Job Auditions Are the Hot New Way to Assess Potential Hires—Here's How They Work

November 16, 2017

You put a lot of energy into making the most out of candidate interviews—from creating a clear interview strategy and testing soft skills to making sure candidates have all the info they need. But the truth is that no matter how great your interview process is, it won't always tell you everything you need to know about a candidate before you hire them.

And, this is exactly why talent auditions are becoming more popular. They help companies understand how candidates will actually perform in the role and help them measure candidates’ skills and traits in scenarios relevant to the job they’ll be doing.

Whether you’re bringing in talent for an event, a day at the office, or weeks at a time, auditions let you assess skills in a real-world context. And from the candidates’ perspective, it’s a unique opportunity to experience your company’s culture firsthand and get a real feel for if they’ll like working for you.

Here’s what three companies are doing to audition top talent—and tips to make this strategy work for you.

Citadel’s datathons attract thousands of students and help the company compete in a tight talent market

Investment company Citadel knew it had to go hard or go home when it came to attracting the best talent for its quantitative analyst and data scientist roles. “This talent market is completely broken from a supply and demand perspective,” Justin Pinchback, Citadel’s Head of Talent Strategy, explained at LinkedIn’s Talent Connect earlier this year. “We’re competing with the world’s best technology companies, finance companies, academia… to land this talent. So we had to approach the problem in a very dynamic way.”

Citadel’s approach was to create a datathon they call The Data Open. To date, more than 10,000 students have applied to compete. With a cash prize at stake, the competitors work in teams to analyze a challenging dataset, submit a paper, and undergo a nail-bitingly intense two-hour judging process.

The judging process allows Citadel’s recruiting team an in-depth look into the students’ writing, coding, programming, and problem-solving skills. But the evaluation extends throughout the event, with talent professionals watching closely to spot things like leadership potential and teamwork in order to build a detailed picture of top-performers.

“When we aggregate the talent, what we’re thinking about is all the observable behaviors, measures, and metrics we want to watch before they come in, during the event, and after the event,” Justin explains. “It’s a systematic talent process that we've developed. The traditional interview, while very good for some things, can’t be the only tool in our toolkit.”

For recruiters inspired to create their own talent audition, Justin has a few tips. First, figure out what will work for your organization and what resources you have at your disposal. If your company doesn’t have the internal bandwidth, you can follow Citadel’s example and leverage an outside partner (Correlation One).

The design of your audition should also be informed by the results you hope to achieve. “Think about the observable measures and behaviors that you care about,” Justin recommends. “Structure your audition so that you can collect that information systematically.”

Finally, while you can take cues from what other companies are doing, creativity is what will set your talent auditions apart. “You have to magnetize the candidates,” says Justin. “That’s a function of your creativity, the capital you’ll deploy, and the strength of your talent brand relative to the pool of applicants that’s most important to you.”

Mogul swaps the final interview for a day in the office to see how candidates perform on the job

Women-only social media platform Mogul has an impressive hiring record. No one has quit the company is three years—largely thanks to the innovative technique of letting candidates experience a day in the office before they’re hired.

This trial day occurs after a few rounds of interviews. It gives recruiters a clear understanding of the candidate’s hard and soft skills without requiring any kind of artificial simulation—they’re just doing the job they might be hired for.

For the candidate, this is a chance to experience the day-to-day work, immerse themselves in the culture, and meet the people who could be their future co-workers.

“[It] enables them to really see for themselves whether they're really a good fit inside the company," Tiffany Pham, Mogul’s founder and CEO, explains. "Ultimately, it's for us to see whether they'd be a great match for our culture as well."

This approach can help reduce the revolving door effect that many companies struggle with, where candidates realize too late that the culture isn’t right for them. It allows both parties to make more informed decisions, leading to happier hires and hiring managers alike. Compared to Citadel’s large-scale event, it’s also much simpler to execute for a company with limited time or resources.

Automattic hires final candidates for a paid trial period to test their fit and dedication

Taking on-the-job auditions a step further, web development company Automattic asks its top candidates to really show their commitment to the job—by hiring them for an intensive trial run.

CEO Matt Mullenweg was frustrated that the company’s previous hiring process wasn’t working. Endless phone screenings and one-on-one interviewers (often including the kind of brainteasers that once bamboozled Google hopefuls) weren’t telling him how candidates could actually perform.

To measure this, Automattic began hiring every candidate on a contract basis for two to six weeks. Some tryouts are cut short to respect the candidate’s time when they’re not right for the role, and feedback is provided throughout. Candidates can also choose to end the tryout themselves if they decide the role isn’t a good fit. All this reduces the likelihood of a bad or unhappy hire, saving time and energy. By 2013, the company’s turnover was just 2%.

“The tryout may feel like an extraordinary obligation, but that makes it a filter,” Matt told Harvard Business Review. “We want people who are willing to do what’s necessary to succeed and who are passionate enough about Automattic to make the process a priority.”

This approach has proven super effective. Very few candidates turn down the tryout period, and 95% of those who make it to the next step (an interview with the CEO, conducted via text or instant messaging) get an offer. Overall, about 40% of tryouts end up working for the company.

“Tryouts aren’t like a bake-off,” Matt says. “If we audition 10 people and they’re all strong, we may hire all of them. Applicants are competing against our standards of quality, not against one another.”

Methods like this can be tricky for candidates currently in employment, so it’s important to keep this in mind if you’re tempted to start tryouts yourself. Automattic allows candidates to work weekends or evenings if they choose, and pays them $25 an hour. All this makes it easier for them to handle the intensive process, while still demonstrating their abilities and dedication.

Ultimately, talent auditions need to be built around your company’s capabilities and tailored to measure the traits and metrics that you need the most. Respect the candidates’ time and show off your employer brand to create a unique and memorable candidate experience.

*Image from Citadel

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