My friend Mike recently applied for a job in marketing and communications at a video game company that asked candidates to demonstrate their creativity and deep knowledge of “nerd culture.”
The role is a great fit for Mike, who has obsessed over comic books, science fiction, and video games since we were in high school together. But before the pandemic the interviewer would have had to take his word for it. Since the interview was conducted remotely, however, he got an opportunity to prove it.
Before the interview Mike set up a display of his Funko figurines in clear view of the camera, featuring characters from his favorite comic books, video games, and sci-fi films.
“People in this nerd culture, a lot of them collect these,” says Mike, who prefers not to use his last name, as his current employer doesn’t know he’s interviewing elsewhere. “The goal was to subtly show that I’m into this culture, that I do have that ‘nerd’ background that they’re looking for.”
Most advice for making a good impression in a remote interview mentions keeping the space in view of the camera clear of clutter and potential distractions. As video-based interviews evolve from the exception to the norm, however, candidates such as Mike are starting to use this new real estate to showcase carefully curated props that can serve as a conversation starter, demonstrate something about their personality, or make a case for their qualifications.
Video Backgrounds As The New Interview Attire
Whereas wardrobe choices provided one of the only opportunities for candidates to bring some of their personality into the interview room before the pandemic, a candidate’s background can now serve a similar purpose in a remote interview setting.
“What you wore to an interview was often scrutinized, or made an impression,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of the Creative Group, the creative and marketing industry staffing arm of the global human resources consulting firm Robert Half. “The reality now is, as so much more of the hiring is happening virtually, your background is part of your interview suit.”
Just as a candidate’s clothes should be carefully chosen to demonstrate both professionalism and personality, Domeyer says remote interviewees have a new canvas to work with—but the rules for this space are still being defined.
“The creative industries have an opportunity to actually lead in making some changing behaviors for video interviews, because they can be more bold,” she says. “It can be a differentiator, but you still need to be cautious with those sorts of things so they don’t come across as too try-hard or kitschy.”
The Right Background for the Right Job
When in doubt, Domeyer says it’s best to play it safe and opt for a plain background but adds that carefully chosen items might be worth including in later interview rounds as candidates gain a better sense of the company culture.
“It’s kind of like your résumé; you want to edit it a little bit for each situation,” adds Brie Reynolds, the senior career specialist at FlexJobs. “You might apply for jobs at very traditional, buttoned-up companies, and you may be applying for jobs at super casual, creative companies, so you might want to change it up, while always remaining true to yourself and who you are.”
Reynolds suggests that candidates should tailor their backgrounds based on the role and industry and look for clues regarding the company’s culture in its social media activity, on its website, and on the job posting itself. “Do some research on the company and see how they put themselves out into the world. Is it buttoned-up and traditional, or do they get creative with things?” she advises.
Reynolds adds that FlexJobs will be updating its prior guidance on best practices for remote interviews to include creative use of background space in response to a continuously evolving set of norms surrounding remote hiring.
“The hiring managers that you’re talking to, they might not have been familiar with remote work and remote interviewing before,” she says. “Now a lot more people are familiar with what remote work is like—the blending of work and life that happens, and how your office space and your home aren’t always a sterile, professional environment.”
A Potential Source of Bias
Bringing more of one’s home life into a professional setting, however, can be a scary prospect to those who might feel self-conscious about that environment. Just as dress code requirements can serve as a barrier for those who don’t have access to the latest fashion trends, it’s important that recruiters don’t add background space to the list of potential sources of discrimination.
“I fear that it opens up recruiters and hiring managers to more biases in video interviews, because it’s much easier to make those judgments,” says Chanele McFarlane, a career strategist and founder of Do Well Dress Well, an online personal branding and career resource. “When you’re on a video interview you’re opening up your home, and you get an idea of what someone’s financial situation is, whereas in in-person interviews you can kind of keep that separate.”
McFarlane cautions that remote interviews could further contribute to inequality or anxiety amongst those experiencing income instability, as they are less likely to have high-speed internet, high-quality cameras, or relevant props.
“It then becomes the responsibility of the hiring managers to be aware of all of that, and see what they can do to alleviate some of that anxiety,” she says. “Maybe provide a link to a digital background they can use, which just helps to level the playing field.”
Part of the “New Normal”
Even digital backgrounds provide an opportunity for candidates to showcase their personality, creativity, and personal branding, adds Domeyer, who recently came across an example of someone who had done so successfully.
“By looking at [the hiring manager’s] LinkedIn profile they realized they had both gone to the same educational institution, so she put the stadium of the university behind her in the background of the interview,” she says. “It was very deliberate, very bold, and likely left a good impression.”
Whether candidates utilize relevant props or digital backgrounds, McFarlane believes the space behind the interviewee will be more frequently utilized as a personal branding tool in remote interviews in the future. “You just want it to be something that they’re going to remember,” she says. “Moving forward, I think people are going to go out of their way to make sure their background has items that help them stand out.”