Group job interview or cattle call?

July 6, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Employers who use group job interviews say they're great for spotting team-oriented employees without wasting time. But some job-seekers say the whole process is nerve-wracking and even demeaning.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- When ActionCOACH tells job candidates they'll be evaluated in a group when they come in for an interview, most react with surprise. Some even ask if the business coaching company is going to try to sell them something, says Jodie Shaw, CEO of the firm's operations in the U.S. and Canada.

"For the majority of the people, it is their first group interview," she says. "They're a little bit bewildered still, giving sideways glances at the next candidate."

Despite job-seekers' initial anxiety, ActionCOACH and other companies that use group interviews believe they're the most efficient way to honestly compare qualified candidates for a job opening, because they give hiring managers unique insights into how potential employees would work on a team and function under stress. But critics of group interviews find them demeaning and say they add unnecessary stress and competition in an already-difficult job-hunting process.

Saving time, being fair

Shaw finds department heads much more willing to spend one hour in a group interview of 12 candidates than to set aside 12 hours for one-on-one conversations. Moreover, by comparing applicants side-by-side, she says managers eliminate bias from their mood of the day or trouble from comparing a long-ago interview with one that occurred yesterday.

"The reason group interviews are so effective is you get to see the entire group at one time and are able to rank those candidates," Shaw explains. "If they're in the room, they've met minimum expectations for what we're looking for in the role ... I'm really looking for cultural fit."

Before the interview, ActionCOACH asks candidates to take a personality test in order to group together applicants with similar profiles for positions that best fit those traits. That way, the extroverts are all compared with each other, as are the introverts.

"Sometimes for introverted people the group interview can be very daunting," Shaw says. But, "because they're all the same behaviorally, the group is feeling the same way."

At Grand Circle, a Boston-based travel company, evaluation of the group begins even before the interview starts, as the firm's receptionist observes the behavior of candidates waiting in the lobby. "You're getting your first piece of data on how people are going to perform: who's upbeat, who's hanging back," says Martha Prybylo, the firm's executive vice president of people and culture.

Once the formal interview begins in groups of eight to 10 people, an interviewer asks questions that aim to figure out how well candidates fit with the company's values, including risk-taking and "courageous communications." Prybylo not only listens to what candidates say but also watches their body language while they're waiting to speak.

Applicants are then divided into teams with a handful of straws and tape. The goal: to create a vessel that will protect a raw egg from breaking when dropped from 20 feet, followed by a marketing presentation describing their ideas.

"Right away you see who's taking a leadership position, who's taking over, who's not contributing, who's coming with solutions," Prybylo says. "It's great stuff to watch and really tells us a lot."

Some potential employees refuse to come in for a group interview or walk out halfway. Prybylo says that's a success, because they clearly weren't a good fit.

"If somebody's not wiling to experience something that's different, they won't take risks, and they won't be successful here, so let's get that clear." she says. "We want people to get out of their comfort zone."

Bringing out the worst in candidates

Michelle Gamble-Risley of Sacramento, Calif. is a former job-seeker who wants nothing to do with group interviews. A few years ago, before she started her own publishing company called 3L Publishing, she interviewed for a public relations position in a group of about 200 people.

"It was just shocking and demoralizing," Gamble-Risley says of being seated in rows of metal folding chairs after 15 years' experience in the workforce. "I felt I was at an executive level and I shouldn't be put into a cattle call. If they had warned me in advance, I would not have even shown up."

The interviewers started lobbing questions at the job candidates, according to Gamble-Risley. People were raising their hands to provide answers, each attempting to one-up the next.

"I thought it was inappropriate and rude," she says. "I don't think it's going to show anything about anybody except that somebody has a bigger ego. It brings out this strange desperation in people. I would never hire anybody for a professional position in that way."

Career coach Ford R. Myers agrees. Ideally, a job interview is a conversation between employer and candidate about whether there's a good fit, he says. But a group interview creates a contrived environment and ignores the reality that teamwork takes time to develop.

"That is an extremely ineffective and ill-advised approach. It's just plain wrong. It's counterproductive, it's wasteful, it's disrespectful," says Myers, author of Get the Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring. "I would urge every company to stop doing this unless it's tryouts for a dance recital or a singing contest."

But consultant George Bradt says the group format is one of the most organic ways to spot the ability of potential employees to work in teams from the get-go.

"They're really good, in particular, at comparing candidates because there's no situational interview bias," says Bradt, author of The New Leader's 100 Day Action Plan. "You get to observe behaviors and relationships -- as opposed to a one-on-one interview, you just hear about them."

Like Prybylo, he observes candidates prior to the official starting time. "Some people show up and just pick a spot at the table and immediately check their email or pull up their notes. They're not on stage yet so they're doing what they want to do. Other people show up and strike up a conversation with someone in the room, or me or the staff," he says. "I'm not suggesting that one is right and one is wrong. Those are behavioral cues about how people are going to interact in general."

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