Zenagos Expert Hiring Tip: Use a Practicum

Q. Dear Zenagos,
I’m tired of hiring candidates who seem great in the interview and then just can’t do the job. How do you figure out who’s going to be great and who’s just good at selling themselves?
It’s easy to be misled in an interview by a charismatic candidate. Researchers have known for decades that interviews are not a reliable way of selecting employees (Ulrich & Trumbo, 1965). However, employers continue to rely on interviews, unaware that there are more reliable methods for selecting employees.

If you want to improve your hiring results, add a practicum: At some point in your hiring process, ask the candidates to perform the actual job, right there in front of you. To be practical, you may need to choose just one or two parts of the job to test, and you may need to give an assignment overnight or over a few days (and pay the candidate for that time) – what matters is that you collect evidence that the candidate can and will perform the work you need.

What are some examples of how to add a practicum?
If you are hiring an executive assistant, ask that person to prepare you a sample travel itinerary and bring it to the interview. If you’re hiring a managing editor, at some point during the interview, ask candidates to sit down and edit something and explain their process. If you’re hiring a video editor, give each candidate some footage to take home and edit into a brief final video overnight. If you ask candidates to do something offsite that takes more than an hour, you should pay them a fair rate for their time. This demonstrates respect, and candidates appreciate it.

Let them know that the practicum is coming
Since not every employer asks for a demonstration, candidates may consider the request unusual. So, it is best practice to let them know that the practicum is coming. During your screening call, explain your hiring process, and make sure that candidates understand that there will be a practicum, if they get to that stage in the process. If they will be paid for their effort, make sure they know that in advance, too.

What if it causes candidates to drop out?
The practicum may cause candidates to drop out, but that’s okay. If they drop out because you ask them to perform the actual job, then they are unlikely to perform well if you give them that job. If you are hiring someone for a job that involves a lot of travel, and they can’t manage the travel to get to your location, then you are receiving a strong signal that this is the wrong candidate for the job. Capable employees are confident, and they will be happy to demonstrate their capabilities to you.

Can you use a practicum for any role?
You should always check your hiring process with an attorney, so you can make sure that you are following all relevant hiring regulations. Also, it can sometimes be difficult to demand a practicum from a senior executive candidate – both because it is difficult to simulate complex strategic work and because the candidate may feel insulted. For this reason, the search process for senior executives may need to include other verification processes, such as a cascading reference check. Many headhunters perform this process, in which the company asks each reference to provide the names of additional people who know the candidate.

While it can’t be used in every situation, a practicum is a useful tool that can improve your hiring success. It sets the candidate’s expectations for what the job will be like and how you will work, and it gives you a clear sample of work product with which to make an informed evaluation.


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Ulrich, L., & Trumbo, D. (1965). The selection interview since 1949. Psychological Bulletin, 63(2), 100–116. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0021696


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