How Ping Pong (and 4 Other Tactics) Can Predict Job Performance Better Than a Traditional Interview

February 22, 2017

Richard Branson doesn’t shy away from disrupting the status quo. And recently, he admitted that he has tried to shake up interviewing as well. After all, why stick to the same old interview format - one that makes it easy for candidates to present an unrealistically polished picture of themselves. Why not figure out a way to really see candidates’ true personalities?

To do this, Branson disguised himself as an elderly cab driver and went to pick up the candidates to take them to the interview. Not to shake up your faith in humanity or anything, but it turned out that all that candidates were rude to the cabbie and when Branson removed his mask in the end, none of the them got the job. For him, people skills were non-negotiable.

While Branson’s test might seem extreme, it’s actually part of a larger trend. More and more, recruiters and managers are moving beyond the interview, asking candidates to "show" them what they're made of—through tests that sometimes border on bizarre.

Here are five standout examples of unique hiring tests (some of which are weirder than others) that companies have tried out, and how you might apply them to your own process.

TechnologyAdvice had candidates go up against the company’s ping pong master

Some business leaders believe that you can learn more about a candidate from a bit of friendly competition than you will from a standard interview. At TechnologyAdvice, CEO Rob Bellenfant decided to test out that theory, inviting prospective hires to play a few games of ping pong as part of their evaluation process.

The goal? To find out if the way someone approaches ping pong correlates to the way they approach work. Candidates play three games against a designated employee, a skilled player who ramps up the difficulty with each match. Bellenfant believes this approach reveals a great deal about the candidates, from their willingness to try new things to the way they handle a loss.

"Our overall objective is to see how people are going to react in the workplace after they start a new job," said Belcher, who led the experiment."Things might start a little more slow paced. ... Over time, you may be assigned things you weren't originally assigned to do and you have your hectic deadlines and things like that. We are trying to see if there is any correlation to how people adjust. Are they able to pick up and adapt?"

While you might not be able to play ping pong at your company, putting candidates in situations that could show their competitive streak (or lack of) can help you learn a lot about their personality.  

"We look for ambition and skills over experience," Bellenfant said. "We look at where they're going, not as much where they've been."

Zappos circles back to see how candidates treat the shuttle driver

Zappos is known for its quirky internal culture—and for finding talent that matches the personality and values of the organization.

In a more replicable twist on Branson’s slightly maniacal strategy, Zappos has a company shuttle scoop prospective hires up and then returns to the shuttle driver later that day to see how they were treated.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh believes this tactic helps the company determine whether a candidate is really a nice person—or just faking it when they sit down for the interview.

“It doesn’t matter how well the day of interviews went,” said Hsieh, in a video series for the Wall Street Journal. “If our shuttle driver wasn’t treated well, then we won’t hire that person.”

If you’re not in the business of shuttling candidates to your door, you can still see how candidates treat other employees they interact with, like your receptionist or other people working in the office who may not be part of the interview line up.   

Heineken staged a crisis to see how candidates react

If you really want to see what a candidate is made of, you might skip the formalities and see how they respond to a major crisis.

That was Heineken’s thinking, anyway, when they tested prospective interns with a series of heart-stopping surprises (included the interviewer collapsing on the floor and firefighters calling for help to rescue a trapped Heineken employee.) Take a look:

These kinds of shenanigans aren’t something you could (or would want to do) on a regular basis. In fact, we should note that this was actually part of a huge PR opp for Heineken, not something they do regularly.  

So, what’s a simpler “suprise” type test? The classic “pen-drop test,” where, mid-conversation, the interviewer "accidentally" drops his/her pen on the floor in between him and the interviewee. If the interviewee instinctively reaches to pick up the pen, this shows they aren’t putting on a “nice” act. How candidates react instinctively, when the opportunity to help or be kind to someone presents itself can tell you a lot.

Charles Schwab CEO has the waitstaff mess up candidates’ orders

They say you can tell a lot about a person from the way they treat service. But what if the restaurant has made a crucial mistake, like sending out the wrong dish? For Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab, this annoyance is a great opportunity to gauge a prospective hire’s character—so much so that he actually sometimes asks waiters to mix up his candidates’ orders before certain interviews.

“I do that because I want to see how the person responds,” said Bettinger in an interview with The New York Times. “We’re all going to make mistakes. The question is how are we going to recover when we make them, and are we going to be respectful to others when they make them?”

Though this elaborate setup may not be for everyone, the fact remains: candidates tend to show their true colors when they hit an unexpected (and annoying) bump in the road.

Menlo Innovations asks candidates to get their competition hired

Job seekers tend to see the world as more dog-eat-dog than puppies and flowers—but the ability to work together is often a better indicator of success than a fierce competitive streak.

At Michigan-based Menlo Innovations, CEO Richard Sheridan has developed a hiring evaluation that weighs how candidates can play nice, even when it’s with their direct competitors.

Instead of conducting interviews, Menlo groups dozens of candidates together in one “mass audition,” divides them into pairs, then gives them an unusual charge: to get their pair partner hired. The pairs are observed by existing staff members, who ultimately decide which ones make the cut.

The most important part of Menlo’s approach? “Through the audition, candidates may discover that Menlo is not for them,” writes Sheridan, in an article published at Inc.com.

In other words, the candidate’s readiness is determined right away. Though your company may not wish to weed out prospects en masse, most companies can learn from the way Menlo emphasizes teamwork and support in its hiring decisions.

While many hiring managers and recruiters have embraced left-field interview questions—“how many golf balls would fit in a school bus?”—that approach already seems stale to true innovators.

By asking prospective hires to demonstrate their aptitude, expertise, and personality rather than simply recounting it, employers have found a way to ensure new hires can contribute immediately—to both the company’s culture and its long-term goals.

*Image from Forrest Gump

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