The Importance of the Impossible Test

Next time you have to hire a new employee for your small business, put them in an intentionally uncomfortable situation to see how they cope.
November 30, 2012

At some point, every one of us will find ourselves totally screwed. It may be something in your career, at a starting line, in your private life, it doesn't really matter. It’s what you do next that defines your mettle.

For the purposes of this discussion, I only care about the work application. In the seven years that my editorial team has been sending out daily recommendations, I can think of dozens of times when we were in this sort of position. And what's allowed us to keep the hits coming and get through is that our team has reacted by rolling up their sleeves and making the best of a bad situation. In all this time, we have never missed a single day of our awesome content. Now don't you want to sign up for Thrillist?

Taking the Test

The hardest part is finding and hiring people who, among other things, have this personal fiber. I don't claim to have all the answers, and lord knows I've made mistakes. But I've also learned some moves over the years, and an enormously valuable one is the “Impossible Test.” The nature of the test varies from department to department. For an editorial job, it’s changed over the years, but the basics remain the same: 90 minutes to run through a battery of hyper-nuanced editorial drills that would jam up the top talent on my senior staff. In fact, one night last summer, my senior editors and I went to Keens, and there at the table armed with nothing more than TD Bank pens, gave ourselves five minutes to do our best with the beast. Everyone's stuff was totally terrible, except mine.

Anyhow, when the candidate comes in for their interview and they are sitting on your rectilinear pleather couch wearing some sort of khakis, or possibly Voltron Reeboks—hit them with the test. At the moment when they comprehend the immediacy of the situation, watch their reaction. Does he or she begin sullenly plowing through No. 1? Do they look around in panic? Do they flip through, and immediately get started on whichever drill looked least forbidding? Or do they read it over, ever-slowing, as a look of perfect doom spreads over their features?

What You'll Get

The results, of course, are always just horrible. Now and then you'll get a laugh, but mostly you just have to master a few moments of deeply hating the person for being so bad. Frankly, you can almost learn more from the scribbles on the form. Let your eyes go out of focus. The pages should be an orderly blur of ink, clearly laid out with some purpose and certainty.

How's the handwriting? How about at the end? I've thought more than once that coping with the anachronistic nuisance of actually handwriting for four pages is a subtle trial of fortitude and focus unto itself. Sorry Mrs. Belanger, but my cursive has basically been limited to post-it notes for some time now. Also, it’s not cursive because I reverted to a trundling, child-like print.

The real learning is in their behavior. You should notice their demeanor as they face the challenge, their attitude when time ran out and they handed over their work, and what they had to say about the experience in general. Just delivering in a pinch is not enough if after the fact this person is going to complain about having to do so. It’s also important to assess how (and if) they finished the test. There's a big difference between an employee who laser focuses on an issue or two but phones in the rest, and one who allocates time to appropriately tackle each task.

By the time 90 minutes are up, you pretty much know whether this is the kind of person you want on the team. 

Read more posts about hiring the right employees. 

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