The benefits of group interviews

Renato Alesiani
Renato Alesiani

I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Renato Alesiani, CEO of WaveCrest Hotels and Resorts, based in California. As the management firm for Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach, WaveCrest has developed a premier reputation for sustaining exceptional staff — translating into superb guest services, critical praise and customer loyalty.

Renato was quick to point out that this virtuous cycle begins well before staff training. He contends that WaveCrest’s regimented group interview process ensures the company recruits only the most passionate employees in a very time-efficient manner. Reduced staff turnover and six- to seven-digit cost savings on new hire starting wages are also key benefits. The practice has become integral to the overall quality and community satisfaction of WaveCrest’s hotels.

Larry Mogelonsky: So, how does your group interview process work?

Renato Alesiani: Applicants take the initial step by coming onsite and inquiring about potential job openings. WaveCrest wants them to feel special and appreciated from the start. The front desk staff members know to treat applicants like guests, offering comfortable seating and beverages while they fill out the required paperwork. From there, all potential employees are scheduled into a group interview timeslot, usually biweekly. The idea is to wow the applicants from the beginning and imbue a standard for success.

The HR director spearheads the process, organizing the day and time for all group interviews. Next, the HR director then leads the potential employees through a tour of to the hotel, the job, benefits, environment and expectations. After a roundtable introduction from each interviewee, there’s the group exercise. Successful applicants get a call back within two business days.

With the GM and three department heads also present alongside the HR director, the group interview process is designed to weed out undesirable applicants. These five acutely observe how the group interacts, individual attitudes and team spirit. Character deficits in these areas may not present themselves in a one-on-one interview, but will be apparent during the group exercise where applicants are divided into small teams and given a five-minute scenario to solve. The senior managers judge how each candidate works in a team environment. Are they participating or aloof, active or overbearing, indecisive or assertive, inclusive or exclusive? There’s typically no right or wrong to the scenarios; it’s the thought process that counts.

No one can overrule another’s decision to strike an applicant out. The five senior managers have to trust each other’s instincts when it comes to who should not be given a chance to reach the next stage. And having no experience is never a reason to disqualify a candidate at this point — no lengthy talks of past accomplishments, only gut feelings based on character. In fact, being a neophyte is often a plus because they are free of bad habits and preconceptions. A job can be taught — attitude cannot.

LM: What happens next?

RA: All applicants who pass the group interview stage are always given a second, one-on-one interview with the pertinent department head and the HR director, regardless of whether there’s an opening or not. This phase is far more traditional in design. Interviewees are now expected to wow the interviewer. Due to the groundwork already completed during the group interview, the discussions here go far more in-depth with regard to applicant background and career goals.

It’s also a practice of aligning the right applicant with the right department. For instance, someone applies intent on sales, but there are no openings at that time. If this individual has a genuine personality, they might be offered a job at the front desk and given a chance to shine until a sales position becomes available. The GM may even grant such an applicant a sales job from the start to keep the pressure on the other new hires. 

LM: What are the benefits to this approach?

RA: First off, by disqualifying the less suitable candidates during the initial round, it ensures that all hires are made from a more capable pool of applicants. Only those who really want the job will make it through. It sets the precedent that there are elevated expectations to meet. New hires will have a higher satisfaction at a starting wage lower than our competitors. They’ll see a long and fruitful future as a WaveCrest employee, vastly reducing turnover and saving managers the time of interviewing too many people.

Second is the “hip pocket” effect. An applicant may wow the managers throughout, only to find there are no immediate opportunities in his or her desired position. In this case, the HR director will add this person to a “ready for hire” list. The minute there’s an opening, such an applicant is called back, sustaining the high quality of service by minimizing productivity loss and overtime. 

LM: How did you implement this process?

RA: When WaveCrest initiated the group interview process, there was a widespread stigma that placing new hires at lower starting wages would deter the best prospects and increase the turnover rate — neither of which was the case. The key barrier was teaching the HR director and other senior managers how to properly conduct the group interviews so they could accurately judge each interviewee in a limited timeframe. Managers had to be trained to focus more on assessing character traits and critical thinking than technical knowledge. It took nearly six months to master the process, but now that it’s in place, the benefits could never be better.