Hire Better Talent by Using Interview Projects

August 27, 2015
Contributor: Heather Pemberton Levy

Learn first-hand whether a candidate is a good fit for the team by incorporating role-based assignments at strategic times during the interview process.

Let’s explore a tale of two hires. In a recent interview cycle, two candidates aced their face-to-face interviews and made it to the final round. Then came the project. Each candidate was tasked with designing a content marketing program that would support the company’s future growth. One drafted a well-written, but otherwise bare bones plan in an unformatted Word document. The other asked questions to clarify the assignment, prepared a 20-page overview and identified growth opportunities and gaps in the content marketing program. The second candidate listed possible titles, calls-to-action, keywords and social tactics.

To avoid the headaches and costs of a bad hiring decision, use project assignments during the interview process to let job candidates demonstrate their capabilities instead of just talk about them. Even if a candidate comes with strong blind references from trusted associates or a network, these techniques won’t necessarily reveal whether the candidate can produce high quality work on deadline, according to Kirsten Newbold-Knipp, Research Director, Gartner for Marketing Leaders.

Why is marketing interviewing broken?

Education pedigrees, self-described results and strong references don’t necessarily reveal actual creative, analytical or strategic capabilities or the ability to produce high quality work on time and at scale. After hiring a candidate using traditional interviewing techniques, one marketing director noted “We learned the hard way that interviewing a candidate was not a way to verify that they could ‘do’ the work.” So how can marketing leaders know a candidate can do the work?

“We learned the hard way that interviewing a candidate was not a way to verify that they could ‘do’ the work.”

Use interview projects to validate capabilities

An interview project is a task or set of tasks resulting in actual work output that can be reviewed and evaluated by the potential employer. Ideally, this project takes place when you’ve selected a short list of candidates for consideration. The project should be designed as a discrete problem to solve that is a good representation of the type of work necessary for success in the role, be it writing, design, analysis or even strategic thinking.

How to set up an interview project

Projects for most marketing roles should fall along a continuum of analytical, creative and strategic elements and the level of each will vary depending on role.

Tailor projects to role and experience level

If it’s a junior role in content marketing, ask the candidate to write a post about and then give a five-minute presentation on a topic essential to a their job responsibility such as SEO, social media marketing or blogging. If it’s a senior role, like Editor in Chief, provide the candidate with some historical data on what has worked or hasn’t in a content program along with persona information. Ask the candidate to create an abbreviated editorial calendar and promotion plan and define how success would be measured.

Establish time and scope

Decide on a role-by-role basis when to introduce the project. If introduced too early in the cycle, it can inadvertently weed out too many candidates especially in talent pools where demand is high and supply is scarce. If introduced too late, time could be wasted on candidates who interview very well but don’t have prerequisite skills for the role.

Be transparent about project purpose

Be clear both internally and with candidates about how you’ll evaluate the project and/or its deliverable. Create a scorecard for internal use about candidate comparison. As a best practice, you should not use the work from a candidate that’s not hired or agree on fair compensation if you would like to use the output. Consult with your company’s legal advisors to find out if they have any concerns or recommendations to minimize risks.

How to get started

Discuss the plan with your recruiters and identify projects for one or two openings on your team. Have at least two people do a reality check of the project to see if it is a reasonable task and review lessons learned during each interview cycle. Finally, refine subsequent projects based on learnings and past projects.

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