The perils of a virtual job interview

TOUGH CALL

It used to be that if you were obnoxious, you’d have a hard time getting through a job interview.

Now, things have changed. Skype, with its 170 million monthly active users, is changing the face of recruiting, and not always in a good way.

As the head of a small education company in Hong Kong that recruits 90 per cent of its teaching staff from the United States, my job is to find, judge and place key personnel via Skype.

Last year, I sat through 78 Skype interviews in order to successfully place seven employees. Often, I have mere minutes to decide whether I like a person, whether he or she is genuine, and most importantly, whether the candidate is someone I wouldn’t mind working with.

How do you make these tough calls when the connection is unstable, the audio delayed, and looking someone in the eye is impossible?
It didn’t use to be this way. I remember the days of flying a candidate in for a face-to-face interview only to discover that the applicant really just wanted a free trip.
I also remember the days of phone interviews, and finding out on the start date that my new colleague was covered in tattoos. Skype solved all of that — or so it once seemed.

When I first started Skyping, everyone looked good. Every candidate had a great spiel and wanted to come work for me. This is great, I thought.

It was only after the 10th Skype interview that I started noticing little things: the way the connection mysteriously dropped the minute I started asking hard questions; the way it would become completely stable again five minutes later, followed by a perfect answer from the candidate.

I noticed how some people checked out their teeth, applied make up, adjusted bra straps, flipped their hair a million times, and even browsed the Internet, checking e-mail and chatting with their friends.

You may think that these things are small but my entire business rests on my ability to read people via Skype.

If I read all the signs correctly, I get to work with someone who is talented and amazing in many ways.

If I read them incorrectly, I’m not only hiring a complete fool, I also have to work with that person every day for the next two years.

Because the stakes are so high, employers like me have to read into everything. That excessive hair flipping and gum chewing — could it be the sign of a vain and superficial employee?

That chat and e-mail checking — could this be the type of person who is going to sit on Facebook while pretending to work? Will this force me to bu surveillance software like “Staff Cop,” “Big Brother” or “Employee Inspector”?

Luckily, I have not had to do that yet. The fact that we are able to hire so many bright individuals from abroad is a tribute to Skype. However, that’s not to say that there haven’t been surprises with each and every one of our Skype recruits once they’ve arrived at our doorstep.

I learned recently that one of our recruits actually had his parents in the room with him during his entire Skype interview. While I was asking him questions, my colleague’s parents were holding up signs to help him answer my questions. To this day, he won’t tell me what the signs said.

I hope that they were along the lines of “Yes! You can do it!” or “Remember eye contact! Look directly at the camera!” and not “Just say yes, just say yes,” or “Pause and look pensive,” or “Now compliment her” or “Tell her your weakness is being a perfectionist.”

It’s hard to tell whether the candidate is being sincere — although, admittedly, sincerity can be equally difficult to judge in a face-to-face interview. But on Skype it’s particularly frustrating; all those expressions so crucial for truly reading people can easily get lost. That’s the thing about Skype — you never really know.

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