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It seems to me that in most positions you should be able to get a decent feel for the technical abilities of a person based on the first hour or so of an interview, along with their resume, reference, and maybe a technical test. So what benefits does a company reap when it spends several man days worth of their employees time to keep them occupied all day long in an interview. The interview process is costly enough with out making it longer than needed.

So why is it that many companies have shifted to a day long(sometimes more) interview for professional positions? There must be some benefits that are consistently noticed for companies to make this shift. What are they?

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    It is nearly impossible to tell a candidate's true abilities in an interview, let alone 1 hour, unless you are hiring for a very narrow position. At best, you can tell that the person seems like they have relevant experience and knowledge AND whether you would like to work with the person or not. There are too many variables, too many kinds of personalities and too many areas of expertise. In the past, I've seen outright superstars (based on the interview) who have turned out to be duds and likewise seen people who just barely passed the interview turn out to be near superstars. – Dunk May 1 '13 at 21:39
  • This is an article which answers this at length and fairly directly argues against the "short interview" methodology, specifically in the software development industry. – enderland Sep 5 '13 at 18:15
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I'll agree that the day-long interview isn't right for every office, but I suspect that if you peel back the covers, you'll find that regardless of the process and the interview formats, companies take a serious number of man-hours per candidate.

Why so much time?

In short - because hiring the wrong candidate is even MORE expensive. Unless you have a very easy firing process (some industries do!), you will be stuck with this person for far more than the few man-days it took to vet them. In a knowledge working industry, assuming the candidate isn't a very, very obvious mistake, you are probably up against:

  • 2-3 weeks of non-productive time that is simply expected - they get briefed by HR, do all their forms, have to set up their system and deal with any typical computer access mess-ups. They have to learn something about what the team is doing, and then start doing it slowly, with lots of checking in.

  • 2-3 weeks of uncertainty - if you have truly hired a bad fit, it can really take another 2-3 weeks to realize it. Particularly in a complicated job, people always have strengths and weaknesses. The job probably involves many types of decisions and actions and being bad at a few is OK, as long as the candidate is pretty good at most things. Collecting a general sense of "pretty good at most" vs. "pretty bad at too many" things is not something you come to in a day.

  • some decent interval of feedback and correction - most teams will give a bad guy the benefit to the doubt and try to correct his behavior. After all, an honest mistake is forgivable... the first time. The interval varies remarkably across culture, corporate culture, industry and type of work.

  • the firing process begins - some companies are getting clever and writing probation timelines into offers, to make the "this just isn't working out" process go much quicker. But in many places, an employee who's been on the job 6 weeks is treated the same as someone who's been on the job 6 years - formal warnings, discipline, 2 review cycles and so forth.

I'd say that even in knowledge work, you're looking at a low end of 8 weeks to get rid of a lame hire, and maybe even a year in some cases. And that doesn't count the wasting of other people's time. A bad new hire will also consume time from - management, the team, system administrators, HR and possibly many others.

Taking a net risk of around 70 days (low end) of lost productivity... spending 2-3 days on an interview cycle actually isn't bad.

It's a fair point that if you interview 10 candidates in day long interviews, your company has spent more like 20-30 days and the investment starts to look less wise. But I'd posit as well, that if the company is working with a day long interview format, they will do this for less than 10 candidates per position for the most part... unless their closure and review process is very inefficient.

What does the company learn from a day-long interview?

A lot. For a complex job there's a number of different factors to consider:

  • Technical - can the candidate do the job? Can he do it efficiently? Can he adjust and adapt as the work grows, changes and fluctuates due to the changing nature of business and technology?

  • Responsibility - will the candidate take ownership for the work? Follow the rules that must be followed? Be honest? Fit the company's model of ethical behavior?

  • Team skills - is he good to work with? Will he get on any body's nerves to the point of team dysfunction? Will he be the right mix of supportive and yet respectful of others to fit the team he's working in? Is another team or place in the company a better match?

  • Communication skills and other professional qualities - all that other stuff that fits with this job. Particularly crucial in that I've seen day-long interviews include simulated communication - presentations on technical topic, test problem solving with the team, etc.

Then there's all the people who have an opinion:

  • The Boss
  • The Team
  • Other management - especially in a crucial position, a management position, a small company, or other vital cases, figure on several levels of management wanting an opportunity for an hour
  • Human Resources - may seem like a waste of time, but usually HR has a vetting process that includes legal coverage of the company in certain aspects. There can be real value to what they do here.

And it becomes like quantum mechanics. Put the wrong boss in with the team on a team interview and the team won't ask the questions that need asking. HR really shouldn't do any sensitive vetting with others from the work side around. The bosses usually each demand their own hour... put 3 bosses, 1 team interview, 1 HR vetting process and 1 communication skills oriented demonstration, and you might as well feed the guy lunch, give him a tour and call it a day.

There's also something to be said for making at least a few key people be around the guy for more than hour. While everyone has varying levels of tolerance for putting up with annoyances from others - most people can put up with quite a bit and not even notice, if they only have to do so for an hour. I know, personally, that I can have a pleasant conversation, even with quite irritating people, for an hour. 4 hours, on the other hand, is a whole other ballgame. Unless I can actually get along and get some value out of the contact, I will be contemplating gnawing my own arm off to get away after about 2.5 hours...

Translating that to interviewing - minor irritants can get overlooked in an hour long interview. But extended contact will get key people thinking about how much they REALLY want to work with this person long term... which is the point.

What does the candidate learn from a day-long interview?

As important is - what does the candidate learn? Another worst-case scenario is that what seems like mutual attraction becomes a job placements that makes the new hire significantly unhappy. Training someone and accepting the 3-6 month learning curve on most complex jobs, only to have a candidate leave after 8 months is about the most expensive mistake a company can make. It may actually be more expensive than hiring a failure, since at least you KNOW the failure isn't someone you want to stick around.

So... if the candidate's future happiness with the company isn't a concern for the company - it should be.

Much of the interview process is, or should be, a chance for mutual discovery. After all the candidate should also feel he can work for/with - the Boss, the Team, The Big Bosses, the Key Stakeholders, and HR. Lack of trust or chemistry in any of these relationships can be a big contributor to leaving an otherwise as-advertised position. Similarly - the Technical, the team vibe, the Communication Expectations, the Corporate Culture - are all as important to the candidate - who has a career to think about - as they are to the company.

There's also a whole range of elements to the on-site day-long interview that are purely information points for the candidate:

  • What's the drive like? (if coming locally) - now is a good time to realize what parking, rush hour, commuter options, and local servicse will be. I'm actually rather amazed at how many candidates miss this - several times, in several companies I've seen candidates leave for issues relating to their commutes or the location of the site - even when they came for onsite interviews.

    • What's the space like? - While a recent contractor at my company joked that if you work in IT, you will expect to spend at least some of your career in a basement - it's good to know what the space is like. Be ware of any company that doesn't take you on a tour and show you where you and your team sit. For info sec and other high security jobs, it's also good to have a sense of what the security practices and procedures will be - it's not something a company will disclose completely, but if you just walked through a metal detector, figure it'll be there for the duration of your career and discard those enormous belt buckles now.

    • What's the vibe? - as much about the casual spaces as the work space. Does it have employee gathering spaces? Do employees actually gather there? You can bet if it's mod furniture and to perfect orchids, that's a "no". Look for the places with a decrepit coffee maker and mug-rings. What's the cafeteria like? Do people bring lunch? Are groups eating together? How about the team?

Some of this is knowing yourself - if you don't eat lunch with the gang, then maybe it doesn't matter if there's good nearby cuisine. But if you were counting on a friendly group that eats lunch together and goes for drinks regularly - then see what the options look like here.

Efficiency

I'll wrap this up with the thought that a decent part of an all day onsite process does need to be about making sure the interview team is efficient. An all day interview should be the final step. There should be a vetting process that weeds out all but a few candidates, and that all day experience should be about the final yes/no.

This takes a decent process and someone in management driving it. If you don't have a closure process where interviewers are polled and challenged to target the attributes that were a must-have, or a drop dead no, then the group won't learn enough from this process to make it worth the cost to productivity.

I have seen cases where I've thought that this final closure step wasn't properly executed. Much like becoming better at anything, it takes a critical eye and an honest interest in learning to get better at this, and with an ever changing business domain and technology spectrum, most managers and resource staffing people are going to have commit to learning a game that is always in changing.

In short - if the company doesn't tune the process, and all day interview cycle will, very likely, still be a waste of time. But do it thoughtfully and it can be a decent insurance policy against hiring duds.

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    This is a great answer. I would add that, as a candidate, it conveys a lot more "we care about who we hire rather than just hiring anyone" if a company spends more time interviewing me. But only if the process is well done and provides both opportunity for me and the company to answer the question, "does this position make sense?" – enderland Apr 30 '13 at 13:55
  • Absolutely. I think a company shows a lot of it's character in how they do the interview. I've had interviews where I thought "if this is how they treat people... not interested!" – bethlakshmi Apr 30 '13 at 15:49
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In many cases, the reason to have full-day interviews is to give multiple individuals the chance to interview the candidate. That could be multiple members of the technical team. It could be members of teams that the candidate would be working with regularly. It could be a couple levels of management. So while one person can probably determine how technically proficient a candidate is after an hour or two, if you want a couple of different opinions, it can easily take a full day of interviews.

Getting multiple perspectives on a candidate serves a variety of purposes. When many people have a hand in the hiring decision, many people have a stake in the success of the candidate that is hired. When the role involves interacting frequently with different teams, getting buy-in from those teams can smooth over initial growing pains. It can also make the team that will be working with the candidate feel like they have more control over the people that they're going to be spending their days working with. When many people have a hand in hiring a candidate, it is also possible to identify more problems than one interviewer alone can identify. Sometimes a candidate gets along well with one interviewer but would not work well with other members of the team-- perhaps the candidate seems to get along well with men, for example, but doesn't relate well to women. Determining this in advance by having the candidate interview with a woman on the team is obviously less expensive than trying to resolve the inevitable interpersonal conflicts that would arise. Google, for example, has found that it takes four interviews for a candidate's score to converge on their final score. Additionally, multiple interviews can help a company maintain a particular culture since different interviewers are likely to be attuned to different aspect's of the candidate's fit.

Spending a full day at the company also has benefits for the candidate. It gives the candidate the opportunity to meet with many different people they'll be working with and get many different perspectives on the position and on the company. It generally gives the candidate the chance to see some group interactions and some less formal social interaction rather than just seeing a one-on-one grilling from one technical interviewer. Often times, it's easier and less stressful for a candidate to ask a question to a group of peers over lunch rather than trying to fit all their questions in to the 10-minute window an interviewer allocates at the end of the hour.

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    You can have multiple people interview in a one-hour interview. It's called a hiring panel. All day is only acceptable for unemployed candidates. The rest of us still have work to do. – HLGEM Apr 26 '13 at 13:49
  • @HLGEM - You can, sure. But if you only allocate an hour, each interviewer only gets a few minutes to ask their questions which may be barely enough to deal with one non-trivial technical question each. Of course, it does make it harder on those that are looking for work while currently employed. – Justin Cave Apr 26 '13 at 14:08
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    It doesn't make it harder on the currently employed, it makes it impossible if they have a responsible postion and intend to fulfill those reponsiblities until they leave. If you think companies should do this then you think your own employees would take as many unplanned days off as they want when they search for new postions. Doesn't that havea project impact? – HLGEM Apr 26 '13 at 15:17
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    @HLGEM - I'm not expressing a position on whether companies should do it, I'm stating why companies do it. As for folks currently employed, I don't see why there would be any greater impact on the project if someone took a personal day to go on an interview vs. taking a personal day for any other personal reason (other than the obvious problem if they decide to leave but that is unrelated to the length of the interview). Presumably, folks in positions of responsibility have the ability to take a day off from time to time. – Justin Cave Apr 26 '13 at 15:25
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    @HLGEM - Obviously, an employed candidate has to consider whether a particular position is interesting enough to use up a personal day to attend the interview. I'd expect that it's pretty unusual that a candidate would find positions at 5 different companies interesting enough to be worth an all-day interview and that all 5 companies would want an all-day interview and that they would all be at more or less the same stage in the hiring process that you'd get 5 interviews in 2 weeks and that they'd all be interested in the candidate. For the candidate, that seems like a good problem to have. – Justin Cave Apr 26 '13 at 15:38
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It seems to me that in most positions you should be able to get a decent feel for the technical abilities of a person based on the first hour or so of an interview, along with their resume, reference, and maybe a technical test.

That hasn't been my experience at all. If you're focused on a particular cluster of attributes, and you are good at interviewing, you may be able to get a good read on someone within an hour. If you're just interested in "can you write a for loop or a class" questions, yes an hour should be sufficient. But there are plenty of people who can write a for loop and a class but can't write maintainable code, design a complex architecture, debug a threading problem, optimize an application's performance, productively participate in a discussion about what language or framework to use on the next project, or a host of other things that you would want a teammate to be able to do. Truly determining the candidate's ability in any of those aspects is a minimum of 20 minutes (and can easily take 40 minutes), and many candidates take 10 minutes just to get comfortable talking.

Besides technical things, you want to know if the candidate will take initiative but ask questions when needed, will work well with other teammates, will keep commitments, will continue to grow professionally, etc. And you should also leave time to answer any questions that the candidate has and sell them on the company.

All of which is why internships and co-ops are so nice; when they're done well, they effectively become 3 or 6 month interviews (and they're much more enjoyable for both parties than an interview). After 3 or 6 months of work you really do have a much, much better idea of whether someone is a good fit than after one day of interviews.

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Some companies are so large that they hire for many positions at once. They run all day interviews to answer multiple questions at once. The first two or three hours are for "should this person work here?" The next few hours are for "let's persuade this person they really want to work here" - this often includes lunch, a walk through the grounds, a tour of the facilities etc - and the final few hours are for specific managers to figure out if their team is a good fit for the candidate. If things are going well, the afternoon managers will later argue over who gets the candidate.

One strange side effect of this is that the company can then gain a reputation for being "hard to be hired at" because of the length of the interview process. Then not only do new grads (who need to be sorted because they at first appear roughly interchangeable) get put through this process, but everybody does. This is usually justified as "once you join us, you join the whole company so the whole company needs a say" but I think it's more "those of us who joined right after graduation had to pass this hurdle, so you do too." Still, it's a good sign if your interview is still going on later in the day - it means they're pretty sure they want you and they're just establishing what team you will start in.

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This is an attempt to answer the question by reverse engineering some of the tips and tricks to handle the day-long interview. Knowing how to perform well, gives some insight into what hiring companies are looking for and the reasons behind using these tips (See links below).

Technical Skill Are Not Enough We've all heard the story about the person who was technically qualified, but just didn't fit in with the group. What better way then to have as many people as possible meet you for an extended period of time in different settings?

Interrogation Techniques Different people are going to ask the same questions. They may compare notes to see if your answers are consistent. This can show you really know what you're talking about along with being well-prepared to give answers. It's like the cops that keep asking the suspect to tell their story over and over to catch you in a lie. "Wait, I thought you were the lead on that project?"

Endurance - Put in a full day's work Get a good night's sleep because you're going to need it. Part of this is seeing if you're just faking it for an hour or two. Can you stay sharp? Will you get frustrated, bored and just give up? Is the team starting to get on your nerves? We'd like to know sooner rather than later.

Mealtime There's usually a meal involved in the all day interview and is another stage for you to perform on to show you know how to act. If given the opportunity, are you going to pass-out from all the free drinks? Smearing food all over your face is probably going to be frowned upon. Don't let your guard down. Realize you're still interviewing.

You're also interviewing them I know many feel like the all-day interview is a waste of their time, but you should want to meet as many people you're going to be working with as possible. Some of them may get on your nerves. Wouldn't it be nice to know your potential boss acts like a jerk to the waitstaff at the restaurant? The guy who chews with his mouth open will be in the cube right next to you and sounds even worse when he cracks that bag of chips open.

Likability There are many factors on qualifying someone to hire, but the whole thing gets summed up into one thing, do they like you? Technical skills are a part of this, don't get me wrong. Everyone wants to work with qualified people, but all too often, that just gets you past the first one or two interviews. They don't want to know if you can code and eat at the same time - well not everyone.

Links:

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