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Forget traditional job interviews: Ericsson asked a job applicant to sleep in a homeless shelter

AP Photo/Jens Meyer
Ericcson created an obstacle course to test finalists for its new head of innovation role.
By Simone Stolzoff
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

You update your resume. You send in your application. You pass the phone screen. You read your interviewer’s LinkedIn profile. You think of a strength that you can pass off as your greatest weakness. You iron your lucky shirt. You’re ready to nail the in-person interview.

But then you get a text from the hiring manager: You have 36 hours to get to a longitude and latitude point in Charlotte, North Carolina. You live in Stockholm, Sweden.

Although this sounds like a scene from a reality television show, it was the real situation in which telecommunications giant Ericsson put one of its recent job candidates.

“I had no idea where I was going,” said a candidate we’ll call Lucas. “I didn’t know whether I should bring sandals or a suit.”

Half PR stunt, half serious challenge, Ericsson had been working for months to create the “extreme job interview” Lucas was about to enter. It had worked with an outside consultant named Dustin Garis, a former P&G executive who bills himself as a marketing and innovation expert, to design challenges that would be put to three finalists for a new head of innovation role.

“Maybe someone is a fantastic interviewer,” said Garis, “But for a high-powered, important role we wanted to see how they were in practice. Could they operate with ambiguity? Were they willing to get their hands dirty?”

Originally, Ericsson considered sending candidates to work with NGOs in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, but pulled the plug do to logistical challenges. It eventually decided to host its hiring experiment in Charlotte because of the city’s growing small business community. It worked with some of those small businesses as well as local organizations to test candidates’ ability to set up 36-hour challenges that tested candidates’ ability to leave their comfort zones.

Quirky interviews are somewhat in vogue. Consultancies like McKinsey famously pressure-test potential hires with timed case studies. Tech companies like Google are known to ask applicants esoteric questions such as “How many golf balls fit in a school bus?”  In a way, Ericsson’s extreme interview was just another version of sussing out a candidate’s true colors by putting him or her in an unfamiliar situation. But unlike most of these interview tests, Ericsson’s goal was to create scenarios specific to every candidate—while pushing the concept of an “unfamiliar job interview situation” to the absurd.

Lucas, for instance, came in with lots of high-level management experience, so Garis wanted to test his ability to connect and engage with the community on the ground.

“After arriving in Charlotte, Dustin offered me two choices,” Lucas said. “Either I could spend the night in a nearby homeless shelter for recovering drug addicts or walk to the tattoo parlor across the street and get a tattoo.” Lucas opted for the former. Another candidate, who had spent his career running large teams and interacting with multinational corporations, was thrust into a startup to test his ability to work with smaller organizations. The last candidate, who was well-versed in managing data for fast-growing startups, spent the day at a ballroom dancing studio in order to help the owners think of alternative revenue models.

Lucas’s mission was to get to know the staff and the residents at the shelter and think about ways in which his corporate experience could help an organization in a different sector. Though the challenge undoubtedly did more to help Ericsson than the shelter, the experience was “inspirational and eye-opening” for Lucas, who has spent his career sitting in boardrooms and flying business class.

Ericsson evaluated each of the candidates based on interviews with the host organizations and Garis’ observations of how the candidates handled themselves in unfamiliar environments. After his day in the shelter, Lucas designed a prototype of how the organization could utilize its alumni network to better offer support without incurring additional costs. Impressed, Ericsson offered Lucas the job this week.

The jury is out on whether observing how a candidate interacts with a local nonprofit in Charlotte is relevant to their ability to lead innovation at a corporation that employs 100,000 people and does over $200 billion in net sales annual. And, it probably goes without saying that a 24-hour sleepover at a social justice nonprofit is, at best, a superficial stand-in for real community engagement.

But Ericsson’s extreme interview does effectively make a point about the current status quo in hiring. Most job interviews use bad proxies—like charisma and off-the-cuff creativity—to measure a candidate’s competency. There’s only so much you can learn in 30 minutes of Q&A in a conference room. Research from the Yale School of Management shows that unstructured interviews can even lead to worse hiring decisions than relying on more objective measures like college GPA.

“In an interview you really need to get beyond the veneer. Some people are good at interviewing, but that doesn’t always translate to their work,” said Wayne Outlaw, author of Smart Staffing. “They can solve the problem of getting the job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can solve problems on the job.”

More practical interviews may be a step in the right direction toward figuring out whether a candidate can practice what they preach. And, like Ericsson, many companies are looking to nontraditional interviews to learn more about their applicants. For example, Mogul, a digital hub for millennial women, brings in candidates to work for a day in lieu of a final round interview. WordPress’s parent company Automattic gives candidates a paid trial period of work to figure out mutual fit before extending full-time offers.

Companies probably don’t need to be as extreme as Ericsson’s cross-continental obstacle course, but it makes sense to look for better ways to find out if an applicant can actually do the work.

“It’s one thing to say in an interview that you’re willing to take risks, but another thing to prove it,” Lucas said, reflecting on his day in Charlotte, before he’d gotten his job offer. “Whether or not I end up getting the job, it’ll be one to tell the grandchildren.”

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