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By Lisa Kopochinski

For decades, the traditional process of interviewing for a position has largely been structural and interrogative in nature. The candidate sits opposite the interviewer (or panel of interviewers) who generally fires off a list of questions while writing ubiquitous notes.

The candidate tries to sell themself as the best person for the job in a meeting that can often take an hour or more.

Search Engine People (SEP) – a full-service digital marketing agency that provides inbound marketing services to more than 1,000 clients worldwide – opted to “buck the system” and revolutionalize the hiring process with a system it created known as “speed group interviews.”

“We were inundated with resumes when we posted for an entry-level or junior position,” said Allison McKay, SEP’s director of human resources. “The time it took to review, phone screen and then interview was not efficient nor did it reflect our culture. We took a step back and looked at ways we could make the process more efficient and decided on a group interview format. From this brainstorming session, the ‘speed interview’ idea was born.”

The Pickering, Ont.-based firm (situated 30 minutes from downtown Toronto) is in the midst of a massive hiring phase. The company expects to grow from its current 100 employees to approximately 350 employees over the next five years.

McKay says the speed format is geared more towards entry level or junior positions. Once initial candidates were eliminated – due to spelling or grammatical errors on their resumes – the remaining individuals essentially had the same background, education and experience. For instance, all had graduated from university or college, had work experience in a retail or office environment and an interest in marketing.

“We knew we could spend hours interviewing candidates one on one, or we could meet five at one time and have more than one opinion in our decision-making process,” said McKay. “Our ultimate goal was to find the best candidate that met our requirements.”

Getting to the point quickly

The speed interview process is unique in that it involves behavioural interviewing techniques in a more efficient and succinct manner. McKay says it is easy for a candidate to ramble on to explain their point, but in this format, this is not possible. They would have run out of time and not answered all of SEP’s questions.

“The candidates needed to think quickly and prioritize their answers,” she said. “We also found that the candidates who were really passionate and enthusiastic about marketing were able to tell and demonstrate this to us in a short period of time. Additionally, the process provided the candidates with a better insight into the SEP culture and what it is like to work here.”

One of those candidates was Laura Blaker, whom SEP hired in October 2013 as an account coordinator. In her role, Blaker supports numerous account managers, helps them meet their project objectives, provides SEO recommendations and assists with content development. She says she really enjoyed the speed interview process and found the atmosphere to be light and fun.

“It loosened everybody up,” she said. “You forget it’s an interview when you’re flying from seat to seat. SEP had chosen interviewers from different departments and positions, offering a variety of personalities to speak with. I felt that the process offered me a clean slate, because with each new person came a new opportunity to speak about my strengths and accomplishments.”

Blaker adds that speed interviews also offer a chance at redemption for those candidates whose nerves may take over.

“It gives you the feeling that you really did give the best impression possible. Honestly, it really threw the traditional interview process out the window. Other interviews I’ve attended involved sitting in a room for an hour, incessantly speaking to one person and wondering what they’re scribbling on their notepads. The speed interview offered me the opportunity to speak with a number of people on the fly – a very refreshing approach.”

Benefits for all

Essentially, the speed interview consists of mini interviews by five different interviewers during a set time frame of eight minutes each. Designed to augment the traditional process, candidates are asked questions that garner the best insight into their skills.

“We asked questions to assess organizational skills, customer relationship skills, problem solving and critical thinking and working within a team,” said McKay. “We did ask a few thought-provoking questions to assess the candidates’ ability to think on their feet. All of this was part of reaching our goal to find the best qualified candidates for our openings.”

SEP’s company culture is fast paced and innovative. Because of this, the speed interview process encompasses these two facets.

“In addition, we have a very strong collaborative team culture and having more people involved in the process and decision-making supports this,” said McKay.

The benefits to the company from this new hiring process have been swift and immediate with efficiency topping the list.

“We are able to interview more candidates in the same amount of time and gain other perspectives,” said McKay. “We could determine which candidates could prioritize, had critical thinking skills and were able to adapt on the fly. We also wanted our collaborative team environment to shine through and ensure the candidates were a ‘fit’ for the role, company and our culture.”

At the conclusion of the speed interview, the interviewers individually ranked the candidates based on their responses and SEP’s desired answers. Candidates were evaluated one by one and given a ranking. Interviewers must defend why they ranked the candidate as they did.

“Surprisingly, each person ranked the same top candidates,” said McKay. “We then invited the top candidates back to our office a few days later to meet with a senior person on the team and the department head in a more traditional interview format.”

Feedback from interviewees on the speed interview process has been very positive. For some, this was their first chance to interview and, for others, they like that they were not on the spot for a 45-minute meeting with one person, but could share their experience with a number of interviewers in the same amount of time.

“Most of the questions I received were scenario-based,” said Blaker. “Anyone can ramble on about the skills and strengths they possess – but can they prove it? I think scenario-based questions get the candidate to dig a little deeper and draw from past experiences, enabling the interviewer to gain insight on their work ethic. At the end of each interview, I was also given the chance to say anything I thought they needed to know about me and leave a lasting impression – this was amazing.”

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