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The video job interview: When your face precedes the face-to-face

Screengrab from a sample interview developed by HireHive

It could have been her slight but age-betraying wrinkles. Or maybe it was her bobbed haircut. Perhaps it was her answer to the standard question, "Tell us about yourself."

Whatever, Alexa Smith never got a callback for an office-manager position at a tech startup she applied for last month. The San Francisco resident never even met the hiring managers, but they got a chance to see her when she uploaded a series of video answers to questions they posted online as part of the application process.

HireHive, the company that set up the application system, launched last month in Mountain View, Calif. The company and its growing body of competitors are addressing the needs of companies that find the resume-and-cover-letter system of hiring both dated and inefficient.

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Some personnel managers say they prefer the way video responses help them screen out the not-so-serious candidates. Others appreciate how the technology allows them to "meet" long-distance candidates without the expense of flying them in for an interview. And for job-seekers, it's a chance to stand out among a sea of applicants, although some people aren't thrilled to have to offer webcam close-ups as part of the screening process.

The idea for HireHive grew out of co-founders David Albert and Nick Bergson-Shilcock's frustrations when they were in charge of hiring at two engineering firms.

"The biggest pain point for us was you either do a phone screen or an in-person interview, and within 10 minutes you realize someone's an awful fit," Mr. Albert says. He and Mr. Bergson-Shilcock thought it would be useful for recruiters to get a taste of an applicant's personality during that first step of the application process, rather than taking up precious time interviewing hordes of candidates who simply looked good on paper.

Testing the lofty claims on resumes is one of the great benefits of virtual interviews, Sandeep Ghael, co-founder of Active Interview, says. "People just use their resumes to create word salads," he says, adding that they "cram all these hot acronyms and different sorts of experiences on this one page."

The virtual interview was the only way Bryan Stuart could keep his non-profit organization's budget in check when he hired 35 people for One Laptop Per Child's internship program. It also was much easier to get candidates to submit recorded videos, which he could review at his home office in Wilmington, Ind. whenever he had spare time.

With plans to deploy interns around the world to co-ordinate laptop distribution programs, language skills were critical. While many cited proficiency in multiple languages on their resumes, Mr. Stuart knew there was one way to test those claims: one of the interview questions required applicants to answer in a second language.

That question startled applicant Federico Volio, a student in Atlanta, Ga. who was visiting his family in Costa Rica at the time, but it also impressed him.

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"It really just gives you a good impression of how much they care about who you are," he says.

He rattled off an answer in Spanish with ease which, in part, won him the internship.

Despite its happy American customers, video pre-interviews haven't yet caught on in Canada. The reason?

"One of the things that I hear quite often is, 'We're not going to do video recruitment because we're worried about litigation,'" Toronto job sourcer Geoff Webb says. " 'You didn't hire me because I sent in my video interview and I'm African-American.'"

It's something that's crossed Ms. Smith's mind after she submitted her video application. She wonders if her age (she's 47) - not-so-apparent on her text application but certainly so in her video pre-interview - was what stopped her from getting a job at the tech firm she applied to last month.

But Mr. Webb points out that discrimination is possible at all points of the recruitment process, and this technology, despite what critics say, doesn't encourage it.

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Sometimes prejudice comes out when hiring managers review names on resumes; other times it's revealed during in-person interviews, he, Mr. Ghael and Mr. Albert all point out.

In the case of CDW, a technology sales firm based in Vernon Hills, Illinois, which has been using HireVue'svirtual interview system since 2008, the technology actually evens out the playing field, says the firm's senior director of talent acquisition, Melissa McMahon.

"We spent so much time on this with our legal team, and in reality, it creates consistency of selection," she says. "Each candidate gets the exact same questions, the exact same amount of time to answer them."

She expects the system will eventually be adopted by CDW's Canadian arm, too. "It'll never replace face-to-face interviews," Ms. McMahon says, "but it allows us to get to that short candidate slate."

While applicants still submit text files of their resumes and fill out a written application, she says the video Q&A is the most valuable piece of the application since many of the questions test applicants on problem solving and leadership techniques - things most can't convey on paper.

Call-back or not, Ms. Smith says she'd like to see more employers adopt the video application system.

"Everything we do is interactive and social, and then going through interviewing and applying for jobs again, it's amazing how old fashioned it is," she says. "I think [this is]more lively. It's just more your personality - even as horrible as video is."

Tips for virtual interviewees:

1. Choose a neutral and professional backdrop. Make sure the dog is in another room and your phone has been turned off.

2. If you've never used a webcam before, test it out with a friend on the other end. Get comfortable looking at the camera rather than at the little video applet on your screen to mimic eye contact.

3. Dress up like you're meeting the hiring manager in person. You can never over-dress for a job interview, virtual or otherwise. Unless the employer clearly states in its instructions that you should dress casually, go with business casual or business formal.

4. You can prepare notes to read before you hit the record button, but don't write up answers and read them to your webcam. You wouldn't bring note-cards to an in-person interview, would you?

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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