talent auditions" for quantitative researchers, data scientists and software engineers at universities across the U.S., U.K. and Ireland to compete for a grand prize of $100,000—and great exposure with the company.

He told attendees at LinkedIn Talent Connect, a conference for recruiting professionals held by the professional networking site, that the top institutions don't rely on job interviews alone. "In their battery of tools, they run simulations, assessments, tests—some written, some physical—to achieve their hiring goals."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Interviewing Candidates]

"When an NFL head coach goes to the talent combine to scout for new players, he wouldn't ask a receiver to talk about how he would catch a football," he said. "And at NASA no one would dare ask a prospective astronaut what they think about flying a space shuttle. Instead these elite institutions watch the applicant. They watch them perform on-the-job tasks in crafted simulations to understand if they have what it takes to land the job of their dreams."

Interviews by themselves do a poor job of accurately predicting future on-the-job performance, he said. "Most candidates lie during interviews. We need to ensure that we deliver a quality experience for our hiring managers. The traditional interview can't be the only tool in our toolkit for doing that."

HackerRank CEO Vivek Ravisankar told SHRM Online that the tech sector, especially, bemoans a lack of qualified job seekers to fill its expanding ranks, but that the problem partly lies in the traditional hiring process, like poring over resumes instead of using objective, measurable skills assessments. That's why HackerRank developed computer programming testing and a ranking system for tech professionals, and companies like it are interjecting coding challenges into the typical hiring screen. 

'Systemized and Surgical'

Citadel's datathons test small teams of students by asking them to find and report on hidden insights from huge datasets. The events are six hours long and designed to reflect the kind of work employees would be doing at the company.

When the assessments are over and a winning team is announced, the Citadel recruiters get to work. "They've been observing," he said. "Who leads the team, who follows, who does the work. They dig through the code and look through the final papers. Ultimately, they can submit a rich picture to the hiring managers and assessment team."

The events help uncover prospective hires with intellectual agility and the ability to work well on a team, Pinchback said.

He gave a couple of examples of other companies showcasing candidates' skills during the hiring process:

  • Automattic, a web development firm in San Francisco, brings candidates in and pays them to do real work. "They don't ask them how they do their work or have them describe situations where they did similar work in the past," Pinchback said. "They get real samples. They can then take the time to assess that work product."
  • Software company Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Mich., calls its process "extreme interviewing." They group pairs candidates and one assessor in a room together for 30-minute intervals to see how the candidates work together. The best candidates are invited back to complete a weeklong project.

Talent Audition Essentials

Pinchback outlined four critical requirements for successfully implementing talent tryouts into the recruiting process.

  • Design talent auditions within the barriers and constraints of the organization.
  • Structure auditions so that the data and metrics you need are systematically collected.
  • Be creative, fun and engaging.
  • Ensure organizational bandwidth to pull off events. "There must be a dedicated internal effort or outside partner involved."

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