Alleviate Hiring Headaches with this One Simple Step

By: Jim Roddy, VP of Marketing & VAR/ISV Business Advisor at the RSPA

An IT executive friend of mine recently shared this hiring dilemma on LinkedIn:

So a funny thing happened just now. During an interview, the candidate asked me if I was going to give him an “assignment” to complete. I told him I had not planned on it … and then I saw confusion cover his face. Apparently all his prior interviews had requested him to complete some sort of assignment during the interview process. I’m not sure what I would even “assign” someone for a Customer Success role. How do other people feel about interview assignments? Is this something I should consider adding to my interview process? Where can I find some good resources on this? Thanks in advance.

Here’s my advice for her (and you) based on my 20+ years as a hiring manager:

Require every viable candidate to complete a simple assignment that reveals their:

  • ability to follow directions
  • communication skills
  • decision-making skills
  • attention to detail
  • ability to meet a deadline
  • ability to handle criticism
  • desire for the job

At the end of the interview, hand the candidate a piece of paper (or if it’s a virtual interview, shoot them an email) with these directions:

Write a 500-700 word essay on something your life experiences have taught you. Provide support statements why you know your life lesson is true. Clear thought, accuracy, and strength of your points will be considered when this is reviewed. Email your essay to **[insert your email here]** within 48 hours of receiving this assignment. Please make sure your name is on the document. Thank you.

Let’s expand on those bullet points about what this five-sentence assignment can reveal:

Ability to follow directions: Is their essay in the 500-700 word range? Does it focus on life experiences? Does the candidate include their name on the document?

Communication skills: Is the essay clear? Does the candidate effectively support their main theme? Does the essay even have a theme? Does the candidate use proper grammar and punctuation?

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Decision-making skills: Did they choose an appropriate topic? Did they use appropriate language for a professional setting?

Attention to detail: Does the essay contain any errors? Did the candidate run spellcheck? Is the document formatted properly? Does their email to you include a subject line?

Ability to meet a deadline: Did the candidate submit the essay within 48 hours of receiving the assignment?

Ability to handle criticism: When you review the assignment with the candidate, ask questions and point out areas that could be improved. Does the candidate respond in an acceptable manner? 

Desire for the job: Does the candidate enthusiastically invest time in the essay because they really want your job? Or do they bail because they see this step as an impractical obstacle for a job they don’t actually want?

I can regale you with several stories about how this essay has significantly impacted hiring decisions I’ve been involved in. One candidate said she was not willing to share any life experience because she knew co-workers would use that data to laugh at her during the company Christmas party. Candidates who described themselves as “perfectionists” failed to double-check proper nouns or run spellcheck. Some candidates submitted the essay three days late without acknowledging their tardiness. Other candidates claimed they embraced constructive criticism, but when we asked them questions about their content or communication tactics, they bristled and got defensive. And one candidate eliminated himself from the process by emailing us a document titled “f***ing essay.doc.” (He blamed his roommate.)

Don’t let those stories lead you to believe the pre-employment essay is merely a mechanism to eliminate unqualified candidates. This assignment creates the opportunity for you to work with the candidate before you take the plunge and add them to payroll. Here are some observations and anecdotes related to one candidate’s essay I received:

  • Shortly after I emailed the assignment to the candidate, she replied to confirm receipt of my request. She then emailed me the completed assignment within 48 hours.
  • The essay was 607 words long, well within the requested range.
  • The PDF was professionally formatted: header with name and date; a headline before the text; a footer at the bottom including the page number and phrase “LIFE EXPERIENCES.”
  • The three key life lessons were overtly stated early in the essay – in the first paragraph, fourth sentence.
  • The topic was appropriate for the professional world: the importance of helping others find their passion.
  • The essay was adequately written but it wasn’t perfect. A few sentences were vague, so when we met for the next interview, we asked the candidate to clarify what they really wanted to say.
  • The article included some minor grammatical errors plus a big one that should have been caught for sure: “of” was misspelled “fo.” When we pointed this out, the candidate was mortified and quickly apologized. When asked how they could have avoided the error, she said, “Run spellcheck. That’s a bad habit I need to break.”
  • That error and pointing out the unclear passages allowed us to have a deep conversation about the work culture we’re striving for. The candidate should expect to be asked challenging questions and have their errors pointed out, and we expect her to ask us questions and alert us to our errors. If she finds that to be a positive work atmosphere, that’s great. If she isn’t comfortable in that kind of culture, that’s fine as well, but she probably should let us know that now so we don’t frustrate each other down the road.

Finding the right fit for your company is difficult, but you don’t have to go it alone. RSPA members can learn team-building best practices through the RSPA Academy EXCELerate eLearning program and receive one-on-one hiring help through the RSPA’s Business Advisory Services. We’ll even help you assess essays you receive from candidates. For details on either program or to learn more about joining the RSPA, email

Happy hiring!

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Jim Roddy is the Vice President of Marketing and a Business Advisor for the Retail Solutions Providers Association (RSPA). He has been active in the POS channel since 1998, including 11 years as the President of Business Solutions Magazine, six years as an RSPA board member, one term as RSPA Chairman of the Board, and several years as a business coach for VARs, ISVs, and MSPs. Jim has been recognized as one of the world’s Top 100 Retail Influencers by RETHINK Retail and is regularly requested to speak at industry conferences on SMB best practices. He is also author of The Walk-On Method To Career & Business Success and Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer. For more information, contact