Top Chef

When the quest for a promotion turns into a talent show

June 17, 2013: 2:12 PM ET

Companies are plucking ideas straight from shows like The Apprentice and Shark Tank to pick the best job candidates, train workers, and build camaraderie.

By Jennifer Alsever

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FORTUNE -- When insurance executives at Aflac sought employees for plum assignments last year, they abandoned the traditional resumes and job interview routine.

Instead, they found inspiration from reality TV competitions like American Idol.

Aflac (AFL) employees in search of promotions became "contestants" who would walk into a room inside the company's Columbus, Ga., headquarters and stand before a panel of five Aflac "judges." While cameras rolled, they could do whatever they wanted to sell themselves as the best one for the job.

The idea? Get candidates to think on their feet and show a side not seen in a formal interview. Performances ran the gamut -- from the ill-prepared one-minute speech to shticks with personal slogans, PowerPoint presentations, and props. "It was kind of like American Idol in corporate America -- except we didn't ridicule them," says Blake Voltz, Aflac vice president of claims and a judge. "It puts them under the heat, much like they would face if they got the job."

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Reality TV makes up more than half of all television programming today, and companies nationwide are plucking ideas straight from competition shows like The Apprentice and Shark Tank to pick the best job candidates, train workers, and build camaraderie among departments.

"There is something about the idea of testing people to make a decision, the nimbleness of thought and watching someone succeed or fail on a task," says reality TV producer Stephanie Drachkovitch, who helped develop The Bachelor and produced Married to the Army: Alaska. "It's do or die right in front of you."

Executives at Auntie Anne's Pretzels created and filmed a customer service training video using a real contest among managers modeled after the show The Apprentice. Executives wanted to make a training video that was more interesting than a corporate trainer simply giving a lecture. "People would be entertained while they were learning," says Valerie Kinney, a spokeswoman for Auntie Anne's.

To make the video, the pretzel chain put out a call to its 1,200 stores for 90-second audition tapes from managers. Executives selected six people who would be pitted against each other in a series of challenges while running a store in a mall. The six contestants were flown to Lancaster and put up in hotels for the two-day competition. Five participants received $400, but the winner took home $1,000.

On camera, contestants divided into teams and ran a busy store inside a mall, swapping jobs rolling pretzels, handling customer complaints, and handing out samples. The video mimicked the style of realty TV with dramatic pauses, contestant interviews, and a surprise visit from the company founder Anne Beiler, who ordered a pretzel in disguise.

"They kept you in suspense and would take you aside and get you to respond to what just happened on camera," says Crescent Chapman, a Grandville, Mich. store manager who won the contest. "My heart would be racing."

The video prompted A&E TV to feature Auntie Anne's in a new series called Be the Boss. In the episode, pretzel store managers competed for the chance to win their own pretzel operation.

TV competition themes are playing out in yet another way: team-building exercises. A Canada-based company called Canadian Outback puts on team-building events based on popular shows like The Amazing Race, Top Chef, and The Apprentice for clients like eBay (EBAY), Nestle, and General Mills (GIS).

But is that kind of reality TV competition necessarily healthy for organizations? For decades, studies in workplaces and classrooms have shown that competition isn't just ineffective but actually counterproductive -- particularly on tasks that require creativity or more sophisticated problem solving, says Alfi Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

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"On the surface, it sounds good, but usually it's the biggest jerk who wins, which is what you don't want in the workplace," adds Alexander Kjerulf, a Dutch consultant who focuses on happiness at work. He says that contrary to what most people think, most of us perform worse when we're competing.

At Aflac, the Idol-style competition didn't necessarily bring out the best in Brenna Skeen, a 31-year-old Aflac compliance analyst. In 2010, she stood in front of judges because she wanted more challenges in her job but she describes the experience as a "train wreck" in which she veered away from her intended script as judges looked at her and said little. "It was terrifying," says Skeen.

The competition taught her that she is better suited to handle back-end data jobs rather than a sales leadership position. She was grateful for the chance to make it known that she wanted more in her job because managers since promoted her three times inside the insurer's compliance department.

That kind of insight into an employee's strengths and weaknesses is exactly why entrepreneur Cole Harper pulls his hiring strategies from shows like Shark Tank and The Apprentice. He is CEO of Chicago-based SceneTap, a mobile app company that offers real-time demographics on nightclubs and bars, and he wants to ensure new hires can adapt to change.

For instance, in 2010, Harper interviewed 23-year-old Danielle Bemoras for an internship. He wanted it to be awkward, so he met her at a bar, ordered a beer, and invited a competing job candidate for a joint job interview. While her competitor talked over others and dominated the conversation, Bemoras ordered water and remained respectful. Bemoras got the internship.

It didn't stop there. A few months later, when Bemoras's job turned into a full-time marketing position, Harper threw out another concept stolen from reality TV: Five core SceneTap employees -- all in their 20s -- would live and work together in a house in Austin, รก la the Real World. (Harper would also live in the house.)

Harper wanted the team to work quickly and gel together while SceneTap participated in an accelerator program and readied for a launch at South by Southwest in Austin. Bemoras and four other employees agreed to the deal, sharing work and living space for 10 months. Personal privacy went out the window, roommates bickered over pets and dishes, and brainstorming sessions often extended into the wee-morning hours. "You could never tell when you were off the clock," says Andrew Nieman, SceneTap's director of business development who lived in the house.

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As it turned out, some of the best marketing and branding ideas came out of that 24-hour work environment, says Bemoras. Although she says she would not want to do it again, Bemoras and the four other employees remain close today -- just as Harper hoped.

Some of their best bonding moments together? Watching reality TV.

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