Workshop Interviews: A Dissenting Opinion

The interpretive workshop interview is a (mis)step in the right direction.

Imagine.

In my previous article, Hiring Better Interpreters, I asserted that traditional sit-at-the-table interviews tend to select candidates who are really good at sitting at a table being interviewed. I am certainly not alone in making that observation. A number of years ago, in an effort to ferret out the absolute cream of the interpretive crop, managers around the world came up with what we now know as the workshop interview. You gather your candidates in groups of fifteen or so, and pack them into an intensive eight-hour experience in which they must show what they can really do: write, improvise, brainstorm, give and take critiques, demonstrate their subject matter knowledge, and so on. No hiding, no faking it, no BS. It was a breakthrough moment, in retrospect, and since that time workshop interviews have become a standard format for evaluating potential seasonal interpreters everywhere.

I’m going to suggest to you that we can do better. While I acknowledge that workshop interviews are much, much better than traditional interviews, they are not without their serious flaws:

  1. Workshop interviews take up an excessive amount of the candidate’s valuable time; in fact I think they border on the unethical
  2. They still evaluate the wrong skills, favouring “niceness” over talent
  3. It’s still possible for candidates to game the system and misrepresent themselves in a workshop interview. I learned this the hard way. Read on, gentle reader.

Let’s start with my first point: the inordinate amount of time we ask of a candidate in the workshop interview. Look at your calendar for the next two weeks. Find one day when you have time to commit eight solid, exhausting hours, plus travel and prep time, to caper about with fifteen other candidates, on the off chance that you might land three months’ work. How does that sound to you? I can tell you that I don’t have that kind of time, and I had even less of it when I was a student looking for seasonal work, with exams to finish, an apartment to pack up and move, and multiple job interviews ahead of me.

Interestingly, about the same time that interpretive managers were getting all excited about workshop interviews—it must have been the mid-1990s or so—professional theatres got the same idea. They began gathering actors together for an entire sweaty day of out-acting each other. Turns out the actors didn’t like it so much. Their professional association came out with an edict that if you want more than three hours of an actor’s time in an audition, you were going to have to pay for it. That was their first solution; nowadays I notice that group auditions have been largely forbidden. Now, do you think your candidates feel any differently than the actors do? Do you really think they’re loving the eight-hour cage match? I know they tell you what a wonderful, enjoyable, fulfilling time they had. What else can they say?

Another reason for group interviews’ popularity among managers is that they put a great deal of weight on how the candidates work together. They place the candidates in “real-world” situations: an ideation session (don’t you love that term? It’s what we used to call brainstorming, back in a simpler time) or a simulated rove, or a simulated critique. But as I mentioned in my previous article, those are secondary skills. Important skills perhaps, but secondary to the ability to actually write and deliver the interpretive product. Every time I spend a day in workshop interviews, I am left with the feeling—after five hours of watching all the forced applause and awkward mutual encouragement—that I honestly have no idea who the best interpreters are. And then comes the point in the day where they get up and actually deliver a presentation. Bing! The light goes on and I know whether or not they have the right stuff. Everything else has been filler up to that point. Not a complete waste of time, but certainly not the best use of it.

Those filler skills, I believe, are valued by supervisors who want “nice” interpreters above all else. Of course, we all need nice interpreters. But I have been in this business for 33 years, and I have consistently observed the following: good managers hire talent; average managers hire people who don’t threaten them.  Why are we collectively committing 140 person-hours per day to finding people whose strongest skill is playing nicely in the sandbox? Yes, the ability to work collaboratively is at the heart of our profession. But the strained artificiality of the workshop interview won’t tell you what your candidates are like in practice. Only a very thorough reference check will tell you that.

I admit that my point of view here is coloured by a negative experience I had a few years ago. We ran a full day of workshops, and the candidates were wonderful. By the end of the day we were delighted with the embarrassment of riches before us. We had only four positions to fill, and so we made our choices. We were so confident in those choices that we performed only the most perfunctory of reference checks.

And then the new interpreters arrived for the season. Candidates A, B and C performed exactly as promised: they were awesome. Candidate D was something else altogether. Where he had been generous and cooperative in the workshop, he was autocratic and bullying on the job. Where he had been kind and supportive in the workshop, he was manipulative and imperious and disrespectful. He had managed to misrepresent himself for eight solid hours. It must have been exhausting.

Interpreters have formidable powers, it must be said, and they can use those powers for good or evil. They tend to be pleasers, with a chameleon-like ability to change their tone, their style, their very personalities based on the needs of their audience. This is generally a good thing; just don’t forget that in a workshop interview, that audience is you.

There’s one last thing: I hesitate to address it because it’s a bit of an unappealing thing to consider, but could it be that workshop auditions are popular in part because they flatter the supervisory ego? They have flattered mine, and I’m not really comfortable with it. It’s natural that, after a long, dark winter trapped in the office with the same sad pasty-faced colleagues, we look forward to these workshops. It’s energizing and inspiring to fill a room with creative people and put them through their paces. But here’s what occurred to me in my last round of them: I have set up a power dynamic in which these people are, frankly, kissing up to me for eight hours straight—jumping through hoop after hoop, competing for my attention and approval. It’s a dynamic I’m starting to find a bit unsettling, to tell you the truth.

I don’t want to sound too critical of the workshop interview. They have, by and large, proven themselves over time. Coupled with a rigorous reference check, they really can bring out the very best in a big field of candidates.

But place yourselves in the candidates’ shoes. They just want a job for the summer. They believe they have what it takes, and they would really appreciate the basic respect that comes with a few minutes of your undivided attention. They want to show you the absolute best of what they’ve got, and then get on with their busy lives like the rest of us.

I really don’t think that’s too much to ask, do you?

Next: a modest proposal for a better way.

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2 Comments

  1. Group interviews not for me. As an interviewer I enjoy the interview process and trust my instincts well in the interviews. As a person looking for work, the last thing I want is to do Live competition with other candidates AND spend an entire day of my time doing it. It may take less time for the interviewer to do the group workshop interview but it is also taking up a full day of each of the candidates time.

    Just an old- fashioned gal I guess, but it has always worked for me so far.

  2. I agree with the actors guild and with your own cautions Don.
    Workshop interviews are a social psychology experiment in gaming that select hyper competitive candidates. It is like putting the Bachelors and Bachelorettes together on Survivor island to see who will be last couple standing.
    Good interpreters are grown over a number of years from the seeds of essential qualities that can be determined through traditional interviews, especially for a summer job.

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