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How to Hire Delightful Employees: Role Play Has a Role

by Leslie Lea Nord on April 29, 2013

Responding to a new emphasis on customer service, managers at the Johnson County (Kans.) Library (JCL) devised new methods for hiring all levels of public services staff, systemwide. We’ve used this new approach since December 2009, and it has brought greater insight to our hiring process. Being delightful is now a goal for our employees, reflecting an outcome of the 2008 strategic plan, Experience Johnson County Library, that our patrons experience “delightful service.”

As we started to ponder what it takes to be delightful, we realized we had a huge hole in our hiring processes. We had never focused on determining a potential employee’s soft skills, such as whether a candidate will be friendly and approachable with patrons. Previously, our interview process had focused on discerning whether a subject is knowledgeable, conscientious, and skilled at library work.

We decided we needed more than a list of interview questions, especially because people can practice for an interview. Our intent was to test a person’s customer service skills by simulating an environment where he or she is expected to remain calm in a stressful interaction with a patron.

Following the lead of many popular retail chains today, we added a role-play component to the interview processes for all of our public service positions. We have been pleased with the results and feel the experience has enabled us to make better hiring decisions.

This article provides examples of three different types of roleplays. Although most of the jobs in our libraries require some level of customer service, different jobs have different types of demands. Therefore, we have tailored the type of role-play to the customer service situations each job will entail.

Shelver Role-Play

For candidates interviewing for shelver positions, we use a secret-shopper method directly after the interview. We do not tell the candidates they are taking part in a role-play.

First, we take each candidate on a short tour of the library and then give instructions on how to shelve and where to direct patrons if they have questions. We tell the candidate the exercise is to test shelving ability. The candidate is then given a small cart of about twenty DVDs to shelve.

While the candidate is shelving, a secret shopper approaches and asks if the library carries a certain movie. The shopper, who is either a staff member or library volunteer, later scores the candidate from one to five in the following areas:

  1. Overall impression
  2. Customer service
  3. Genuineness
  4. Ability to handle stress and pressure
  5. Coachability

Responding to a new emphasis on customer service, managers at the Johnson County (Kans.) Library (JCL) devised new methods for hiring all levels of public services staff, systemwide. We’ve used this new approach since December 2009, and it has brought greater insight to our hiring process. Being delightful is now a goal for our employees, reflecting an outcome of the 2008 strategic plan, Experience Johnson County Library, that our patrons experience “delightful service.”

We’ve found that the role-play for shelvers reveals candidates who may be unfriendly when approached, providing a glimpse into how they might react in real life when they think no one is looking. We have observed frustration, anger (“I can’t help you, I’m interviewing!”), pleasure, and also the scared, deer-in-the-headlights response. Most people do fairly well with this exercise, although the few who don’t make the effort worthwhile.

Clerk Role-Play

Library clerks have the toughest customer service job in the building. Although unhappy patrons may ask to speak to a manager when they are upset, the first person to whom they vent is usually a clerk. Often this is due to an overdue fine. Some patrons take library due dates very seriously; they are extremely conscientious about returning materials on time, and can become angry and embarrassed over the smallest fine.

The role-play for clerks is designed to simulate a difficult interaction at the checkout desk. There is no secret shopper this time. Instead, the candidate is asked to play a role in an impromptu skit that has no script. The candidate is instructed to pretend he or she is working the checkout desk, and a staff member pretends to be a difficult patron who is checking out materials. The staff member presents as many complications as possible to create a stressful situation and test the candidate’s ability to maintain good service under duress. Examples of what the difficult patron might say or do include:

  • “I don’t have my library card, and I’m in a hurry! Can’t you just check it out to me?”
  • Talks on cell phone the entire time.
  • Discovers upon checkout that a DVD is missing its disc.
  • Includes a reference book that cannot be checked out without special permission.
  • Asks for many things at once (complains about a book or a fine, asks for reading recommendations, and asks to place a hold on something).

It’s interesting to observe the process as all these challenges unfold, especially since the candidates know they are being watched and evaluated. Some candidates react with humor, which we take as a good sign, demonstrating they will be able to handle stress well. In addition, good candidates show patience and tolerance, using phrases such as

  • “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but . . .”
  • “It will only take a moment to check and see if we can find another copy for you.”
  • “Thank you so much for paying your fine when you are in such a hurry.”

As with the secret shopper role-play, the skit provides insight into a person’s temperament. Candidates can work hard to prepare for an interview, but the roleplay is unexpected and can catch them off guard. We have found that role-play tends to reinforce and give more credence to what we see in the interview.

For example, one candidate gave good, thoughtful answers and was obviously knowledgeable and interested in libraries. However, she seemed a bit aloof, and I was concerned she might not be warm and friendly with patrons. This became obvious in the skit. She took the patron’s behavior personally and became defensive, cold, and distant. She tended to stick with rules and not be able to confidently deflect and calm a disgruntled patron—not the delightful customer service we strive for.

Another candidate gave a strong interview on most questions and had extensive library experience in another state. He seemed to be a friendly, likable guy, yet it concerned me when he complained repeatedly about his former employers. In the role-play, he reacted to the difficult patron with sarcasm. His tendency to be defensive and arrogant showed through.

Both of these methods (the secret shopper and the skit) have advantages and disadvantages. Some staff members are uncomfortable with the secret shopper method. They feel it is dishonest, because the candidate does not realize that he or she is being evaluated for customer service skills. At the same time, some people are not good actors and are uncomfortable playing a role in a skit. They may freeze and not give a true impression of how they would react in real life.

However, we’ve found that both methods usually provide a valid glimpse into candidates’ personalities and a feeling for their flexibility, confidence, and ability to handle stress, which are all important skills for busy library employees today.

Manager Role-Play

When it came time to create a role-play for assistant branch manager candidates, we had to think seriously about what characteristics we were looking for. An assistant branch manager must be confident and able to make good decisions and solve problems. He or she also needs to be able to multi-task and be proficient at all of the service desks, while simultaneously supervising the circulation staff and their workload.

Assistant branch managers must have strong interpersonal skills to resolve differences of opinion between staff members, in addition to placating the occasional upset patron. With change a constant today, a good assistant branch manager must be able to empathize with and motivate employees as things change, especially when change is mandated. It’s up to managers to help staff adapt and become comfortable with stressful situations and change.

In the past, it’s been difficult to capture a candidate’s ability to do all this by utilizing interview questions alone. In addition, because there is a lot of competition for management positions, a person may interview for the same position multiple times and become familiar with the questions. This will detract from our ability to observe them under pressure.

To help identify candidates’ skill with employee issues, we decided to add a role-play piece to the second round of the interview process for our assistant branch managers.

What we found most surprising in using the role-play this time was that although the final three candidates had all given strong interviews, one person excelled in the role-play. The role-play uncovered his natural leadership ability, his ability to remain calm in stressful situations, and his talent for communicating and being persuasive. We were able to quantify all this through the rating system we created.

We created three scenarios to roleplay, each with goals and scoring (explained in the following sections). Four managers were involved in the role-plays and subsequent evaluations. The managers all took turns acting out the script with the candidate, except for the hiring manager, who only observed.

Role-Play #1

The assistant branch manager candidate is told to pretend to be a supervisor. A staff member has asked to speak with him or her about an issue she is having.

Staff member: “I need help handling a colleague. She is always correcting me, sometimes in front of patrons. I don’t think she does it intentionally, but she always makes me feel inferior and stupid. It’s making me miserable, and I need your help and advice.”

The candidate is to ad-lib an answer, and the situation quickly becomes a difficult one. The goal of this role-play was to see if the candidate could empathize with the employee, yet still get to the bottom of the issue and also give advice. For example, the employee may need to learn to give constructive feedback to the coworker and be more assertive.

The four interviewers observed the role-play and scored the candidates from zero to four points on his or her ability to:

  • Be empathetic
  • Understand the core problem
  • Give constructive feedback

Role-Play #2

In this role-play, the candidate is to pretend to be a manager at a staff meeting who has just asked the group for their concerns. One very vocal staff member has an issue she’d like to discuss.

Staff member: “I am very upset that we will no longer have the DVD letters on the tops of the spine. This was a stupid decision and is going to cause much more staff time to shelve them, which is going to end up costing us more money!” The candidate is to ad-lib his or her answer.

The goal of this role-play was to see whether the candidates could be empathetic while inspiring employees to rise above and see the big picture. We wanted to see whether the candidates could be encouraging while explaining reasons why this decision was made. Since all of our finalists for this position were internal to the organization, they should have been familiar with the reasoning behind the decision to stop using the labels.

The four interviewers observed the role-play and scored the candidates from zero to four points on their ability to:

  • Convey empathy
  • Communicate the big picture
  • Inspire

Role-Play #3

In this scenario, an information specialist has asked the assistant branch manager for help with a very upset patron. The candidate, in the role of the assistant branch manager, is to walk over to the patron and offer help. One of the evaluators pretends to be the patron and says, “I am very upset. Someone is viewing pornography on a library computer, and my granddaughter saw it! How can this happen?”

The goal of this role-play was to determine whether the candidate could diffuse a situation with an angry patron and communicate the library’s policies and procedures well. We wanted to see whether the candidate could do this without referring the patron to another manager. The four interviewers observed the role-play and scored the candidates from zero to four points on their ability to:

  • Calm an angry patron
  • Communicate policies and procedures
  • Be a strong leader

For manager positions, we typically call back the top candidates for second interviews. Instead, we utilized these roleplays as the second interviews. In addition, candidates were given a short writing assignment to showcase their ability to communicate in written form.

The successful candidate for assistant branch manager says he enjoyed the roleplay: “It fit my skill set because I can think quickly on my feet and solve problems.” He feels it was a good way to see how people react under pressure. “It was stressful, but if you are able to do well in this situation, you will probably also do well in real ones, too.” However, he cautioned that, just because someone does poorly, it does not mean he or she may not handle a real
situation well. He feels role-play is best used as a tool to decide between candidates who are almost equal after interviews are complete.

Final Thoughts

While the role-play results are important, we have found it is just one indicator in the selection process. The interview, previous work experience, and recommendations are still critical indicators of future success.

Sometimes the secret shopper will be very enthusiastic about a candidate who was friendly and personable in the roleplay but whose interview may not have gone as well because he or she lacked the knowledge or skill sets required for the position. We have seen a few instances like this. If it’s obvious from the interview that the candidate would not be a good fit, the role-play becomes less relevant.

Conversely, we’ve observed candidates who seemed reserved in the role-play but had terrific library references and later proved very friendly with patrons. Some candidates simply don’t respond normally because they are nervous.

If a candidate has strong qualifications and gives a great interview, we might be willing to overlook a marginal role-play. In one case, a candidate did not give a friendly response to our secret shopper but came highly recommended from another library and seemed personable in the interview.

The role-play experience provided an opportunity to coach this person immediately about customer service. We were able to address any potential customer service issues before a bad habit could develop. This employee has performed very well.

There was one downside to the roleplays. We had not considered that internal candidates have an advantage. They already know how this library expects its employees to handle the difficult situations presented. Internal candidates also know JCL’s values and procedures. This means it’s a bit tricky to compare them to the external candidates. However, I feel the role-play segment is still worthwhile, because some internal candidates handle the role-play situations poorly when they should know better.

In conclusion, I highly recommend adding role-plays in some form to the hiring process. I’ve found that role-play helps us to gauge emotional intelligence and the ability to give good customer service. The first step is to think about the requirements for a position and what types of situations a person in that position might be likely to face. And, as always, it’s important to weigh all the criteria and findings without rushing to judgment. The roleplay is just one piece of a comprehensive assessment of a future employee.