Show and Tell

More employers are conducting realistic job previews to let applicants know what the job they’re seeking actually involves.

By Michael A. Tucker Jan 1, 2012
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December Cover

In a guest room on the 11th floor of the Hilton Baltimore BWI Airport, Tishuana Hodge, PHR, is watching a young job prospect struggle to make a bed with the precision Hodge demonstrated just minutes earlier. "They have to be tight and right," she reminds the young man primping the multiple sheets and pillows that will help determine his success or failure as a candidate for a housekeeping position.

The application process at Sheetz, a family-owned convenience store and gas station enterprise headquartered in Altoona, Pa., begins with a one-on-one meeting with Chairman of the Board Steve Sheetz—in the form of an online audio pep talk about career opportunities and expectations.

Applicants of the Idaho State Police are introduced to the sights and sounds of a law enforcement environment, bringing them into immediate contact with future colleagues—and unsavory characters that create a need for police.

These examples highlight the resurgence of realistic job previews, a time-honored technique that introduces job prospects to the actual work they'll be doing through formats that include multiple interviews, office tours, videos, online presentations and actually performing duties in the workplace during an "audition."

Realistic job previews have reportedly been around since the 1950s and are enjoying a renaissance because of high turnover rates in certain areas of the public and private sectors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those rates can reach almost 75 percent annually in some industries. Employers are using realistic job previews to save time and costs associated with recruiting, interviewing, training and orienting prospects who are not likely to stay.

Zinta S. Byrne, a psychology professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says these previews "create initial job expectations that are consistent with the information in the preview," and are linked to higher retention and more-positive employee attitudes.

The focus "is not on hiring the best people, per se. It's on finding a match between what people want when they apply for a job and what the organization needs a person to do in the job," she explains.

No Surprises

Realistic job previews are best-suited for applicants with little prior experience in the jobs they're seeking, where there might be unclear expectations, demanding requirements or working conditions that might discourage new employees. Examples of positions include call center representatives, industrial workers, or store clerks required to work overnight and holidays. Applicants for higher-level positions don't benefit as much from job previews, experts say, because they're usually experienced and familiar with the industry.

JoAnn McMillan of Assess Systems, a software and personnel consulting company, says well-designed previews sell the job and tell applicants what to expect.

"Candidates, given thorough information and opportunity, will help decide their suitability and chances for success in those positions before costly hiring errors are made," says McMillan, chief operating officer of the Dallas-based company.

The case of a large electronics retailer with more than 6,000 sites underscores the value of realistic job previews, says Sarah Glass, vice president, consulting services, for Assess. The company needed a consistent message and realistic description of jobs to present to store manager and associate candidates. Assess produced a video for hiring managers that explored the benefits of the positions, such as interacting with customers and being part of a team, as well as aspects that were less glamorous, such as stocking shelves.

"The biggest value a realistic job preview can provide is reducing turnover within the first 90 days," Glass says. Early turnover is "typically attributed to unmet expectations of the candidate—'I didn't know I was going to have to do this.' "

Glass and McMillan's advice:

  • Use realistic job previewsin various formats throughout the hiring process, including the recruiting, application, assessment, interview and job offer stages.
  • Be honest, even about less-pleasing aspects of the work.
  • Be sure realistic job previews can be implementedfairly to all candidates. Using recordings, videos and text—as opposed to having managers or HR staffers relay information—can help ensure that candidates receive a consistent message.

Keeping It Real

Hodge, regional director of human resources for franchised Hilton and Aloft BWI Airport properties, first heard about realistic job previews a few years ago while studying for her PHR certification. She knew immediately they might be the solution to a formidable turnover rate among housekeeping staff that hovered near 100 percent annually. She got her bosses on board, and previews became part of the hiring process. By signing a waiver, applicants free the company of liability and acknowledge that the voluntary tryout will be one of several factors considered for employment. Applicants receive lunch during the four-hour exercise, which includes making up a half-dozen beds.

Hodge says the effort has been worthwhile because current turnover among housekeepers is down to 69 percent, about a 30 percent drop.

Realistic job previews help weed out folks who typically quit within 30 to 60 days.

"Applicants truly do not have an understanding of what commercial cleaning consists of," says Executive HousekeeperSue Carson. After the realistic job preview, "We can see who is genuinely interested and physically up to the challenge."

Hodge says that after applicants are shown a couple of times how to make a bed, they try to do it themselves. "If they're huffing and puffing, we make note of that. They're not the ones," she says.

Prospective cooks are asked to prepare their favorite dish or follow a recipe. "You mess up an omelet, you're not the guy," Hodge says.

Five-Star Treatment

Sheetz, a convenience store group with 15,000 employees in 400 locations in Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, relies on realistic job previews to fill entry-level positions. Following the chairman's cyberspace introduction, detailedjob profiles are presented in an online audiovisual format by a beverage host or hostess, sales associate, shift supervisor, assistant manager, and associate manager.

"It saves everybody time," says Lou Camerlengo, president of Five Star Development, the Pittsburgh-based web and custom training company that created content for Sheetz. "No one wants to spend time interviewing for a job they're not interested in."

He says the average total cost for video can run about $45,000, including job analysis, assessments, programming, editing and production.

Camerlengo says realistic job previews help weed out folks who typically quit within 30 to 60 days, a period characterized by low productivity and heavy training. With the previews, companies may experience a drop in applications but enjoy higher retention rates. Camerlengo says honesty and authenticity are critical. The previews must be "delivered by people who are doing the jobs, people applicants have an affinity with ... real people."

Preventing Bad Hires

Since the Idaho State Police began using realistic job previews several years ago, departmentwide turnover has dropped from 8.3 percent to 6.1 percent. Turnover in the dispatcher center, originally 14 percent to 26 percent, has fallen to below 10 percent.

Law enforcement work runs the gamut from dealing with mundane tasks to life-threatening encounters, so job previews are tailored to fit specific positions. For example:

  • Potential troopers ride with real troopers during their shifts to talk about the job and observe. In addition, the department's website provides a thorough discussion of duties.
  • Would-be office staffers—in finance, recordkeeping and fingerprinting, for example—get a dose of realism during walk-throughs. "They need to see the environment, they need to see the people they're going to be around," says Joe Tueller, SPHR, senior human resources specialist, who works in Meridian. That includes criminals.
  • Potential dispatchers are tested on computer skills while juggling multiple police scenarios to see how they respond under pressure.

"We've gotten really good feedback from the applicants. Even the ones who aren't selected say, 'I know I wasn't hired, but that really showed me what the job was like. So I understand why I may not be the best fit,' " Tueller says. "We don't want to set anyone up for failure. We want people who are going to enjoy their work."

Watch and Learn

Communication is AT&T's business, so it may not be surprising to learn that the corporate behemoth, with almost 259,000 employees worldwide, has been using realistic job previews for more than 20 years.

"Years ago, we would have employees considering moving to a new position go on a job visit," says Seth Zimmer, executive director-organizational performance in Atlanta. "Over time, we started providing job seekers the same opportunity."

The company, based in Dallas, uses face-to-face meetings and videos to preview jobs. One of its newer liverealistic jobpreviews gives insight to potential technicians responsible for installing AT&T's fiber optic technology and computer networking. Technicians also teach customers how to use the merchandise.

"We need someone who has the technical skills to install the product and who can also deliver premier customer service," Zimmer says. Supervisors, collaborators and field staff meet in small groups to share information and discuss goals and expectations with the candidate. "Having a realistic job preview as part of the hiring process allows us to fully communicate our passion for the customer."

When planning such previews, Zimmer advises HR professionals to make sure all job seekers receive the same information and to create a process that maximizes supervisors' and applicants' time.

Into the Future

Experts say advances in technology will continue to improve realistic job preview methods while posing new challenges for HR professionals and content developers.

"The realistic job preview has the potential of becoming more interactive," Glass says.

AT&T's Zimmer says achieving a blend of communications strategies will be a priority: "We will continue to refine the balance between video, use of social media and live realistic job previews. It's hard to replace the value of bringing in a job seeker to see the work location, look at the equipment and meet the boss."

The author is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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