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Some Companies Are Reinventing Job Interviews In Weird (And Possibly Illegal) Ways

A few of the more out-there recent spins on the interview process are dubiously effective and might even cross legal bounds.

Some Companies Are Reinventing Job Interviews In Weird (And Possibly Illegal) Ways
[Photo: Peathegee Inc/Getty Images]

While some tech companies have phased out wacky interview questions, others definitely haven’t. The theory goes that typical job interviews don’t give hiring managers or recruiters an accurate read on a candidate’s likely performance in a certain role, largely because interviews can be too brief, formulaic, formal, or suffused with all manner of bias. So while some advocate for more a more rigorously scientific approach to interviewing–controlling for key variables through process and procedure–others are taking the opposite approach.

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And in those cases, it isn’t just oddball questions like, “What would you do if you were the sole survivor of a plane crash?” (supposedly asked at Airbnb in 2015) that candidates encounter on otherwise standard job interviews. Some companies are now finding ways to shake up the interview format itself, but it isn’t always clear that some of the more out-there approaches are all that effective–or even legal.


Related: This Is What The Interview Process Is Like At Google, Apple, Amazon, And Other Tech Companies


1. Asking Candidates To Join In A Workout

While it’s pretty common for prospective employers to ask candidates to take assessments to determine their competence at a particular skill relevant to the role, others test for things that have nothing to do with the job.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last June, some candidates are being invited to do physical activities with hiring managers in lieu of traditional job interviews. In some cases, there was a semblance of relevance to the role in question–like taking a prospective chief financial officer of a nutrition-bar company for a run through Central Park, before moving to the gym for “a round of pull-ups, squats, and burpees.”

But there were also instances where there was clearly no connection at all. In one case, the managing director of a financial firm played basketball with job candidates and confessed to testing how they’d react if their shirts were yanked.


Related: It’s Time To Start Conducting More Scientific Job Interviews

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2. Extreme Tests Of Candidates’ Work Ethic

It’s understandable why employers might be interested in testing how committed a candidate might be to their role, but some companies’ means of doing so can get pretty extreme.

Two recent examples come from the New York Times’s Corner Office series with columnist Adam Bryant. In their conversation, Don Mal, CEO of software firm Vena Solutions, tells Bryant that he asks candidates if they’d ever leave their families at Disneyland “to do something that was really important for the company.” This, Mal says, helps him understand applicants’ work ethic. Barstool CEO Erika Nardini shares that she texts candidates over the weekend to see how fast they respond. (Nardini tells Bryant that the acceptable response time, in her view, is within three hours.)

3. Conducting The Whole Interview Via Texting

Companies that are looking to hire young talent have also taken advantage of what they believe to be millennials’ preferred means of communication: texting. As Fast Company‘s Lydia Dishman previously reported, a platform called Canvas facilitates text interviews between companies and candidates, assisted in part by artificial intelligence.

So if a candidate texts to ask about benefits, for example, they’ll automatically get sent a bit.ly link to more information, and then recruiters can see whether the candidate opened that link. In addition, Canvas CEO Aman Brar claims that text interviews can reduce the likelihood of implicit bias in the hiring process.

How Effective–And Legal–Are These Practices?

Creative as they may be, it isn’t clear these approaches actually work, and some may cross ethical or even legal lines.

Frank Schmidt, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa, told Fast Company in an email, “To my knowledge, there have been no studies conducted to see whether these techniques are effective, either in increasing the predictive validity of the interview or in motivating employees.” But when methods like these have been submitted to scientific analysis, Schmidt says, few hold up. “This does not mean they won’t become fads (usually short-lived ones).”

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Dr. Brenda Fellows, an industrial/organizational psychologist and adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, agreed. Not only are “there are no true pros to [these] unusual interview practices,” in her view, but “it often leads to legal challenges if you are unable to show specific job requirements whereas the practices demonstrate the job.” This is a particular concern when it comes to exercise-based interviews, where the American Disabilities Act of 1990 bars employment discrimination on the basis of disability. Will the candidate who’s physically unable to bench-press with a gym-loving hiring manager be as competitive as a candidate who is?

But even less dramatic practices can get companies into legal trouble, too. Any questions that encourage candidates to disclose their age or marital status, among other information, Fellows notes, are off-limits. So even answering a hypothetical question about leaving your family at Disneyland could potentially cross that line: Suddenly a jobseeker may find herself discussing her family and not her actual job skills.


Related: How To Answer 8 Interview Questions You Should Never Be Asked In The First Place


What’s more, exercises like these don’t necessarily accomplish their intended goals–and can even hamper them. According to leadership coach Constance Dierickx, employers put fanciful spins on traditional hiring methods “out of desperation and frustration.” Thrown off balance by a bizarre interview process, candidates are likely to do or say what they think hiring managers want to see or hear, leading companies to keep on making bad hires.

What Makes A Successful Interview

Dierickx believes that effective interviews aren’t oddball gauntlets of physical stamina or texting response time. It all comes down to two things: the clarity of an employers’ job requirements for a given role, and the skill-level of interviewers who are conducting the process.

She explains that if companies want to test how candidates think on their feet, they’d be better off asking hypothetical questions that are clearly related to the role, such as what a jobseeker might do if they were suddenly faced with scenario X versus scenario Y. Companies “need to put hiring in a strategic context,” she says.

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In addition to being dubiously effective and potentially unethical, many of these weird interview practices have something else in common, too: the belief that if companies can only suss out what makes a candidate tick, they’ll find the best person for the job. But as Dierickx suggests, that notion is predicated on the employer knowing exactly what it’s looking for, and why that criteria–whatever it may be–will make someone succeed. Too often, that’s the part employers fumble, before even scheduling their first candidate interview.

About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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