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Chili's Hot Interview Makeover

July 2, 2003
Related Topics: Growth, Candidate Sourcing, Staffing Management
If Jan Barr harbored any doubts about implementing an online interview system at Chili’s, they disappeared two years ago when she attended a conference at the Crowne Plaza in Dallas. There, in the atrium-style lobby dripping with greenery, she sat chatting with an in-house recruiter.

   Barr, vice president of human resources, casually asked her colleague how long it took her to open the résumés that Chili’s received electronically. The answer stunned Barr: it took one full day per week just to glance at all the résumés. At the time, Chili’s didn’t have a screening tool, so the recruiter would manually open as many as 1,500 résumés every week. "All of a sudden I thought, This is crazy," says Barr.

Obstacles to growth
   Barr knew that her department would have to become much more efficient to handle the growth that Chili’s parent company, Brinker International, wanted to see. Brinker’s long-term business model calls for 10 to 12 percent annual growth in new restaurants. In a speech at an investor conference in June, Brinker CFO Charles Sonsteby said he saw Chili’s as one of the primary drivers for the company’s near-term growth. Chili’s currently contributes 59 percent of the company’s revenue and 73 percent of the company’s profits. There are now 887 Chili’s restaurants, but Sonsteby thinks the company can grow to 1,500. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that if Brinker can grow Chili’s, it should be able to grow profits.

   Still, Sonsteby has acknowledged that growing Chili’s at 10 to 12 percent annually is a challenge. "We’d probably love to be building Chili’s faster, but the problem there is finding management talent," he said in a Q&A session after his speech. "The restriction on Chili’ more on finding managers and getting them trained than on return on invested capital."

Sitting in taxis
   This need for new managers has inspired many changes in Barr’s department. "If we'd kept doing things the way we’d been doing them, we would not have been able to find enough managers," says Barr. When she began to assess productivity in her department, she discovered that her recruiters spent far too much time with candidates who were eventually not hired. Recruiters conducted 10 to 12 one-hour interviews each day. On average, the company hired only one out of every 12 restaurant-management candidates interviewed. Not only that, but recruiters and human resources managers such as Warren Boone spent nearly 50 to 70 percent of the month traveling to interview new candidates. Chili’s found that much of the time recruiters spent in airport lounges and taxis was unproductive.

   After the revelation at the Crowne Plaza, Barr devoted more resources to managing the résumés received from and online job boards such as Monster. She and her team soon settled on Behavior Description Technologies’ online interviewing program called e.ssessor. Initially, the program didn’t fit Chili’s needs, so Warren Boone worked closely with the company to make some adjustments, like managing résumé flow.

   With this assessment tool, candidates enter basic information such as contact specifics, education, work history and desired salary. Unlike some other online assessment tools, however, it includes questions that use a behavioral-interview technique. Those behavioral questions ask candidates to give specific information about past performance and how they’ve risen to challenges. Experts like Charles Handler, president of Rocket-Hire, consider a behavioral interview to be many times more effective than an unstructured interview. Chili’s asks candidates, for example, to describe the most effective idea they implemented to boost employee morale and create a positive work environment. Candidates then provide contact information for someone who can verify the answer. Chili’s can then download candidates’ success stories to review.

   Boone says these behavioral questions save time because when Chili’s then conducts follow-up interviews, it can get right to the sticky points immediately. By using a behavioral interview up front, even one that’s online, as opposed to an unstructured one in person, he and other recruiters have avoided wasting time with preliminary screening interviews. Today, Boone spends about 3 to 5 percent of his time traveling for recruiting purposes, down from 50 to 70 percent. And instead of hiring one out of every 12 candidates interviewed, Chili’s now hires one out of seven.

Freeing up staff
   As a result of this new efficiency, Chili’s is changing the structure of its human resources department and will no longer employ full-time recruiters. Instead, the current recruiters will train to become human resources managers. Besides recruiting, these employees will take on other responsibilities, such as employee relations and working closely with their regional directors of operations on human resources initiatives.

   One of those initiatives will be to help find candidates from other industries. While there are enough managers in the casual-dining industry for Chili’s to grow at a medium pace, there simply aren’t enough for it to grow at a fast pace, Barr says. So Chili’s is looking for managers from other industries such as retail, grocery stores and hospitals. The online interview has been helpful for human resources managers in comparing people with different kinds of experience to those with casual-dining experience.

   At the end of the online interview, Chili’s asks candidates how they felt about this screening process versus traditional screening processes. "What we wanted to do was make sure that this was something our candidates appreciated," says Boone. About 80 percent of the job candidates really like the process, he says. On average, about 60 to 70 percent of the candidates complete the entire interview, but Chili’s can also see the answers of the applicants who don’t finish. This allows Chili’s to call candidates who seem promising and encourage them to finish the process.

Investment pays
   So far, Barr says, senior management has also been pleased with the results. The online interview program was implemented 18 months ago, and it achieved ROI within the first six months because of reduced travel by recruiters.

   In the future, Chili’s may add other features to the system, so applicants can use it to provide information for criminal-background checks and references. Says Boone: "We see it as a kind of gateway or portal to a greater possibility in the future."

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