The recruitment process for consulting is notoriously difficult: it involves rounds of recruiting events, networking prowess, and consulting-specific interviews where candidates navigate unfamiliar case studies that test mental flexibility, general economic knowledge and mathematical instincts. Due to COVID-19, the recruiting cycle has been thrown for a loop.
So: what does this mean? The implicit criterion that candidates are judged on, in a virtual setting, changes dramatically. The interview, now, becomes much more focused on personality and facial expression than on active physical interaction. The result then, this article will prove, is that the recruitment process is more in the candidate’s favor, and far more under their control.
The shift to virtual recruitment is a strange one: screens now figure into the equation. At first glance, this seems to only present problems, particularly for social interaction and social perception. It could be suggested that screens work against organic communication, making it significantly harder to convey emphatic meaning through them. What’s more, poor video quality or internet connection can threaten the accurate perception of a person’s personality, conversational ability and small social cues that are still relevant in the view of a zoom lens.
Simply put, because past years interviews were conducted in person, physicality mattered much more. This year, outfits, body language, height, outfits and location mattered very little. In previous years, a candidate’s height highly impacted the chances of both hiring and promotion. The American Psychological Association reports that applicants who are taller express more dominant characteristics, and therefore are taken more seriously by recruiters. So much so, in fact, that each inch above average height could mean an additional $789 per year in salary. Non-verbal behavior also plays a big part for in-person interviewee assessment. According to a study from 1992, an individual’s perception of a stranger (when in person) is greatly determined by non-verbal behavior -- whether the interviewer is aware or not. A screen subverts the non-verbal communication that humans, and past interview experiences, relied so heavily upon. “If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated,” The National Geographic Channel reported.
Screens also alter one-on-one interactions. Interestingly, it is still up for debate whether a virtual connection is better or worse. A considerable amount of literature contends that establishing a connection online is more challenging (Cater, 2011). This is especially true with bad connection; “if the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed,” and the interviewee is immediately put at a disadvantage. According to The National Geographic Channel, non-verbal communication becomes infinitely harder to navigate because “a typical video call impairs [human’s] ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead.” However, other literature refutes this. A report from 2019 revealed that the medical professionals surveyed actually preferred using Zoom to connect with their patients. Other studies also suggest that rapport is built more quickly over a video call through troubleshooting technical difficulties (Tuttas 2015 and Barratt 2012).
However, these are not shifts to despair about. In fact, this virtual shift is a great equalizer in the recruitment world. The recruiting process is more accessible than ever before, and candidates can have more control over an interviewer’s perception. The snap judgements that human’s inevitably make, in this case, can be limited and given direction. On top of that, the content and skill of a candidate -- the thing that should arguably matter the most -- is put on display. The interviewers are forced to only consider the things that the interviewer has chosen to display and listen more attentively to what they are saying.
A candidate can adjust (and self-monitor) their position to the camera, change the lighting, control the noise level of the background, and so on. According to Professor Joachim Krueger of the Brown University Cognitive, Linguistics and Psychology Department, controlling the interview environment can provide candidates with great benefits. For instance, wearing a plain dark colour, and framing themselves against a plain, unobtrusive background, only helps to crystallize a candidate’s skill set. This kind of control extends to behavioral control. Stress tics, in person, can be disconcerting and often undermine a candidate’s chance of success. Over Zoom, these tics are most likely invisible to a recruiter.
If a candidate chooses to signal, says Professor Joachim Krueger, they should focus more on competence than on identity. They should project traits of professionalism and pragmatism through clean, sharp backgrounds and clothing, rather than the aesthetics that communicate sophisticated, individual qualities like paintings or fancy Zoom backgrounds. In fact, Krueger cautioned, trying to manipulate an interviewer with a specific aesthetic is not an arena that a candidate wants to enter. The best type of signaling, Krueger concluded, is not to signal at all.
The changes to recruitment prompted by Zoom are not exclusive to the video interactions themselves. Location of recruitment, too, has quickly become irrelevant. This applies to both the recruitment stage, the interviewing stage, and working for the companies themselves. Students no longer need to be in a “the right place” or “at the right campus” to be considered for a job. Recruitment fairs are no longer happening on campuses, but rather on conference calls. Students can’t just stumble upon a recruitment fair on central campus, but instead find out about events alongside everyone else and organize themselves accordingly. Now, events are scheduled, and information about these events disseminated through school-wide career emails, and mainstream information channels.
This point extends, also, to the location of consulting offices. McKinsey, Bain, Accenture, BCG, and IBM, among other top consulting firms, are located in major cities. Historically, final round interviews would strongly suggest and facilitate applicants to travel to the office for an in-person interview. While there has also been an option of interviewing remotely for extenuating circumstances, the implication is, candidates who interview in person are at an advantage. Now, no matter a student’s timezone or socioeconomic status, the access to opportunity has been equalized. Now, all students need is good Wifi and access to a computer.
It would be naive to say that this type of recruitment has revolutionized the sector. However, it would also be a mistake to see this form of recruitment as simply just a phase. In-person components are very important, but companies are finding more and more that the streamlined nature of virtual work is making them reassess how their companies function. According to HR Drive, “the rapid shift for telework for many office-based employers is not only forcing companies to conduct recruiting virtually, but also making them reconsider every aspect of their talent acquisition strategies.”
The question becomes: what are we now recruiting for -- an in-person job, or a virtual job where no social skills are required, simply high qualification and competence levels? Are the ways in which recruiters conduct interviews and hire potential candidates rewarding an entirely different skill-set? Only time will tell.