Are Pre-Employment Trials Worthwhile?

Pre-employment trials are becoming more popular. How do they work?
Pre-Employment Trials

Tryouts. Trial periods. Temp-to-hire. Short-term assignments. Whatever they call it, more companies are hiring candidates for defined pre-employment periods before they commit to an ongoing job offer.

“Hiring managers are realizing that previous achievements and a good work portfolio don’t always translate directly into the ability to perform in a certain role,” said Luis Magalhaes, executive coach at recruitment agency Distant Job. Culture is a major component of whether a candidate will sink or swim in the organization, Magalhaes said, “and it’s much easier to test for culture with a pre-employment trial than to interview for it.”

That’s been the case at Entelo, a San Francisco-based software company that uses pre-employment trials when hiring for openings across the company. “For instance, the engineering team is highly collaborative, so when they need a new engineer they don’t want someone who’s going to come into work, put on headphones and not talk to anyone for eight hours,” said Jill Witty, the company’s vice president of talent and operations. Rather than asking about someone’s work-style in an interview — and hoping the candidate self-identifying as collaborative actually represents reality — Entelo offers promising candidates a temp-to-perm position upfront.

“We’re looking for engineers who problem-solve with their colleagues — and this lets us see that in action,” said Witty, who also started her career at the company on a trial basis.

Evolving Expectations

The appeal of “trying before buying” is straightforward enough: Candidates are increasingly leaning on résumé-polishing tools and career coaches, making it harder to cut through the polish and veneer and really vet a candidate. “Trial periods allow employers to hire more high performers and reduce turnover,” said Josh Millet, CEO of skills assessment firm West Hollywood, California-based Criteria Corp.

While candidates might have bristled at the idea of a trial in the past, that’s no longer the case. The trial trend is now gaining traction at a time when the so-called gig economy is in full swing — and that’s no accident, Magalhaes said. Millennials are more accustomed to nontraditional job positions and more open to short-term gigs than previous generations. That means they tend to be more flexible and open to the suggestion of a three-month trial, rather than the traditional probationary period that so seldom results in a rescinded offer.

In some ways, pre-employment trials are a close cousin of the paid internship, which many millennials cut their teeth on early in their career. But these trials attract more experienced talent, Witty said. And when the trial doesn’t result in a full-time job offer, it’s less disruptive and demoralizing for the rest of the team than saying goodbye to someone after only a few months on the job.

Selling the Set-up

Some candidates will automatically be turned off by the idea of a pre-employment trial, but fewer than you might think, according to Rebecca Vertucci, founder of Vertucci Career Academy based in Saratoga Springs, New York, and senior customer success manager for LinkedIn. “More candidates will see this as a great way for them to try out the organization before they commit,” she said. “A trial can be a great way to test whether they like the culture, the management, the projects, the people.”

The compensation structure can also make a big difference in how appealing or off-putting a trial seems, Millet said. “You can make it more palatable for candidates by paying generously during the trial period, so that it doesn’t feel exploitative,” he said. Keep in mind, however, that an unpaid trial period may also put a company afoul of labor laws, depending on whether or not the resulting work product is used purely for evaluative purposes.

When it comes to the trial-period paycheck, some companies offer hourly or daily rates in line with what the full-time position might eventually pay, while others compensate more highly. That doesn’t mean higher net costs, either, points out Vertucci. Because companies don’t have to pony up for benefits, such as health insurance, retirement contributions or transportation perks, during a trial period, the total cost tends to be quite a bit lower even when the hourly rate is higher. “You can engage in a low-risk assessment without having to spend a ton of money,” Vertucci said.

Transparency can also make a pre-employment trial less off-putting. If everyone at the company started with similar structures, share that with candidates, suggests Witty, so it’s clear the trial isn’t a reflection of doubts about the individual. Also be explicit about the trial period’s length, compensation and expectations.

Will there be periodic reviews during the trial period? What type of feedback can the person expect? Answering those questions upfront — without waiting for the candidate to ask them — can ease anxieties about a less-traditional set-up.

Talent professionals and other executives also need to be transparent with hiring managers about the perks and potential pitfalls of pre-employment trials, Magalhaes said. Extending a temporary position may be less freighted with risks and expense than a full-time job offer, but it’s not free. Interviewing and vetting candidates carries cost whether someone stays for two months or 20 years, and hiring managers that understand that will be more rigorous and judicious in their offers.

And if those trial offers turn into full-time roles? Well, that’s a win-win.

Kate Rockwood is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.