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Test Driving Your Next Employee’s Skills: Behavioral Interviews

by Daniel Rieger

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For the past few years, the buzz phrase in interviewing has been behavioral interviews. In behavioral interviews, the interviewer asks the candidate what has been done in the past in order to extrapolate what will be done into the future: past performance indicates future performance.

I’m suggesting that the behavioral interview could be more than a discussion about behavior—it could be a demonstration of behavior. Test driving candidates places a demand on the candidate to exercise his or her current ability while under scrutiny. Thus, rather than hearing stories about behavior, test drives allow you to observe behavior.

Furthermore, even if a candidate fails the test, a test drive still saves time and money. The benefits involved in test driving candidates far outweigh the risks. Thus, the investment in a test drive is low, and the return is high.

Test Drive Both Experienced and Inexperienced Candidates

In terms of experience, candidate pools have two extremes: the veteran and the newbie. If a veteran passes the initial screening that Mr. Rastocny suggests, then there might be little or no reason to conduct the more time-intensive test drive. Similarly, if the newbie passes the screening, then a test drive could be a waste.

On the other hand, an employer might consider a veteran who is attempting to transfer expertise from one area of work to another. When considering a veteran candidate who is attempting to transfer skills, it might be useful to see how the veteran does in the new job before signing him or her as a full-time or contract employee.

One veteran writer wrote, “I’ve been through ALL the interviews. They were impressed, they wanted to work with me, but there is no position just yet. My offer to allow them to “test drive” me was well received. What’s likely to happen now is I’ll be assigned to a small-to-large project, follow it through to completion, then they’ll assess my performance. On the flip side, I will evaluate them as a potential full-time employer and report my feedback to them. Through it all, however, I will get paid a handsome, agreed-upon hourly rate. I suspect my test drive will last several weeks or even months.”

An employer might conduct a test drive with a newbie in order to find the unpolished stones: bright writers who can do the work, but don’t have credentials or experience.

The Details

Before explaining what a test drive should look like, consider a caveat: in order for a test drive to be beneficial, an employer has to have the time and money to shop for the right candidate—test driving is not for the employer who needs a new employee right away. A grace period is necessary, since it is possible that one or more candidates will not pass the test.

That being said, the process for veterans and newbies is the same.

  • Give the candidate a mock-up test that an experienced employee could do in a day or two. Or, give the candidate the amount of real work that could be done in two to three days. Short or shorter tests save time for you and candidates.
  • If the candidate gets the work done with reasonable quality but is slow, consider retesting him or her with a similar task to gauge improvement. Watch the candidate’s learning curve. You can supplement this judgment call by other team members’ opinions and input.
  • If the candidate can’t complete the test-drive work within an acceptable time period, it is best to eliminate that person from the candidate pool.
  • If the test drive is paid because the candidate is completing real work, ensure that no money is wasted. Help the candidate finish the assigned work. If the candidate finishes the work, you will lose a minimum amount of money.
  • Evaluate the test drive.

Evaluating the Test Drive

In order to decide if a candidate has passed the test drive, consider two different factors: tangible results and intangible results.

Tangible Results

Did the candidate meet deadlines within the expected range for a new hire’s first few weeks on the job?  Was the candidate’s work within the range of quality expected?  Even though determining the range of quality is not an exact science, the main criterion is the following: the work could pass for the work of an employee. If the work cannot pass this test, then the judgment that the candidate is fit for the job becomes a riskier assertion.

You must eliminate a candidate who cannot meet deadlines or who does not have a learning curve appropriate for the position. This applies to both veterans and newbies.

If the candidate is a veteran and is slow to meet deadlines, consider that he or she probably has a higher price tag than the newbie. A fast employee is usually worth more than a slow one, especially if the fast one has less experience and can perhaps be paid significantly less.

In most cases, the salary range for veterans and newbies overlaps. The overlap exists when newbies are outperforming veterans in speed and quality. However, it should be obvious that when speed and quality are equal, the newbie will have a lower salary. Thus, all performance factors being equal, a newbie is probably preferable.

Intangible Results

Speed is not the only valuable characteristic. One must consider the factors that Mr. Rastocny explained in his article. Team rapport can play a big role in team cohesiveness. Team cohesiveness plays a role in morale, and morale plays a role in productivity. A candidate who meets and exceeds expectations on paper might not be the best candidate. For example, if the candidate who excels doesn’t work well in groups and drives down the morale of his or her teammates, the advantage of speed and quality may be lost.

Test Driving Tips

  • DO test drive inexperienced candidates for a half day before committing to a longer test drive. Waiting to commit to a lengthy test drive for such a candidate can avoid waste.
  • DON’T pay candidates for a half day test drive. A commitment to a half-day of work is low enough that a candidate should be willing to spend the time being tested and have no expectation of compensation.
  • DO test unemployed candidates for longer (1-3 week) test drives. This longer commitment is a reasonable expectation given that an unemployed candidate will likely have time.
  • DO pay unemployed candidates for longer (1-3 week) test drives. Compensating a candidate for devoting a significant amount of time and effort to a project is fair.
  • DON’T pay unemployed candidates an industry standard salary for the test drive. In most cases, because the test drive is temporary, paying industry standard for a week or two of work could be extravagant; sometimes, depending on the work and commitment, it might be reasonable.

Conclusion: It Pays to Go Beyond Discussion in Behavioral Interviews

The bottom line is this: We test drive our cars. A major car dealership’s floor-sales manager once put it to me, “Banks refer to cars as assets; but most cars are holes in the pavement we pour money into—they’re not assets.”  If we test drive “holes in the pavement that we pour money into,” why not test drive true assets that actually net a return?

Test driving a prospective employee takes behavioral interviews beyond just a discussion and into the realm of a demonstration.

Clearly, test drives in the workplace can be more valuable than at the car dealership.

About the Author

Daniel Rieger is a Technical Writer for Precisely Write, Inc. in Fishers, Indiana. With both undergraduate and graduate degrees to his credit, his background includes scientific coursework and research. In Daniel’s spare time, he and his wife, Vanessa, enjoy reading Shakespeare and discussing their Christian faith.

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