Imagine you were made manager of a football club and needed to recruit a new player. To check how good they were, you would be sure to watch them play. But let’s imagine you decided to learn from corporate recruiting and, instead of watching them play, you call them in to interview and ask them lots of questions about football.

Now imagine your candidates are John Motson and, early in his career, David Beckham. Motson is a UK football commentator who is great at talking about football but has never played the game professionally. Beckham was a great player but not so good at talking about it, especially as a youngster.

The person most likely to give great answers to questions about football is John Motson, who would be a great choice for a commentator but a lousy one for a footballer. I suggest that the standard interview method, asking lots of questions, is likely to recruit the John Motsons of this world – people who are great at talking about the job but not necessarily good at doing it.

Some companies do it differently, finding a way to “watch them play” by getting them to do the job in the interview.

Six companies who get people to do the job in the interview

Pret a Manger, the successful UK sandwich chain, puts a lot of effort into recruitment and is said to employ only one in seven of those who apply. Once a candidate has got through the initial interview, they spend a day working in one of Pret’s branches. They only get employed if, at the end of the day, the team votes to accept them.

“The team own their new starters, which is very powerful,” explains Senior Recruitment Manager Andrea Wareham. And it doesn’t seem to slow down the process: Wareham claims 80% success in its Pret’s of filling a vacancy within three days.

Toyota at their UK Deeside plant, expects applicants to spend a full day on the assembly line before being offered a job. The company has created an entire mock assembly line for the purpose, so as not to jeopardise quality on actual production. Candidates are even expected to come up with one or two ideas for improvement, as they have to in the real job.

At Google “we do our interviewing based on really testing your skills”, explains Head of People Lazslo Bock in his book Work Rules. “Like, write some code, explain this thing, right? Not look at your resume, but really see what you can do.”

Bock quotes the results of 85 years of research into effective recruitment. “The best predictor of how someone will perform in a job is a work sample test”, simply getting people to do the job in the interview.

Menlo Innovations is a software development company that gets its coders to work in pairs. The first interview consists of solving software tasks with another applicant, working in three pairs over the course of the interview while being observed by Menlo staff. They are looking for attitude and candidates succeed if “they make their partner look good”, explains founder Rich Sheridan.

At the second interview, they are put to work on an actual client project, pairing with two different Menlo staff. They are paid for this day. Not only does this give an insight into what this person is like to work with but, explains Rich, “we have at least five people on the team who feel strong ownership for their success in joining the team”.

The South Bank Centre, a complex of arts venues in London, used to recruit new “hosts” (the staff who interact with customers) by getting them to fill in an online form. But then they realised that, if they got the job, these people would never have to write anything. So why assess them on that ability?

Now the Centre holds events where they invite 200 applicants at a time and get them to interact with each other and carry out the kind of work they do in the job. One intriguing result has been the new method results in employing an older cohort - people who might have had difficulty with the forms but can be great at helping people.

Here at Happy we would always seek to get people to do the job in the interview. Employing trainers, we get them to train. For a techie we get them to fix stuff. For a customer service person, we get them to talk to customers (normally role played) and solve problems.

For years when recruiting new trainers, we asked people to explain what made good training and often heard perfect, and inspiring, answers about involving people and helping them to discover the solutions. We’d then get them to train and find they did something completely different, and told people what to do. Eventually we realised there was no point in asking them to describe good training. So now we have no one-to-one interview for trainers, and just get applicants to do training and facilitation.

Are you still basing your recruitment on asking people lots of questions? How could you instead get them to do the job in the interview, to assess their actual ability? How can you “watch them play”?

More About Happy

Contact Henry Stewart on henry@happy.co.uk or 07870 682442. Check out www.happy.co.uk to see how Happy can help you. Or download Henry’s book from www.happymanifesto.com

Founder, CEO and Chief Happiness Officer, Henry set up Happy originally as Happy Computers in his back room in Hackney 30 years ago. In reaction to a fairly disastrous previous job, Henry was determined to find out what did enable a productive and happy workplace, enabling people to fulfil their potential. Learning from inspirational figures like Ricardo Semler (and his book Maverick), Happy Computers developed quite a reputation – being rated one of the UK’s top five workplaces for five successive years. Henry now speaks at conferences in the UK and around the world on how to create happy, productive workplaces. His first book, Relax: A Happy Business Story, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in January 2012. In 2011 Henry was added to the Guru Radar section of the Thinkers50 list of the most influential business thinkers in the world. “He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business,” explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.