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Putting Pre-Employment Tryouts to the Test

Trial periods can improve the quality of your hires, but be aware of legal issues.


Like its customers on the prowl for the hottest clothes and coolest products, online retailer zulily is always searching for talented people, especially for hard-to-fill roles in technology and merchandising.

Based in Seattle—home to retail giant Nordstrom and tech titan Microsoft—the company faces stiff competition for great employees. Traditional recruiting methods don’t always satisfy zulily’s talent demands, so the organization is one of many employers leveraging the power of technology and real-world experience by using tryouts, trial periods and short-term assignments to evaluate candidates. 

For technology roles, for example, "We prescreen candidates with an online tool, in addition to requiring onsite coding tests," says Colleen McKeown, senior vice president for human resources. "Ensuring the right candidate selection is the best way to make sure we drive and preserve our culture."        

Although most companies still hire employees on the condition that they successfully complete an initial 30- to 90-day stint, variations on the typical probationary period are becoming more common, says Carmel Galvin, chief human resource officer at jobs and recruiting site Glassdoor. She calls such limited-term trial arrangements "temp-to-hire."

"Temp-to-hire or introductory periods can provide the kind of measurement that is key to assessing whether an applicant is a fit—not necessarily permanently, but for the foreseeable future," Galvin says.

While a number of employers are adopting creative practices to increase the chances that the right employees are hired from the outset, vetting candidates through tryouts is a strategy that demands careful consideration to determine whether it is appropriate for your organization.

Recruitment Challenges

Making the best hiring decisions is becoming increasingly challenging as employers of all sizes are inundated with applications for nearly every job. Human resource professionals refer to the glut as "resume spamming," and an overabundance of resumes doesn’t necessarily guarantee a wealth of qualified candidates.

"Coming out of the recession, there are just so many more applicants for every job posted these days," says Josh Millet, CEO of Criteria Corp., a Los Angeles-based software company. Holding tryouts during the screening process makes it possible "to get good information on someone in a very efficient way," he says.

$4,129: The average cost to hire a new employee, including expenses for interviews, travel, testing, training and orientation.

Source: Society for Human Resource Management.

Tryouts are designed to give employers a glimpse of how a candidate will perform under actual working conditions. "What better predictor of success is there, other than having someone actually do the job?" Millet asks. 

For the best outcomes, employers should structure tryouts in ways that give them insight into candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. "It isn’t possible to observe every situation in a tryout period, so the best one can do is just see how the candidate interacts within the organization and fits with others and the culture," says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Still, he cautions that no single method of evaluating applicants is foolproof: "Working at the job you will be doing is almost perfect … although still not perfect because people can fake behaviors for short periods that they cannot sustain over longer ones."

Getting to Know You

Automattic, a San Francisco-based company known for its WordPress blogging platform and digital tools, started holding tryouts in 2005. In its early years, the business used a traditional hiring process: screening resumes, conducting interviews and focusing on individuals’ past experiences. But CEO Matt Mullenweg says he found the approach inherently superficial and was convinced there was a better way to gauge a job seeker’s passion and true potential.

Today, every finalist who makes it past an initial resume screening and a video interview must work for two to six weeks on a contract basis doing real tasks alongside the people they would be working with if they had the job. Automattic is flexible with scheduling. Candidates can arrange to work part time at night or on weekends so that they don’t have to leave their current jobs. Some people choose to take vacation so they can fully focus on the audition. "They can size up Automattic while we evaluate them," Mullenweg says.

During the tryout, the company pays each prospective hire a standard $25 an hour. Individuals applying to work in customer support talk directly to customers, engineers write code, and designers work on design projects. Job hopefuls might have to make a presentation or analyze a business problem. The goal is for the tasks to closely mimic the actual work. The employer provides lots of feedback to candidates during the tryout and ends the process quickly if it’s apparent that an applicant isn’t going to succeed. Automattic hires about 40 percent of the people who try out.

[SHRM members-only resource: SHRM Foundation's Effective Practices Guidelines: Selection Assessment Methods]

San Francisco-based recruiting software vendor Entelo began using a trial-based hiring program soon after its founding in 2011. Prospective hires are given part-time projects to work on at night or during weekends and are paid for the trial period, which can last two to four weeks. About half ultimately receive full-time job offers.

Weebly, a San Francisco-based business that creates and hosts websites, started conducting tryouts in 2008 when the company was hiring its first employee, a graphic designer. Each candidate was asked to complete a project so that his or her work could be assessed, an approach the business has incorporated into its selection process ever since. It’s an intense exercise that requires candidates to complete about three weeks of work in one week. The process culminates with a session where five or six colleagues or managers ask the applicant questions. About 75 percent of people who complete a trial period receive job offers.

The rigorous process is one reason the tech startup maintains a low voluntary turnover rate, says Weebly chief executive and co-founder David Rusenko. Rather than deter applicants, he says, trial periods have boosted the company’s recruitment efforts because they give applicants a better sense of the job and work environment.

After applicants at Cold Stone Creamery submit the information necessary for employment consideration, hiring managers schedule interviews with those who show the most potential. Individuals eager to work for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based ice cream chain must do quite a song and dance—literally. They are asked to audition for the position by singing and sometimes dancing in addition to sitting for a traditional interview. The store isn’t looking for workers with showstopping vocal abilities: The objective is to make it clear to applicants that entertainment is a requirement of the job. "The ‘Entertainment Factor’ is meant to create a fun, festive atmosphere in our stores and set us apart from the competition," according to a statement on the company’s website.

Uber has developed a "Code on the Road" challenge through its app that is sent to select people who have a technical aptitude and are using the company’s ride-hailing service. Riders answer a series of timed questions to test their skill at writing computer code, and those who earn high scores are encouraged to apply for a job at the San Francisco-based company.

Carmel Galvin‘Temp-to-hire ... can provide the kind of measurement that is key to assessing whether an applicant is a fit.’
Carmel Galvin, Glassdoor

Recruiters at search engine giant Google employ a unique kind of audition in which job seekers aren’t even aware they are trying out. Using a kind of advanced Google search, recruiters identify some job prospects by the terms they use in their Google searches and encourage those who demonstrate advanced coding skills to apply.

Candidates for software engineering positions at zulily receive a take-home assessment that helps determine how well they write code, says Bill French, head of talent acquisition. Applicants for other positions face alternate types of evaluation. For instance, merchandising candidates are required to pass a retail math test, demonstrating that they have a basic understanding of arithmetic, profits and losses, inventory management, and return on investment. Analytics assessments are given to candidates vying for some jobs in marketing and operations.

Though many employers have seen benefits from incorporating tryouts into their hiring processes, trial periods aren’t right for every organization, and they can present logistical challenges for job seekers and employers.

Some people may have employment contracts that prohibit them from taking contract work. Others may be unable or unwilling to take time off from their current position with no guarantee of being hired. The upshot: Talented but employed candidates might seek opportunities at companies that don’t require tryouts, Millet says.

Legal Matters

Whatever path they take to put applicants’ skills to the test, organizations should be careful to avoid running afoul of the law when designing trial assignments.

For certain organizations, it’s conceivable that a tryout might raise issues with the creation of intellectual property, according to employment lawyer John W. Herrington of Carlton Fields in Hartford, Conn. "If you’re actually contracting with the worker, you can govern the scope of the relationship," he says. If you’re not, disputes could arise over claims to any resulting work or ideas coming out of the tryout. A strong contract should make clear who owns the end product, according to Herrington.

Employers also must keep wage and hour obligations in mind. In cases where a tryout is unpaid, an employer must be able to show that the work being produced is used for evaluative purposes only and that the trial period occurs prior to any offer of employment. For example, if the trial requires a cook to prepare sample dishes, any food he or she makes cannot be served to customers or otherwise benefit the restaurant. If the work that results benefits the business, a strong case could be made that the candidate should be compensated.

Before implementing any tryout program, employers should have legal counsel review the process thoroughly to ensure compliance.

As companies and HR departments look for ways to make the hiring process more about science and less about art, the use of well-crafted tryouts and trial assignments seems likely to grow. HR has been at the forefront of using data points to refine the candidate selection process, Millet says, and he predicts the trend will continue as companies push for better ways to gather reliable, objective information about a job candidate’s likelihood of success.

For employers, putting candidates through a trial by fire is one way not to get burned.

Sidebar: Using Trials to Avoid Errors 

Because the cost of making a bad hire can be high, many businesses are gravitating to data-driven measures instead of relying solely on traditional approaches of assessing applicants such as conducting one-on-one interviews, checking references and considering college pedigrees. The reasons tryouts are gaining favor include the following: 

​Interviews can be misleading. Many people can make a good impression for a short period. Even taking into account factors such as an applicant’s GPA can give hiring managers a “messy measure” to predict future performance because such rankings bundle together grades in courses that may or may not have anything to do with job requirements, says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. 
​Past experience doesn’t accurately predict future performance. “Resumes can be imperfect predictors at best of applicants’ on-the-job success,” says Josh Millet, CEO of Criteria Corp. 
Trial periods add a layer of transparency to the hiring process—for both sides. Job candidates know what they are getting into before accepting an offer; companies benefit from higher rates of retention. Another advantage is that it is easier for both the applicant and the organization to end a temporary arrangement than to terminate employment.

Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration by Daniel Baxter for HR Magazine

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