Intern Season is Here—But Companies Need A Better Hiring Strategy


It’s summer and that means intern season is in full swing. According to a recent Washington Post piece by Jeffrey Selingo, “More than 70 to 80 percent of new hires at big companies like Facebook, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and eBay come through their internship programs now, compared to about half or less just a decade ago.” Lauren Rivera, author of Pedigree; How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, says those same big companies base the internship interview process on what they describe as “polish” or “pedigree”—as evidenced in thousands of tiny social cues and cultural patterns—rather than skills.

While social aptitude does have its place in the hiring process (Gallup found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50 percent) making it the primary basis for employment, as interviews inadvertently do, can lead to biased judgments that are not reflective of an employee’s future performance. A 2000 University of Toledo study found that judgments made in the first 10 seconds of an interview could predict its outcome. Because people tend to initially identify with people like them, unconsciously basing an interview on the first 10 seconds can not only blind the interviewer to a person’s real aptitudes, it can lead to racial and gender discrimination as interviewers self-select candidates that reflect their own backgrounds. This can not only make a company vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits, but also create a homogenous company culture.

Companies need a mix of different backgrounds and approaches in order to innovate in today’s market and interview bias makes this much more difficult. “I think diversity used to be kind of a moral issue,” says Diane Hessan, CEO of Startup Institute, a bootcamp that trains people to enter the startup workforce. “Now, diversity is seen as much, much more important strategically.” Employers need to shift their hiring criteria from pedigree to competency not only to find the best talent irrespective of color, race, or sex, but also to save valuable money, time, and resources.

According to a recent article in the New York Times by Ms. Rivera, “Unstructured interviews, which are the most popular hiring tools for American managers and the primary way they judge fit, are notoriously poor predictors of job performance.” Since the financial costs of a bad hire can be enormous—in a recent survey, more than 40 percent of respondents said a bad hire cost them at least $25,000 in the last year—the best companies are starting to innovate away from the traditional interview in favor of skill-based assessment. In Work Rules!: Insights from Google that Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Google senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, argues the best predictor of how someone will perform in a job is a work sample test, which measures the actual skills needed on the job.

A service that can help employers invert the hiring process and pre-qualify candidates prior to the employer investing time and energy would make the hiring process more efficient and improve outcomes for employers and job seekers alike. The answer for small firms may be to use technology to automate the first steps of the interview process so they can spend their limited resources making business judgments between similarly well-qualified candidates. For example, companies could have applicants complete a work problem showcasing skills that will be required in the role, and screen applicants based on assessing their anonymized responses.

In a June 2015 New York Times op-ed, Thomas Friedman said:

“Technology is redefining work and commerce, and if we’re smart it can also redefine education for employment and advancement so everyone can monetize, or improve, any skill and connect with any employer in need of it.”

In the absence of such technology, employers have historically used internships and co-ops to serve this pre-qualification function for campus recruiting; as Selingo reports, large employers are relying on internships more and more. Internships are only effective in predicting job success if the intern is conducting the type of work he or she will be doing as a full-time employee, however, and this often isn’t the case.

In short, employers are using inadequate predictors for future performance. One potential solution is to engage on an experiential work project with real parameters, constraints, and consequences to determine skill fit and passively screen for communications skills. This type of trial engagement would be a meaningful investment on both the part of the employer and the candidate, and could even be compensated accordingly. Instead of relying on the prestige of a student’s college, or similarity of background of the interviewer, employers and students alike would be well served to determine mutual fit through a project-based trial. In order to close the experience gap, we need to shift from pedigree toward competency.

Nick Ducoff currently serves as Northeastern University’s Vice President for New Ventures, incubating new business ideas to diversify revenue streams and advance a new model of higher education. Follow @nickducoff

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