Why we ask candidates to do "homework"

Posted by Alex on November 30, 2018

Perfect Price asks all candidates who move past the phone screen interview stage to complete a short assessment project before we bring them in to meet the team. This requires some of the candidates’ time (not too much!) and you might wonder, why do we do ask for this?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/goodncrazy/5376076281/sizes/z/Photo credit: Flickr 

A candidate centric hiring process

The only reason we ask for homework in advance is for your–the candidate’s–benefit. This homework benefits you in several important ways.

Homework gives us a much more complete picture of you than a resume or an interview can. And by "complete", I mean, "How good are you at the actual work?" I do not mean whether you look, act, or behave like us. In fact, research shows that an assignment reflective of the work you'll be doing is by far the best indicator of success on the job (r2 of 29%). Versus, say, a day of interviews.

Here's my rant on interviews. All the evidence shows interviews are a poor indicator of success on the job. In fact Google's Head of People Operations found unstructured interviews have an r2 of 0.14. That means an unstructured interview can only explain 14% of an employees' performance. And interviews favor tall, attractive, articulate and sociable candidates, and people who look and act like the interviewer (are we all tall, attractive, articulate and sociable here? Perhaps. Also, modest).

A homework assignment levels the playing field, especially with respect to first impressions. Someone who is great at doing the work but not a stellar interviewer will be meeting a team psychologically biased in their favor–they saw great work, they want to hire you. The first impression is based on your work product–not on what shoes you wore, or whether you were 10 minutes early or 2 minutes late. (Our CTO is always late. And he's our CTO. Is lateness an indicator of genius? Perhaps.). And a level playing field is especially important for people whose first language isn’t English (ask our CEO about the worst interview of his life).

We want the whole team you’ll work with to be able to focus and dedicate the time to you. We can’t do that if we spend half a day with every single applicant who does a good job on a phone screen. In fact, we have seen a strong inverse correlation between willingness to come in for half a day of interviews and the ability to do the job. Hopeful, stretch candidates are happy to roll the dice for a big step up; but someone who already does that kind of work may be hesitant to take time away from a good job for fear of reprisal–or because there simply isn't time during the day, with all the work their job requires.

Which brings us to how the assignment also saves you, the candidate, time. If it is not a fit, you don’t have to make excuses to your current job or take a PTO day. If that means more people apply, who otherwise would have been afraid to take half a day off, great!

Finally and perhaps most importantly, if and when you are invited on-site, you have the opportunity to see what we’re like to work with and how we think based on your project. This creates an even exchange, where psychologically you feel on even footing with our experienced team members. There are no "how many ping pong balls fit in a 747" type questions meant to stump the chump–it's a respectful, professional discussion amongst equals. Just like you do in your job every day–and would do here, hopefully.

Moreover, in that context you can ensure your expectations of the work and the company's align. Through this process, the candidate who is chosen will be assured of meeting expectations–because he or she will already have met them in the project. A candidate who expects, say, marketing to work a certain way–and discovers that we don’t view marketing working the same way–can avoid a bad fit. While a bad fit sucks for everyone, it sucks most for the candidate.

Why would you not want to do the assignment?

Occasionally a candidate objects to doing the project because they feel it is “free consulting”. But this objection puts things backward. First, if we paid for it, we’d be back to the first point–deciding who to invite based on just an interview. As a result, we would miss a lot of great candidates, especially marginal ones who don’t interview well but are great at the actual work. Or worse, we'd invite candidates in for half-day interviews–and be plagued by bias while failing to pick successful candidates most of the time. While taking more unpaid candidate time (possibly including using PTO) than the assignment would have.

Second, an on-site interview is a huge commitment from the company. Three to five senior people will participate in your interview, investing a collective 6 - 10 hours with you in person. Asking you to do 2-3 hours in advance of us spending that kind of time seems only reasonable. I would hope that you'd spend that much time preparing for on-site interviews anyway–and this gives you structure to those preparations so you're not picking through Glass Door trying to game an unstructured process.

Finally, a project related directly to what you'll be working on is a great opportunity for you to learn important details about your future role at our company, and for us to learn your understanding of applicable skills and background knowledge.

We were once candidates too

We have all been candidates before. It is out of our experience as candidates ourselves that we’ve adopted this approach. Our process respects your time and reduces your risks, while contributing directly towards our goal of hiring the best people. Which, by the way, helps you if you work here because you'll only be working with the best people–thanks to this process.