Billionaire Richard Branson tested his candidates by asking them to climb atop a hot-air balloon. Benefactor Mark Cuban wanted his to play...

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Billionaire Richard Branson tested his candidates by asking them to climb atop a hot-air balloon. Benefactor Mark Cuban wanted his to play a game of Jenga. And Donald Trump tests his future apprentices by, well, being Donald Trump.

While reality television takes the “show me” job interview to extremes, ordinary employers use more modest simulations to hire everyone from customer-service reps to firefighters to chief executives.

The name for this hiring method varies — simulations are sometimes called case interviews, modeling or the awkwardly titled assessment centers — but the idea is the same: Seeing how a potential employee acts in a given situation is a better measure of abilities than an interview or even a pencil-and-paper skills test.

“Traditional tests focus on aptitude and job knowledge,” says Oscar Spurlin, an organizational psychologist and founder of Ergometrics, an Edmonds firm that designs video tests to simulate on-the-job situations.

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“What we’re trying to figure out is, can you apply your skills in a difficult environment? If you’re feeling time pressure and you have a customer being rude or pushy, are you able to smile and help the person? Or do you feel like you have to tell them to mind their manners?”

Hiring managers say simulations, although expensive and time-consuming, are a more reliable predictor than traditional screening methods, which have lost some effectiveness in recent years.

Fear of lawsuits has made employee references almost useless, and savvy job candidates can easily bluff their way through the familiar interview questions, which, along with the “right” answers are posted online.


Show me




Simulations vary from job to job, but here are two common exercises:



In-basket.
Useful for administrative work, the applicant is given a set amount of time to respond to e-mails, letters, management requests and staffing matters. It’s designed to test how well a candidate sets priorities, delegates and juggles multiple demands.


Role-playing.
Determines how a candidate interacts with others, whether for a customer-service job or as a supervisor. Some involve team exercises to see if the applicant can work within a group.


On top of that, employers who got burned by bad hires during the talent wars of the 1990s are being extra vigilant so that they don’t have to eventually replace that person. The cost to replace a person averages three to five times the position’s salary.

Central Pierce Fire & Rescue near Tacoma relies on simulations to fill all openings in its 180-person work force.

Potential mechanics, secretaries, firefighters and computer-support people are put through a battery of tests to measure job skills, ethics, attitudes and patience.

Human-resources manager Karen Johnson says role-playing and other exercises reveal qualities about candidates that may otherwise be hidden. Since firefighters spend more time dealing with the public than actually fighting fires, they’re tested on both technical skills and on how they deal with irate or troubled citizens.

“There are definitely people who shine,” Johnson says. “But you’ll find that some people don’t know how to react when someone’s yelling at them. We’ve had a couple candidates throw [the role-player] out the door. As you can imagine, they don’t score highly.”

Lorden Ingraham, 35, of Kent, was one of 152 applicants in November for a single technology job with the department. After passing a written test, he and 19 other top scorers each spent a half day auditioning for the job.

Ingraham solved a software-support problem posed by a role-player. Then he put together a computer. Then he had an interview with a panel. Then he waited.

Two months after he first applied, Ingraham learned he’d gotten the job.

“I’m still almost in disbelief, to be honest with you,” he said. “There’s lots of smart, qualified people out there. There always seems to be somebody better.”

The Fire Department uses a modified assessment center, a term for a hiring process that involves in-person simulation before a panel of assessors.

This kind of simulation job interview has been around since World War I, when the German military used it to select officers. But it didn’t reach wide use in the United States until around 1970.

That was the year William Byham, a former executive with J.C. Penney, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review on how simulations could help in determining whether a good middle manager could make the leap to senior management.

“Companies have learned from bitter experience that the best salesman or the finest mechanic does not necessarily make the best supervisor,” he wrote.

Byham would go on to become the godfather of the simulation interview. The Pittsburgh company he later founded, Development Dimensions International (DDI), provides assessments for some of the country’s biggest companies, including Boeing, Bank of America and General Motors.

Now 67, Byham says assessment-center testing has increased dramatically for executive-level jobs, partly because there are fewer middle managers to recruit from.

“Companies used to have seven or eight levels of management, so you could sort of try them out and see what they were doing,” he says.

“Now you can’t find an ‘assistant-to’ job anywhere, and the jump between one level and another is bigger. Just because someone is doing a good job at one level doesn’t mean they’re doing as good a job at another.”

The simulations for top jobs will often include a lifelike office with ringing phones, pinging e-mail messages and a subordinate standing in the doorway with an urgent question.

The candidate’s response can demonstrate whether the person is a delegator, a micromanager, a leader or a bully.

The cost to conduct one of these half-day corporate assessments — as much as $7,000 to fill one executive position — has largely limited the practice to companies hiring for top executives or to large organizations with high volumes of candidates. (Central Pierce Fire & Rescue uses its own proprietary assessment and has employees serve as role-players.)

So for nonexecutive positions, in-person simulations are rapidly being replaced by electronic tests, such as those designed by Spurlin’s Ergometrics and others, including Connecticut-based Applied Psychological Techniques (APT).

After the upfront costs to design and validate simulations for specific jobs, which can be around $250,000, employers pay between $25 and $65 per test taker, depending on the number of candidates screened.

With technology dominating many jobs now, electronic simulators are often more appropriate than the costlier in-person assessments.

“This kind of assessment is great for call centers,” says Toni Locklear, who runs APT’s Kirkland office. “It completely replicates what someone who works for a call center has to deal with.”

Simulation interviews aren’t popular with everyone. When the King County Library System asked its pool of substitute librarians to reapply for their jobs last summer, and to demonstrate their library knowledge and customer-service skills, some got angry.

“I have a degree in library science,” says Mary Johnson, who was asked to greet customers while evaluators looked on. She failed the assessment and was rejected from the substitute pool. “To have to go through that was humiliating. It was not what I was trained to do and it was not part of the library job description when I was hired.”

Charlene Richards, the library system’s human-resources manager, says the simulations help determine who will fit with its new emphasis on customer service.

“Library jobs have been changing. We’re helping the patrons more, one on one and personally,” she says. “We have to remain relevant to the people we serve.”

Other job seekers are either resigned to the idea of having to prove themselves in yet another venue, or they welcome it.

Dane Wilson has had to perform some sort of simulation for nearly every wireless retail job he’s sought. In one instance, the 26-year-old handled a real customer during an in-store job interview. In most others, he takes an online simulation test, which measures his management ability, including scheduling employees, reading spreadsheets or solving a workplace spat.

Each one is time-consuming, and none so far has netted Wilson a management job, but he’s not complaining.

“If I were in the same position I would probably request that out of someone I was interviewing.”

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com