Partner at DeciBio Consulting, fostering a community to accelerate the commercialization of disruptive personalized medicine technologies.
Consulting case interviews are frequently criticized for poisoning recruiting processes with implicit and explicit bias and discrimination. Critics argue that, in general, unstructured interviews are overwrought with bias and extraneous information, and case interviews do not reliably predict job performance. Further, cognitive neuroscience research shows that personal biases such as affinity bias regularly creep into critical assessments such as interviews and performance evaluations. In fact, Google abandoned its comparable brainteasers after determining that they “don’t predict anything.” Yet, case interviews persist due to “bravado,” according to some.
Rather than throw case interviews out the window, I continuously work with our chief of staff and our recruiting committee to brainstorm ideas for decreasing bias in our existing recruiting processes. First, we are standardizing our case processes for both sides. Secondly, we are making our evaluation criteria more objective and streamlined while collecting only the candidate information that is narrowly targeted to address such core evaluation criteria. Lastly, we are increasing the transparency of our firm’s expectations and asking broadly understandable or unprecedented questions to provide a more egalitarian process that does not unfairly favor candidates “in the know.” Otherwise, discarding the case interview would put us at risk for falling into similar traps with new evaluation tools or implementing evaluation methods that are off base or too narrow to fully reflect the cocktail of ingredients that create successful combinations at our firm.
With respect to unprecedented questions, we continuously experiment with new, approachable and narrowly tailored “cases” to ask our final-round candidates during formal cases or social settings, such as coffee walks. And, we are increasingly incorporating escape room-like elements into our final-round case simulations. In fact, we are already working on our own take on an escape room. We strive to ensure our continuous improvements are all novel and uncommon, thus decreasing bias by highlighting candidates’ aptitude rather than their level of preparation and access to resources. These cases also happen to be more fun.
What Is A Sandwich?
A traditional case can be positioned to allow candidates to demonstrate critical consulting traits. For example, one of our case questions last year was, “What is a sandwich?” This is the type of question that our team debates internally. It’s also comically simple; even children can come up with answers. Relating to consulting, this question requires the interviewee to brainstorm and communicate an airtight MECE (mutually exclusive collectively exhaustive) framework and think nimbly when pressure tested.
For example, follow-up inquiries might include, “Then is a wrap a sandwich? How about a hot dog? If not a hot dog, why a sub/hoagie? What about a calzone? An Oreo?” A candidate could get lost down various rabbit holes, defining the requisite geometric angle between the parts of a “sandwich” or the inside of the sandwich, or they could succumb to an existential crisis regarding the permissible ingredients (for example, savory vs. sweet). Or, maybe the candidate might simply define “sandwich” (the noun).
Of note, this style of case is fraught with bias traps, subjectivity and the various other criticisms that case interviews receive. Not to mention, it requires a laser-sharp and nimble interviewer. Thus, for our first-round interviews, we are actually implementing traditional case interviews that are approachable, fully standardized (one-way videos), distilled to their elements, and evaluated via simple and objective criteria.
Alternatively, if we were to amplify and compound the core elements and “essence” of a good case, we would have a real-life brainteaser with similarities to an escape room. Unsurprisingly, the results of such a case would correlate with success at my company. I would trust any of my employees to lead me out of an escape room, or jail in an autocracy, even if they were blindfolded.
Our take on such a real-life brainteaser could magnify the key elements that our case interviews evaluate, providing deeper insights into the candidates. Further, it could test for elements that would be inconspicuous in a staid and traditional case, such as resourcefulness, entrepreneurship and teamwork. If a candidate doesn’t love this escape room challenge, chances are they would not love working at our firm.
Naturally, Covid-19-era concerns and recruiting logistics complicate our ability to invite batches of candidates to our headquarters concurrently, unless implemented virtually. Not to mention, our boutique firm cannot create a novel and equally challenging real-life brainteaser for each “super day.” Thus, this type of case may be ripe for cheating or unfair advantages. It might also provide too much information about a candidate, beyond the criteria we are assessing, thus opening up the door for distractions and biases. However, the net gains likely exceed the gains from a traditional case because the positives are drastically increased, but the negatives are somewhat equivalent. In the meantime, we continue to incorporate escape room features into our real-world project simulations.
As a partner at a boutique strategy consulting firm that will soon leap into another fall recruiting season, I acknowledge that some criticisms of case interviews are accurate, valid and necessary feedback for our industry — which is also known for popularizing the bias-ridden “airport test.” However, the observed challenges and failures of case interviews do not prove that the case interview itself is a bad idea. Rather, the failings merely indicate that consulting firms must improve the implementation of case interviews and use their problem-solving skills to find more creative solutions. In fact, case interviews are well positioned to highlight the range of elements consulting firms evaluate, such as ideation, intuition, analytical rigor, mental agility, communication, comfort with ambiguity, composure while under pressure and the ability to have fun while problem-solving.