(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Eileen Gunn
March 30 (Reuters) - When Will Flaherty, 23, applied for a job as director of communications for SeatGeek, an aggregator of sporting-event and concert-ticket websites, he had to jump through several challenging hoops - even before he landed an interview.
Companies across the board, inspired by "hackathon" competitions by technology companies scouting for top programming talent and Google's math quizzes for job candidates, are increasingly turning to elaborate interview processes to glean insight into how prospective hires might perform on the job.
Flaherty, based in New York City, first had to crunch data about NFL ticket prices to create a graph and write a blog post. Once the post was published to a special website set up for the job opening, he promoted it through social media. Finally, he watched as 15 other candidates went through the same process.
"Companies are realizing that if one person interviews all the candidates, no matter what, there is always a built-in bias," says Gerry Crispin, co-founder of consulting company Career Xroads in East Brunswick, New Jersey. "So companies are getting better at breaking down what they want to know and figuring out the best way to learn it."
That process might include a panel interview, a presentation requirement, or "some unique aspect of their environment that they want to simulate with a try-out situation," Crispin said.
Despite the extra effort that a more thorough selection process requires, some candidates are appreciative.
"The places that put you through a lot seem to be more selective, which makes me want to work for them more," says Oly Rillera, 26, who went through detailed interviews at Google and software company MathWorks, and now works for a technology public relations firm called Social Radius.
This doesn't mean those complex interviewing procedures can't be misused, or that job candidates shouldn't bail early on if the odds of getting a job are too slim to justify the time spent in preparation.
When Dawn Quiett, 42, a public relations consultant in Dallas, recently applied for a job at a local museum, she was asked to bring "a marketing plan, a Power Point presentation, and a list of my media contacts."
When she heard that five other candidates would be interviewed, providing similar troves of valuable information, Quiett bowed out.
"After five people bring in all of those items, why would they need to hire anyone?" she says.
Here are some issues to consider before jumping through hoops for your next job:
IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?
While the SeatGeek tryout worked out for Flaherty, 15 other applicants put in the same time and effort, and eight didn't even get a first interview.
Crispin advises companies to whittle down shortlisted candidates to the final few before bringing on the bells-and-whistles interview.
"If you ask for 50 writing samples at the very beginning, 49 people are wasting time they could be spending looking for a job that they actually have a chance of getting," he says.
Jack Groetzinger, a co-founder of Seatgeek, says most of the company's tryouts take up to an hour to complete, and to compensate job applicants for this time, Seatgeek tells them not to bother with a cover letter.
"People spend a lot of time on cover letters and the challenges we come up with tell us a lot more about their skills than cover letters do," he says.
If a pre-interview project requires a heavy time commitment, it's worth assessing how well you fit the job requirements, and if you have skills and experience that will give you an edge, Crispin says.
"It's an outdated idea to apply for a job where you aren't 100 percent qualified," Crispin cautions. "If they say you need these three or four things, and you don't have them all," the effort may be a waste of time.
In Flaherty's case, he says that an internship for two professional sports teams while in college in Texas, and a stint covering sports for his university newspaper were, gave him an advantage in vying for the SeatGeek job.
FACE TIME IS KEY
Spending time onsite to talk with one's future colleagues will yield a candid view of a company's culture, how people interact with each other, and how enjoyable the job may be.
The endeavor would be time consuming but potentially worthwhile, says Leigh Steere, co-founder of the HR research firm Managing People Better, based in Boulder, Colorado.
However, "If an employer asks you to do work at home, you're not getting the benefit of seeing the company and working with team members; you're simply producing a work product," she says.
In the latter situation, it's within a candidate's rights to ask whether (and when) there will be an in-person interview, how many people will be involved, and what happens next to the project that he or she is working on, Steere says.
If the responses are too one-sided in favor of the company, that could be a "red flag" that something's not right, Steere says.
ARE YOU WORKING FOR FREE?
If you're asked to produce a project but details on pay and creative rights aren't clear, corporate trainer Marlene Caroselli, whose company is based in Rochester, New York, suggests, "If possible, use material that you've already created for someone else and make certain the interviewer knows this."
Such material can be tailored to highlight the experience the potential employer needs to see.
Indeed, when it comes to that pre-interview project, Crispin says it's possible to differentiate between what's "real" work and what's not.
For example, Seatgeek's blog project was set up on a separate website for job applicants only, and candidates' work wasn't published on the company's actual website.
But if an interviewer insists on work that seems too involved to be appropriate, it could be best to politely decline and move on.
Says Caroselli, "There are always unscrupulous firms and you don't need to be their interview 'patsy.'" (Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Bernadette Baum)