Take Candidates on a Test Drive

by Jeff Hyman, Founder of Recruit Rockstars

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.


Nine out of ten hiring managers skip the most predictive component of the entire recruiting process. That’s right. The one thing that is most likely to make the difference between a great hire and a bad hire—completely bypassed. What is it?


The Test Drive. A real-world simulation that mirrors the actual work tasks that the candidate will be asked to accomplish if they get the nod. Some call it the job audition or the dry run, but whatever it’s called, it simply must be part of your process. If you take away nothing else from this book, add this step and you’ll spare yourself a good number of mis-hires.


Thirty years ago, a landmark study found that the Test Drive is the single best tool we can use when assessing candidates. It’s more accurate than interviews, reference checks, intelligence tests, education, or any other element. So, I insist upon it for every role at every level—from office manager to CEO. It’s so illuminating, yet just 9 percent of companies use it consistently. We can’t implement it at the beginning of the process, because it’s too time-consuming to execute it with twenty candidates, or even five.


Yet, the Test Drive allows you to see finalist candidates in action, actually performing work similar to what they’d be doing in the position. Even if you follow everything we’ve discussed throughout the rest of the interview process, there’s still a chance you’ll make a hiring mistake—because answering questions in the safe confines of an austere conference room is far different than actually doing the work.


That said, don’t bypass the interview phase, because it is a necessity. It provides information about competencies and DNA. Those are predictive of whether the candidate will thrive in your environment once they prove themselves capable during the Test Drive.


By adding the Test Drive to your process, you’ll increase your hiring accuracy from 50 or 60 percent to 70 or 80 percent. That’s huge. This step has changed my mind time and again about particular candidates—in both directions. Candidates who perform admirably during interviews sometimes fall apart during the Test Drives. And others—introverts or those demonstrating unrefined social skills during interviews—have blown me (and my clients) away.


Candidates—especially Rockstars—love the Test Drive, too, because it allows them to see the company and the hiring manager in action. It’s akin to dating before marriage. It also provides a forum for Rockstars to demonstrate their best handiwork.

Because they’re used so rarely, the Test Drive also serves to differentiate your company as being creative and compelling. It makes the statement, “We take recruiting seriously here.” The exercise helps candidates engage more deeply with your company and increases the likelihood that they’ll say, “Yes,” if given an offer. They’ve invested more time, hopefully enjoyed the process, and will have had the opportunity to see what the work will be like. The result is fewer surprises for both parties.


You may be skeptical about the value of the Test Drive. Sounds like a lot of work? Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the experience of a true believer, someone who’s used this method for years. Mary Beth Wynn, former Senior Vice President of People at Chicago-based Jellyvision, puts it this way:


Our audition process originated with hiring for our Writer role. We ask candidates to provide some custom writing samples, because our tone is so unique. That has expanded so that having an audition for every role in the company is an important part of our hiring process. Auditions let us focus less on where you went to school or how many years of experience you've got—and let us see more of what your actual work product is like.


If we don’t see a fit during the initial interview, we don’t advance to an audition because we don’t want to ask anyone to invest that kind of time and effort if we don’t think there’s going to be a fit. With some candidates, I’ve been excited after speaking with them, and then they bomb the audition. But there definitely have been candidates who weren’t my favorite going into the audition phase, who submitted an audition that showed us more of what they can do than how they presented in the first interview. So, it’s a really good check against what we’re seeing in initial interviews.


One of our best auditions is in Sales, for our Business Development Representative roles. They are our appointment setters, and are on the phone all day. So, we prepare some personas and tell them, “These are your potential targets,” and have them make a series of calls over a half-hour. We are looking to see that they’ve researched the persona and have an approach to how they’re going to try to speak with that person based on the information we’ve given them. We throw them some curveballs to see how they react. And we do a little coaching. We have them make a call, and then we say “Hey, ‘this’ was great, we’d like to see you do more of ‘this,’” and see if they can incorporate that coaching into the additional calls. It really is an actual phone call. They call the conference room, where we’ve got a group of people role-playing the potential clients.

We’re looking to see things like: Are they improving over the course of the calls? How do they react to curveballs? Do they take the coaching well? We’re also looking to see if they are “persistent in a lovely way.” Some of the personas are happy to hear from you. Sometimes you get someone who is trying to get off the phone and is really negative. So, we try to vary the personas so that when they get someone on the phone who is saying “No, no, I don’t think this is for me,” we want to see if they can be persistent in a way that is kind, and has a Jellyvision delightful spin to it.


So, what does the Test Drive look like in action? It can be two hours, half a day, or two days. It’s a relatively short-term, real-world scenario. You’ll observe the candidate as they perform crucial tasks. Provide data and a timeframe, and see how they use logic and reasoning skills to problem-solve. You’ll see how they follow instructions, or when they think out of the box, delivering something beyond your expectations. You’ll get a glimpse into how they think by the questions they ask. It’s telling for a host of reasons.


No one buys a car without a Test Drive, right? You’ll see it in the showroom (the résumé); ask the car salesperson questions (the interview) and then, you’ll take it out for a spin. You’ve already determined it fits your budget and has the features you want. But only on the wide-open road can you gauge the acceleration, the handling, and the performance. You truly see what it can do. That’s what Test Drives accomplish with your candidates. And the results will surprise you, too.


To be clear, I’m not referring to “job shadowing,” during which an employer invites a finalist candidate to spend time on a ride-along with a sales rep in the field or watch a team do its work. That’s useful for observation and for cementing a hesitant candidate. They aren’t here to observe how it’s done; they’re here to do. This should be arguably the best work you’ll ever see. If there are typos or mathematical errors or logical flaws, that’s a huge red flag. If they clash or aggravate your team during their first assignment, that’s not a good sign either.


The exercise itself, including the length and format, will vary by role. For individual performance roles, a two-day homework assignment may make sense: create a presentation of this, show us how you’d code that, etc. For leadership and executive roles, I prefer a half-day session including key players whom the person will work with on the job. You’ll go through a mini-exercise in which you observe how they perform in a real-world situation. How do they think, lead, and communicate? Are they rigid or open to new ideas? Are they authoritative or demure?


Let’s take a real-life example with an opening for a product manager. You might tell the finalist candidate about a product that you launched last year but isn’t selling well in the market. Ask them to develop a game plan. Should we kill the product, or continue with it? Does it need to be changed? How and why?


You’re not looking for a specific answer, as much as their reasoning and interaction with others in pursuit of the best solution. You might have them join with someone from sales, finance, and marketing. Note whether they lead the discussion or take a passive approach in the discussion. Do they lead and inspire others? Do they imagine the possibilities, and create viable tactics to achieve them? Or do they give off a negative vibe? Do they demonstrate the competencies for the role? Are they data-driven? Are they creative in their problem-solving?

Another type of exercise can be longer, and involves the candidate analyzing information or creating something. This is appropriate for more individual contributor roles. Let’s use a software developer as an example. You could create an assignment for them to complete at home. You might ask them to write a piece of code or explain how they would write it. Give them a day or two, perhaps a week, depending on the project.


Be consistent: Provide the same exact assignment to each of your final candidates for the same role. Write out the assignment; include time constraints, expectations of the deliverable, and the tools the candidate is permitted to use (Google, a friend, a book). Is there any background information about the company that you’ll need to provide?


I haven’t found a role yet for which I can’t design a Test Drive. Be mindful of whether the role is primarily team-based or an individual function, then design the Test Drive appropriately.


Let’s look at some other examples.

Senior Executives

Executive roles demand competencies in leadership, delegation, and the ability to hold people accountable. You might have a candidate attend a staff meeting to see whether they make meaningful contributions and advance the discussion. You might ask them to make a strategy presentation and answer follow-up questions. You’re assessing their leadership style and how they engage with others. One of my recent clients was a Board of Directors assessing candidates for the CEO role. We had the two finalists spend one-half day each with the Board, facilitating discussions, working through strategic issues. By the end, their first-choice candidate had emerged: a Rockstar.

Chief Financial Officer

Provide your company’s financial information for the past quarter and have the candidate prepare a written analysis and PowerPoint presentation, which they then present in person. Look for their insights, clarity of analysis, and ability to make assumptions. There are countless traits that are unascertainable in an interview, which emerge (or don’t!) during the Test Drive.

Customer Service Manager

Consider having a finalist for head of customer service sit in on some live calls. Have them take notes, evaluate the team, and provide feedback. Look at how they interact with the staff. Even ask your staff for feedback—did they hear any useful ideas from this person?


The Test Drive process scales nicely over time. Develop a Test Drive for each role at your company. Start with the ones you hire most often first, then build on that library. Learn what other companies do, and adapt their ideas. Your head of HR should help create these with hiring managers. They can then be re-used over time, with minor updates.


Remember that candidates usually welcome the opportunity to do the Test Drive. Rockstars love it. If you get resistance, your candidate might not be a Rockstar, or they may be hesitant to invest the time (a sign that you have more selling to do).


If necessary, consider paying your candidates for their time in taking the Test Drive. You can say, “We’re not looking for free work. We’re looking to ensure that there’s a fit, that you can do the job as we believe you can, and we’re happy to pay you for your time.”


Ideally, both of your two finalist candidates pass the Test Drive, but if one doesn’t, they’re out, no matter how good the rest of the interview process was.

About the Author

Author Profile pic

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. 

Today, he’s CEO of Chicago-based Recruit Rockstars. Along the way, Jeff has created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. 

Based on his 25 years in recruiting, he authored the bestselling book Recruit Rockstars.

Jeff also hosts the five-star Recruit Rockstars Podcast and is featured frequently by CNBC, Inc, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. 

He holds degrees from Kellogg School of Management and The Wharton School. 

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