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“Drive before you buy” for hiring success

5 min read


Would you buy a car without giving it a test drive? Probably not. It’s a big expenditure, and you want something that satisfies your needs and feels good. You want to see how it runs and try it out on the conditions important to you — urban streets, highway, etc. If it’s not a good fit, you avoid making an expensive mistake.

So, if that’s what you do with a $30,000 car purchase, why don’t you do the equivalent with prospective employees who will cost that or much more in just one year of salary and benefits? Here’s how you can boost your recruitment success.

Identify the critical skill sets for the position.

What are the key performance factors for the job? What has differentiated successful people in that role from less successful ones? Make a list and check it out with your team and other people involved in the hiring process. Be sure that you all agree on the type of person you are seeking.

Problems of fit more often arise from issues of style than technical knowledge — the employee’s behavioral style or attitude doesn’t mesh with the team. Fortunately, there are convenient profile tools (for example, DISC is one of them) that employers can use to identify what the job calls for and compare the profiles of candidates with the behavioral styles typically needed for success in the job.

Credit: Pixabay

I liken this to having an “owner’s manual” for the prospective employee. How does she or he work most effectively? What do you need to do and not do to get her or his best performance? Do you have a match? Just as you would review the performance characteristics of a new car and check out the maintenance requirements before you buy it, look at the performance characteristics of the job applicant.

Create real, live job situations for a “test drive.”

Why wait until new hires start to see how they do tasks? Learn beforehand how they approach and solve problems in your organization. Provide the kinds of tasks you would expect them to handle in their first week on the job. If it’s difficult to put them on actual tasks because of confidentiality concerns or other reasons, establish an assessment center or “test track” for them to navigate. This might take an hour or even a half day of their time, but it pays off hugely in what you learn about one another.

Here’s where the typical objections arise from employers:

  • “How can I ask them to come in and start doing work before I hire them?” Easy. Have them take off some appointment or vacation time from their current job and pay them a consulting fee, if needed.
  • Yes, but I’d need to train them first before I could expect them to work in our environment.” The point is that more than what they know now, you want to see how they learn. Many young people thrive in gaming worlds today. They dive into those. Surely, with a little imagination, you can give them a sample experience.

Debrief with the candidates.

What did they learn from their experiences about the job? What would they do the same or differently if they joined your team and faced similar situations? What would you want them to do differently?

One of the reasons that I’m so strongly advocating “drive before you buy” is that, once employers have made a commitment to someone, they want their choice to work. They often ignore telltale signs of misfits because they are justifying their hiring decision. Just like after you buy a car you want everyone to think you’ve made a great choice. This is cognitive dissonance at work, and your business will suffer.

You might ask, “But, won’t this take extra time and effort?” Not necessarily. For example, you can substitute this hands-on, real-world test drive for the some of the frequently vacuous reference checks in which lawyers advise references to be non-committal.

Take charge of your hiring process. Both you and the employees who are a good fit for your organization will appreciate the opportunity to enter the relationship with greater confidence.

Don Maruska founded and was CEO of three Silicon Valley companies and venture investor in startups that became public companies. He’s now a Master Certified Coach and author of “How Great Decisions Get Made,” with foreword by Margaret Wheatley (American Management Association, 2004), and co-author with Jay Perry of “Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life” with foreword by Jim Kouzes (Berrett-Koehler 2013). He earned his BA magna cum laude from Harvard, his MBA and JD from Stanford and previously led projects for McKinsey & Co.

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