The virtual job interview

Who's applying on videotape - or live, via webcam? Only a handful of job seekers, for now. But signs show that may change.

Miller Brownstein, a third-year student at the Boston University School of Law, prides himself on his ability to read people and establish a rapport with them.

That skill has always served him well in interviews.

When he arrived for a scheduled interview at the school's career development office this fall, however, he found himself facing not another human being, but a camera.

"My biggest concern was my inability to establish a rapport with this plastic ball," Mr. Brownstein says. "In a live interview, you go back and forth with the interviewer and get a chance to adjust your responses based on their feedback."

Brownstein is one of hundreds of students at a handful of top law schools who have faced off with an electronic eye over the past two years as part of a process called the Virtual Interview Portal (VIP) developed by Treeba, Inc., a New York firm.

VIP records an interviewer's responses to a standard set of questions and then distributes the interview, via the Internet, to a number of firms.

While the technology offers benefits to both job candidates and companies seeking to hire - giving firms a preview of an applicant's personal presentation, for example - it remains unclear how widespread the "virtual interview," in its various forms, is likely to become.

"There is no doubt that more and more companies are using Internet technology in their recruiting efforts," says Alice Snell, vice president of iLogos Research, a division of Recruitsoft Inc. More than 90 percent of Global 500 companies now use corporate websites in their recruiting efforts, according to an iLogos survey.

But when a researcher asked directors of staffing management at large firms - including Procter & Gamble and Hewlett-Packard - what else they wanted in Internet-based technology, none expressed a specific interest in conducting interviews via the Web.

Still, some high-tech firms are banking on a coming spike in such practices.

This month, TVFON Corp., a broadband service provider in Scotts Valley, Calif., rolled out a service that it says is the first capable of delivering two-way "Near-HDTV quality," real-time video to desktop computers and dedicated terminals.

That could be just the tool for staging online company chats that don't look herky-jerky - or suffer from transmission delays that prevent job applicants from presenting themselves as fast on their feet.

For now, however, most firms still favor more established tools for screening, say workplace experts.

Large companies maintain databases that may include up to 1 million job applicants, says Ms. Snell, and they rely on text-based software programs to screen and sort candidates and to target specific skill sets.

A face-to-face interview is generally still required before anyone is hired, and conventional software already in place is widely considered to be more effective for handling intricate screening chores than live or taped webcam interviews would be.

Still, evidence suggests some job applicants may one day face some kind of camera as their first contact with a prospective employer.

Executive-search firms, for example, have been using video interviews - in which tapes are made and shipped - for at least a decade.

Webcams, some experts maintain, could perform that function at a fraction of the cost, just as videoconferencing has in some cases proven useful in reducing the need for travel.

Some industries appear to be more accepting of the concept of a virtual interview. A number of placement firms in the information-technology business, for example, offer taped interviews of job candidates to their clients.

For applicants, the recorded version has its advantages. At Boston University's law school, the VIP method works in part as a learning tool.

"Students can do practice interviews to get their presentation right," says Elaine Bourne, associate director of career development. It also lets them showcase only their best performances.

"The big advantages to them are that they only have to go through the interview process once, and the likelihood of matching their attributes to a prospective employer is improved," says Ms. Bourne.

Other candidates who have gone through the process complain about VIP's predetermined response times for each question. If a response did not fill the allotted time - usually two or three minutes - they were left with uncomfortable dead space. Some tried to fill it by continuing to speak and found they had anticipated subsequent questions, which only exacerbated the problem.

Some students who looked at the monitor instead of the camera during the interview said they ended up looking kind of shifty as a result. They got a chance to correct that if they caught it in the practice session.

Shaul Halevi, Treeba's founder and chief technology officer, shrugs off most of those concerns, emphasizing that the technology is meant to function as a first screening, not a final interview.

"This kind of screening greatly expands the pool of potential candidates. Firms can interview students at schools they would not go to visit, and students get a shot at landing a job with companies they might never have interviewed with," he says.

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