Earnings and Yearnings: Trying Before Buying

Employers are devising novel ways to see how you'll really perform on the job.

By Becca Weinstein, published May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

You meet him at a bar and laugh over drinks as the evening wears on. At the end of the night, he picks up the tab, leaving you with a smile.

But it's not a date. It's a job interview for a software company whose sole product is an application that allows users to "scan the scene" of a bar as a prelude to deciding where to go out for the evening. The company, Scenetap, turns candidates loose in bars and restaurants as a way of replicating the milieu in which they will eventually work. Since staffers may be called on to pitch the app to bar managers and nightlife-loving individuals, or to conference-call a global liquor brand, being social is the job.

Candidates must strike a balance between being friendly and professional. Says Scenetap CEO Cole Harper: "In a typical interview, people's guard is up, and they give the answer they think you want to hear. We want to know what people will say in a friendly discussion, so we meet informally to have personality-based conversations." Sitting at the bar, Harper might toss out a derogatory comment about someone close by to see how a prospective hire reacts.

Resumes and interviews reveal only so much. And resumes can be, well, padded. Getting a job these days increasingly means trying it before an employer buys you. Companies are creating simulation experiences of various kinds to throw job candidates into real job tasks in real time .

At Aquity Group, a digital marketing agency, prospective salespeople are asked to pitch the company to the company. It's their creativity and resourcefulness that Aquity wants to gauge, traits that may not show up in a traditional interview. The pitch also reflects a job seeker's engagement and research.

Stock trading in 2012 requires a psychological fitness that reveals itself only under real market conditions, experts say. Given the fact of market volatility, potential traders must be able to endure ups and downs with equanimity and to bounce back from losses without resorting to gambling with their accounts in an attempt to recoup funds. Companies like Topstep Trader offer—for a fee—simulation experiences to prospective traders to prove they can handle the risks.

Simulation experiences are not new. For almost as long as there have been airplanes there have been flight schools with devices that mimic the controls and conditions of flying a plane. Successful candidates for the U.S. Army's Special Forces must first endure 19 days in a hot, dusty field—a simulated battleground—and nonstop tests of physical and psychological strength. But a tough economy has prompted more conventional companies to take the closer look at candidates that simulation experiences provide.

Google has a reputation for asking job seekers offbeat queries like, "How many golf balls fit in a swimming pool?" to get at reasoning ability. But it, too, is now taking a more situational approach. "The brain teasers were phased out because we want better indicators of how people would perform in situations connected to the job," says Jordan Newman, manager of corporate communications. "It's more relevant and illuminating to see how applicants work through a problem they would be hired to solve."

Situational assessments indeed provide a reliable take on how people act on the job, observes Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College. "It gets at a basic idea in psychology, that the best predictor of future behavior is past and current behavior." Assessing knowledge and skills is necessary, but it is no longer sufficient for many jobs.

"Everyone these days knows how to present a good front in a resume or cover letter," says Katharine Brooks, director of career services at the University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? "So much language on the resume is marketing speak—everyone's a team player and hard worker. It's difficult to know whether that's true."

Sometimes it takes a lengthy—and ultimately frustrating—interview to find out that job candidates can't do what their resume says they can. Enter companies like InterviewStreet, which, having developed its own ways of testing computer programming ability, filters job candidates for high-tech firms. Periodically, it holds CodeSprints, in which job seekers are asked to solve coding puzzles; the top 10 percent of performers are snapped up for interviews by client companies.

Computerized job scenarios offer another approach, one that is particularly popular in the customer-service field. To test for the ability to multitask and problem-solve while remaining friendly and conscientious, companies such as Florida-based Employment Technologies Corporation set up virtual scenarios in which an applicant interacts with a customer.

Simulations don't just benefit employers. Job candidates get to know exactly what they can expect of a job and then decide whether it is for them.

There is, however, a downside to simulations. You can no longer fake it on your resume, says Texas's Brooks. "More and more employers are looking for definitive proof that individuals have the skills they say they have." If your resume says you can speak French and tap dance at the same time, be prepared to prove it.