Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Writing Samples for Hiring (How to Boil an Egg)

TotemPoleAlaska

I developed a quirky procedure for screening potential candidates when hiring. Playing the Mastermind game together with a potential candidate is probably my favorite part because it’s a great indicator of future performance. But before they get to the game, I also asked for a writing sample which they generate on the spot.

The instruction is simple: “You are to respond to a new customer inquiry on a technical matter, but because we aren’t sure of the level of technical expertise and the purpose of the exercise is not to judge your technical expertise, we will pretend that the problem we are trying to solve here is ‘how to boil an egg’. Respond back to Hanako, our new customer, on ‘how to boil an egg’ via email.

I give them a sheet of paper and a pencil, and they have 10 minutes to write out the response.

(There are other versions of writing exercises as part of the interview process. The one that’s popular for engineers is the “how to make a peanut butter sandwich”, where you can focus on their ability to spec out the ingredients and provide accurate instructions in the optimal order.)

Things to look for includes how the customer is addressed (if the name is used at all, assumed gender, etc.), if we first addressed their status emotionally (either thanking them for the question, becoming a customer, apologizing for not relaying the instructions ahead of time), if the actual instructions are clear, logical and/or detailed enough, how they ended the email (included contact info for further inquiry, signed their name or not).

This exercise made sense for screening tech support candidates when responding to technical inquiries via email was a big part of the job. It turned out that the exercise was a good assessment tool for general communication skills, as well as aptitude for teamwork and customer service.

I once gave this exercise to an accomplished executive I was hiring short term for a very specific task. It felt odd, especially to my staff, that I decided to ask her to go ahead with the exercise even though I knew that she performed at a very high level, and this exercise would not have given me any new data points on my decision to hire her. I’m glad I did, because no one should feel that there is a position within a company that is “above” writing a customer email.

Photo: Totem poles in downtown Anchorage, Alaska

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This entry was posted on October 9, 2015 by in Management and tagged , , , , .
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