Our hiring process at Menlo Innovations is like no other. Because of it, we learn more about job candidates in two hours than other companies learn over weeks of interviews. Our process is the ultimate vetting mechanism for cultural fit. And it is incredibly exciting, both for the candidates and for existing employees.

As CEO, there are few things I enjoy more.

When I was a VP in a large company, I conducted interviews in the usual way. Sitting across from a prospective employee, I would explain what a great place this was to work. The applicant would try to convince me she had just the right background and experience. Neither of us was lying, although I'm sure rose-colored glasses were worn by both of us. But neither of us could possibly know whether this job and this person were truly a great fit. The process worked well enough to keep the business staffed. But when it didn't work--which happened too often--the mismatch was painful for everyone. Joyless.

When we started Menlo 14 years ago, we decided to do everything differently. So we threw out the questions, the resumes, the fancy ads, and the managers making hiring decisions. We replaced it all with an audition for culture that Inc. editor Leigh Buchanan calls our signature dish. If an applicant enjoys this dish, he will likely enjoy our "restaurant." And watching his performance in the audition, we get a very good sense of how he will work out here.

Menlo hires people in mass auditions conducted several times a year. The process is designed to mimic the company's operations. Our staff spends their days working in pairs, with each pair collaborating on a distinct task, sharing a single computer. So when applicants show up for our auditions, we pair them up and give each pair a single sheet of paper and a pencil. Then we set them to work on a task, Menlo style.

We explain to the candidates their goal: to make their pair partners look good enough to be invited back for the next stage of evaluation. Yes, you read that right. An applicant's job is to get her pair partner hired. We want good kindergarten skills at Menlo, and we test for them from the very beginning. An existing employee observes and takes notes on each pair while it collaborates on a task typical of the company's work. They look for specific evidence of authentic collaboration, confidence and humility. It all takes place in the same big, open, noisy room we work in all day long.

After 20 minutes, we switch up the pairs–something that happens at the beginning of every week during normal operations at Menlo. After another 20 minutes, we do it again.

After all the applicants have gone home, we bring in pizza and pop, and the entire staff discusses what we’ve seen. We bring up the candidates one by one. The three Menlonians who observed a candidate (across three different pairings) are polled on his performance. Three thumbs up, and he is invited back for the next stage. Three thumbs down, he gets a polite note. A mix of thumbs kicks off five minutes of discussion, during which the staff quizzes the observers. Based on what they've heard, the whole staff then votes up or down, and we go with the majority decision.

I love two things about this process. One, the team--not the managers–makes all the decisions. Two, it is fast. Our mass auditions start at 4 PM and wrap up by 6 PM. Last week, 38 candidates turned up for an audition, and we had finished voting on them by 8 PM. Imagine evaluating 38 applicants in just four hours. And all of our follow-up will be done in the next two weeks.

Candidates who make the first cut return for a test of skills that--like the mass audition--is an immersion in our process and culture. The candidate comes in for a full paid day working on real projects. She pairs with one Menlonian in the morning and a different Menlonian after lunch. If both give her a thumbs-up, we offer a three-week trial contract. We make special arrangements for those who can't risk taking time away from their current situations.

Of the 38 people we interviewed last week, 16 are being invited back for the second stage. Some may decline the invitation. This is perhaps the best part of our process. Through the audition, candidates may discover that Menlo is not for them.

But many love it. One candidate last week came up to me before walking out the door. "Thank you for creating such an amazing culture," he said. "Even if I don't get invited back, I will remember this interview forever." Joy.

In the war for talent, much attention is focused--rightly--on culture. Auditioning people in pairs makes no sense for companies that don't work the way Menlo does--which is to say virtually all companies. But you can still customize your hiring process to test for cultural fit and give applicants a realistic sense of whether they'll be happy and effective working for you.

Throw out tradition. Throw out the old rulebook. Audition instead of interview. Ignite your culture.

Published on: Aug 26, 2015