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  • Robert Farago

Coffee Cup vs. Chicken Hiring Tests

How to judge the value of a potential employee

“I will always take you for a walk down to one of our kitchens and somehow you always end up walking away with a drink.” That’s the start of the interview process invented by Trent Innes, revealed in a re-surfaced 2019 podcast. I’m intrigued by the word “somehow”…

How did the exec convince interviewees who declined refreshment to GET A DAMN DRINK? Clearly, no one died of dehydration on Mr. Innes’ watch.

Anyway, once an interviewee made it though the office Sahara, the boss proceeded with his secret social experiment.

The Coffee Cup Test

Then we take the drink back, have our interview, and one of the things I’m always looking for at the end of the interview is, does the person doing the interview want to take that empty cup back to the kitchen?

Mr. Innes said he refused to hire anyone who fails to return the empty cup to the corporate kitchen at the interview’s end.

Which proves what? That Mr. Innes is OCD? Yes!

If you come into the office one day inside Xero, you’ll see the kitchens are almost always clean and sparkling and it’s very much off that concept of wash your coffee cup, but that sort of led into the interview space.

Mr. Innes rationalized his “coffee cup test” by claiming that a returned cup or glass indicates “ownership” – then admitted it was more about getting his clean freak on.

Attitude and ownership scale, especially in a really fast-growing environment like we’ve been going through and still at this stage as well. We want to make sure we’ve got people who have a real, strong ownership and a growth mindset. It’s really just making sure they’re actually going to fit into the culture inside Xero, and really take on everything that they should be doing.

When Mr. Innes shared this revelation with the world, the exec was Xero’s hero. In 2022, Innes jumped ship for Compono, makers of “Intelligent Hiring and Development Software.”

As far as I can tell, Compono’s HR software doesn’t “somehow” get online applicants to grab a beverage from their kitchen, make sure they drain its contents and remotely monitor the cup’s or glass’ immediate fate.

Nor can I find evidence that Compono’s software recommends this unorthodox interview test to “happy customers” like the Tasmanian government – although I’d love to see them try it on ‘Tas.

The test’s media resurrection leaves me thinking that there’s a hunger – make that a thirst for a really good interview test that doesn’t include beverages or trick questions (A Smart Ass’s Guide to Interview Questions).

And Now for Something Completely Different

Back in the day, I got pally with an internet advertising company CEO. Call him Frank (because he was).

Frank ran a “boiler room” operation, what wikipedia defines as “an outbound call center selling questionable investments by telephone… where salespeople work using unfair, dishonest sales tactics.”

Yeah, that. Over a glass of Guiness (served with a knife and fork), Frank shared his “chicken test” interview technique. Which I subsequently witnessed, live and in-person.

Chicken Test - Part 1

Like Mr. Innes’ final interview hurdle, Frank’s test started after the usual formalities. He tells the applicant he’s got one more question.

Not a question, exactly. A role play exercise. Ready? Great! You’re an understudy for a famous lead actor in a West End play. way snobbier.>way snobbier.> You’ve been waiting all your life for your moment to shine. Guess what? This is it! The lead’s broken his leg. It’s opening night. All the most famous playwrights, actors, directors and producers are in the audience. Your entire career depends on this one performance. Your role is… a chicken. The curtain goes up. Show me your chicken!

No kidding. Really.

Frank waited for the interviewee to cluck like a chicken, preferably with his or her arms under their armpits, bobbing their head back and forth, moving around the room.

If the applicant chickened-out (so to speak), fail. If an interviewee failed to perform their chicken with sufficient gusto, Frank provided additional explanation, motivation and direction.

Don’t dismiss Frank’s “chicken test” as simple humiliation. The ethically-challenged CEO wanted to hire extroverts. More than that, he needed employees who would do what he told them to do. Period.

Part 1 of the Chicken Test established the prospective salesperson’s submission to Frank’s authority, of which he had plenty. And then, not Guiness. Genius!

Chicken Test - Part 2

Frank didn’t want his telesales staff to be submissive script-reading Betas to rubes customers on the other end of the telephone. So…

Excellent work! Now I’m going to send in someone who also wants to work for us. Do the chicken test on them. Your job here depends on it.

Frank sent in one of his employees as a chicken test-ee, not another job applicant. They were instructed not to do a chicken, no matter what the aspiring employee said.

The result was incredibly revealing.

Some applicants were excellent story tellers, some weren’t. Some applicants gave up straight away, looking around the room for rescue. Some quit after a few minutes. Some kept at it for 30 minutes.

Sales techniques – for that’s what they were – included humor, flattery and bribery.

One applicant grabbed Frank’s employee by the lapels, got in his face and threatened to beat the living crap out of him. She was the only applicant I saw who beat the Kobayashi Maru-like test.

Hired! And rightly so.

As I pointed out in my How to Sell Anything to Anyone series, a sales person must be the dominant Alpha over the customer – in the nicest possible way (lapel-grabs verboten).

Chicken Test FTW?

Absolutely! Mr. Innes’ “coffee cup test” violated the most sacred rule in the Employees’ Handbook: coffee is for closers. Mr. Innes’ test was, in comparison, chickenshit.

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