Using role play in recruitment

In a recent post I suggested that interviews were not necessarily the best way to evaluate if someone is able to do a job or if their values and approach align with that of your organisation. The “competency-based interview”, in modern HR speak, is the norm these days. It is seen as far better from an equal opportunities point of view than the traditional “a few questions/a chat with the boss”, or asking for references from your head teacher, pastor or former employer.

I would suggest that interviews which check what a candidate has already done against a job description are not particularly useful. Once I was asked in an interview if I knew how to operate a fax machine. I burst out laughing and said I could be trained in less than two minutes but they were seeking someone who was, as they saw it, job-ready.

Just asking people if they can do things is not a good way to evaluate their potential, their package of skills and experiences, their adaptability and their willingness to bring the role to life. Would you choose a product just by what a salesman is telling you? What if the interviewee claims they can use spreadsheets yet the Excel course they attended was four years ago and they haven’t seen a spreadsheet since? They may claim to be “passionate about customer service” but sulkily ignore the customer who walks into the room.

So what is the alternative?

I hate to admit it but I am quite a fan of the role play exercise.

Previously I thought it was far too touchy-feely and new age. Then I became a parenting helpline volunteer and attended a training course. I was told there would be role play and this made me anxious. The six course participants were seated around an imaginary dining room table and allocated roles: mum, stepfather, grandmother, fifteen-year-old daughter, twelve-year-old son and the daughter’s eighteen-year-old boyfriend. I picked the piece of paper that made me… Grandma! After being given a couple of minutes to think about our new roles, the scenario was introduced to us. The young woman was pregnant. What struck me immediately was that instead of reacting as I myself would, I immediately imagined the reaction of the grandmother. She might feel the girl had behaved badly. She might blame the boy. She might be angry about the girl not making the most of her chances and feel that her own life had been marred by having children at a young age. She might be thrilled because she loves babies and imagines a bigger role for herself in the family if she looks after the baby. All these thoughts and more flooded into my head. But this wasn’t just an intellectual challenge. As the group worked to talk about our family’s crisis I began to feel as if I was the grandmother of the woman playing the fifteen-year-old girl and I also began to have feelings about my “daughter” and her “partner”. As I listened to the debate about what to do, I found myself reacting as if I was the grandma and said things that she might have said. It was a dialogue based on real time feelings and it had validity. It affected me physically: I was getting hot and my stomach was churning, I felt like shouting or crying or clinging on to the girl as she became distressed. I wanted to stand up for her and help her think things through.

At the end of the role play we consciously left the roles behind and reverted to our normal selves, reflecting on our experiences. Whatever the issues we had discussed, the most important thing for me was that I had actually felt some of the emotions a grandmother may have had in this situation and I was affected by the emotions of the other role players.

As a method of learning it had a strong experiential content and it was exceptionally valuable as a result. It was quite different to sitting down and discussing how different family members might react to difficult news. I was shocked at how much the short exercise had got to me – someone who was pretty “together” and “in control” of my feelings, most of the time.

Still today, a decade or so after the experience, I remember it very vividly. What I learnt has changed me. It was very affecting.

On another course we were paired up and asked to make a short speech about something we were passionate about. But there was a catch! The arguer had to make their address from a kneeling position. I chose social housing. As I began to speak, my partner started smiling. I was annoyed. I grew stroppy. She started to laugh at me, apologised, and laughed some more. She lost eye contact and was clearly not listening to a word I said. I felt demeaned, awkward, stupid, powerless, belittled and irrelevant. I got an insight that day into how it can feel to be a child.

How might this relate to the use of role play in recruitment?

Role play allows an employer to watch how a person behaves with an actor pretending to be a difficult customer. We don’t have to involve a real difficult customer as that would be unethical. But by presenting how it might happen in real life we can see how the interviewee actually reacts. Dealing with a difficult customer is challenging and can create strong emotional reactions in our staff. It is likely that they could feel aggressive, blamed, challenged or attacked. We watch them deal with the “customer” and can quickly see the strategies they adopt to managing the situation, which also includes how they manage their own feelings and behaviour. Personal resilience and emotional maturity are important in our line of work.

Afterwards we talk to the interviewee about how they felt and what went well and what did not. We are keen to see if they can reflect on their experiences, and learn from them, evaluating their success in the interaction. Some people are really good with difficult customers and others are not. But we are also additionally seeking people who can listen, learn and adapt.

Finally, role play is important in developing empathy which is valuable in all aspects of working life. Trying to see the other person’s point of view and putting yourself in their shoes can make a real difference to how you approach an issue.

Used judiciously, role play can really enhance our decision making, help us to rehearse and test a strategy and gain insight into how we and others behave in a range of circumstances.

Have you taken part in a role-playing assessment or do you use it for selecting candidates?

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.