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It’s Tourney Time — for Hiring

Forget résumés. Candidate challenges are the new tool to find top talent.

Hackathons and boot camps are great ways to find software engineers. But what about the rest of the workforce?tournament recruiting

In the current war for talent, companies are struggling to fill all kinds of roles, and a coding challenge won’t help them narrow their candidate pool for all vacancies. But with a little creativity, the hackathon model could be applied to virtually any hiring scenario, giving recruiters a better sense of what a candidate can do, not just what they’ve done.

“The résumé is such a weird tool,” said Jason Shen, founder of Headlight, a performance hiring platform developer based in New York. “It’s a biographical sketch, and the information is hard to verify.”

Interviews can be similarly haphazard, particularly when hiring managers aren’t trained to ask questions that reveal a candidate’s actual skills. Shen likens the process to asking a quarterback how he throws a football. “He can talk until he is blue in the face, but until you see him throw, you won’t know what he can do.”

Headlight has traded in the résumé for a more interactive recruiting process, in which companies give candidates role-specific assignments to validate their technical ability and assess them against the competition. Along with a library of take-home assignments, Headlight also hosts hiring tournaments, where candidates sign up for a multihour hackathon style event, but instead of writing code they design a new product plan or create a marketing campaign. Participants get the assignment the day of the competition and a panel of industry experts assesses their submissions. The top performers win prizes and job interviews.

Battle of the Product Managers

Their first tournament, held at the end of January, focused on product managers.

“There is no academic program or degree for product management,” said Will Canine, co-founder of the New York-based Opentrons Labworks Inc., which makes robots for biologistics applications. Canine is one of 17 employers who participated in the tournament to find potential new hires, which has been a big challenge as his company grows.

Because product managers often come to the role via a number of different paths, résumés haven’t been a great screening tool, he said. As a result, his team often hires people with no specific product management experience and trains them on the job. “You’d never do that with an engineer,” he said. Canine saw the tournament as a better way to vet potential candidates.

In the tournament, more than 100 participants were given three hours to respond to a hypothetical scenario in which a large company had launched a product that wasn’t selling as expected. The participants had to decide whether to reposition the product for the current market or take it to a different market, then build a launch plan around that decision, Shen explained.

Sumita Banerjee, head of talent acquisition for L’Oréal Americas in New York

Sumita Banerjee, head of talent acquisition for L’Oréal Americas in New York

“There is no right answer,” he said. “Making the decision is the easy part, it’s what they do next that’s hard.”

Submissions were scored based on the business opportunity, customer insight, product development and project management. Following the event, Canine along with recruiters from IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and other companies were reviewing the submissions with the intent to hire some of the top performers.

It’s a novel approach, though Headlight is not alone in using competition to vet nontech candidates. It is an emerging trend that has evolved as companies look for better ways to judge candidates based on more than what college they attended.

Salon of the Future

It can be particularly useful for hiring recent college grads, who may have great potential but little proven work experience, says Sumita Banerjee, head of talent acquisition for L’Oréal Americas in New York. For more than two decades, L’Oréal has hosted Brandstorm, a business competition where teams of students compete to tackle an industry-relevant challenge. “It is a great feeder for junior talent,” Banerjee said.

To participate, students submit a video pitch of their solution for an annual challenge. This year’s topic: invent the professional salon experience of the future. The winning teams are invited to create a full project with support from a library of e-learning courses, an academic mentor and a L’Oréal employee who coaches them during their presentation at the national judging. The national winners are flown to the worldwide finals in Paris where three teams win 10,000 euro for the best brand, the best use of technology and the best sustainable solution. Along with prizes, many participants secure internships and jobs. “Throughout the competition we are actively looking for potential employees.”

The challenge gives L’Oréal executives a sense of their innovation, leadership skills and ability to collaborate while providing students with a real-life experience working at L’Oréal.

“It’s a great way to find talent, and it could work in any organization,” Banjeree said. Though companies interested in launching their own competition should be certain the challenges give something back to participants in terms of experience and access to companies’ leaders. “There has to be a value exchange if you want candidates to invest this much time and effort to your firm.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.