Can a friendly game of ping pong help you make better hiring decisions? Yes it can, according to Rob Bellenfant, CEO of Nashville-based TechnologyAdvice, a free service that helps companies decide which technology products to buy. And he believes he can prove it. As part of a study, in partnership with Vanderbilt University researchers, the company recently added ping pong as the final step in its process for evaluating job candidates.

Here's how it works: When the rest of the evaluation and all interviews have been completed, a TechnologyAdvice executive explains that the company is participating in a study and asks candidates if they'd be willing to play some ping pong. Only one person has ever said no, Bellenfant says--only because that candidate had to quickly return to the office at a current job.

The Questionnaire

Before playing, the candidate is given a three-question questionnaire to fill out:

1. On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about participating in this study?

2. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your skill level at ping pong?

3. On a scale of 1-10, how aggressive do you think you are?

The Games

After filling out the questionnaire, the candidate plays three games, 11 points each, against Stephen Belcher, the company's director of data strategy, and "control player." Unbeknownst to the candidate, the games will escalate in difficulty, with Belcher becoming a more challenging opponent each time.

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"We're not looking at people's ability to play but at their approach," Bellenfant explains. "Are they open to trying something new if they haven't played before, or not in a long time? If they win, how do they celebrate? If they lose, do they take it in a difficult way? How seriously do they take it? Do they take it as a joke, or do they put in a lot of effort? As the games get more difficult, do they adapt? Those are the types of things we're looking at."

To avoid intimidating candidates during the game, they play alone in a room with Belcher and the games are recorded on video. Afterward, Bellenfant watches and evaluates, along with a statistician from Vanderbilt, a psychologist from Vanderbilt, and the president of the Nashville Table Tennis Club. "We're making it as objective as possible," Bellenfant says.

The Questionnaire Again

Once the games are completed, candidates again are asked to fill out a questionnaire:

1. On a scale of 1-10, how did you feel about the experience?

2. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your skill level now that you've played?

3. On a scale of 1-10, how aggressive do you think you were during the games?

Bellenfant and the researchers believe these questions may reveal how candidates see themselves. "If they rated themselves a seven in skill level before the games and now they see themselves as a three, maybe they learned something," Bellenfant says. On the other hand, a candidate who rated him or herself as a three originally and a seven after the game may show hard self-judgment.

There are no right or wrong answers, but what the questionnaires and the game reveal about someone's personality can help reveal if that candidate is a good match for a particular role. "For a position in sales, we're looking for someone a little more aggressive. For a job in data or research, we want someone who can think things through."

Does It Work?

Though the study is not fully completed, Bellenfant is confident that observing people's reactions to the ping pong challenge, as well as their self-evaluations, is revealing. Before beginning the study on new hires, he says, the company's then 30 employees all went through the process themselves. What the games and questionnaires revealed about them seemed consistent with their strengths and weaknesses and personalities, he says.

How seriously does TechnologyAdvice take the ping pong? "It's another tool in our tool belt," Bellenfant says. Only candidates under serious consideration are invited to play, he notes. Would he decline to hire an otherwise attractive candidate who performed badly in the ping pong study? He might, he says--depending on how badly, for instance if the candidate had a temper tantrum. "It's one of several dozen things we're looking at," he says.

One young woman recently interviewed for an intern position. "During the recruiting process she displayed a high level of confidence and enjoyed making people laugh," Bellenfant says. In the original questionnaire, she rated her excitement level at the prospect of playing at 13 (on the scale of 1-10), and her ping pong skill level at seven.

When she played, it became obvious that she'd overestimated her abilities. "We would have put her at two or three," he says. Yet in the questionnaire after the game, she rated her skill level at six. "She maintained that high level of confidence, which we think is a positive thing," Bellenfant says. The company hired her, and he predicts she will be a strong performer.

Does It Have to Be Ping Pong?

"Apologies for the millennial cliché," wrote Keith Cawley, the company's media relations coordinator, when he first emailed me about the ping pong test. Indeed, Cawley, Bellenfant, Belcher, and a total 38 of TechAdvice's 41 employees are millennials. That's not part of some master plan, Bellenfant says, but an effect of the company's core functions--technology marketing and social media--and the large number of millennials in the Nashville area.

But if millennials' favorite workplace pastime doesn't appeal, there are many other activities that could work just as well. In fact, Bellenfant says, "We're doing another study correlating people's approach to driving to their workplace performance. Do you make a lot of driving mistakes? Do you get road rage? Do you drive under or over the speed limit, and if over, how far over? How do you react to feedback about your driving?"

The point is not ping pong or driving, but company culture, he adds. "We think it's important to get people outside their comfort zone, and we give people a lot of freedom and trust." When hiring for such a workplace, he says, "Throwing a curveball into the process like this is important."

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