Virtual job interviews – Can a login substitute a personal meeting?

We are CENIT: Digitalizing HR Processes

Published 10/01/2020

How much virtual reality is acceptable for a decision that depends on an encounter between people? Our recruiters at CENIT had to face this question when they developed a concept for job interviews via web meeting. Since the summer of 2020, job candidates can choose to conduct remote interviews from home. The option has met with a highly positive response, reports Tobias Dittrich, Director of Human Resources at CENIT. In this interview, he tells us why communication was the key to success.

Virtual job interviews – Can a login substitute a personal meeting?

How do job applicants react when they discover that CENIT offers digital job interviews?

Surprised, I would say, sometimes relieved and indeed always happy to be able to arrange times and dates very flexibly. If you don’t have to worry about travel arrangements, it’s easier to find free time in your calendar. Hopping from the interview to the next meeting is no problem if you can do it from your computer. We can also work out unusual time slots like 7 am or 9 pm, or weekends too.


Had you been planning remote interviews before, or was this your response to Covid?

We had done some initial test runs, but Covid turned it into a very urgent issue. These days, not everyone can or wants to travel freely, and of course our goal is to fill vacancies all the same. When we went to management with our concept for digital job interviews, we got the green light right away.

I see this project as part of an ongoing development at CENIT HR. Recruitment is one of our core processes, and digitalization is obviously a very important topic in this field. By introducing a job application management software, we created the infrastructure, so to speak.

Today the recruitment process is digitally continuous throughout, from the moment when someone clicks “apply” on their cell phone or computer all the way through to onboarding.

What was your focus in switching to the digital medium? What qualities from the analog world were you unwilling to do without?

We see everything we do from the customer perspective, that’s very important to me. For internal HR processes that means the perspective of staff and management, in recruitment it’s all the people who are interested in a position at CENIT. We listen to what people “out there” want.

We took the same mindset to the digital job interview. Concretely this means that, for example, we have to bring both sides to eye level in terms of the technology and the social situation of a web meeting with cameras.

What kind of support do you offer?

At an early stage, we organized internal training workshops on this new staffing strategy for our business units. Open, clear and positive communication builds trust.

Job applicants receive a Q&A overview as an introduction to the topic. They know who they can turn to with technical questions. We also provide practical hints, such as reminding applicants to keep a glass of water nearby. If needed, we can also loan them a camera – disinfected, of course!

To avoid any insecurity regarding the technology, we tell all our potential hires: We assume that all components, from the internet connection to the web meeting software, will be in working order. But it can always happen that something doesn’t work – don’t worry, it happens to everyone.

And if you actually hit a snag during the interview? The computer’s on the blink or the applicant’s child runs into the room?

As soon as we talk about it, everything becomes very easy. Conversely, things get really difficult if we are all thinking something that we won’t say.

So we actively respond if the applicant’s cat walks through the image or the washing machine beeps. Nobody can be completely safe from such mishaps, and we are transparent about that. Our message is: It’s beyond our and your control whether the camera works or the connection stays stable or the PC is acting up. It’s not your responsibility. So please don’t feel responsible!

So as an applicant I’m relieved of that worry. Are there other expectations on the part of CENIT which are associated specifically with the digital interview format?

No. Whether digital or analog, we want to get to know the person. I hope for authenticity, whether on the monitor or in a conference room. There’s no difference.

Our experience so far shows that it works. From senior consultant to young professional, we always have the feeling that the applicants fully engage in these web meetings.

This authenticity you are talking about – how does that come across via the camera? Filmed presence is quite different from a real meeting between people. How do you handle that in a recruiting situation?

Well, let’s see what happens in a face-to-face interview. During the conversation, I actively register impressions of my counterpart. I observe reactions, body language, charisma. The result is a collection of incredibly many mosaic pieces from different dimensions. That’s “the world as we knew it”.

Initially, I have to say, it’s true, some elements don’t come across via the internet. So, it’s our task to look for new building blocks. We need to digitize sensing and empathy.

If you commit to that, you realize that the digital medium tells you something about the applicants that you couldn’t know before: You get an impression of their private environment. You can see how they act in that context.

If you superimpose the two, you will see that the old world had something that no longer exists in the new. But in the new world you get something the old world couldn’t give you. My hypothesis is that I have a 100% match! Maybe we’ll need one interview more than we used to have, but I have the chance to get to know the applicants in a whole new way.

You have real recruiting pros on your CENIT HR team, while our business units only encounter these interview situations once in a while. How did the stakeholders react to the innovation? How did you get those on board who would have preferred to keep things as they were?

Through direct communication and by facing up to criticism. That’s what we did, and we were successful. We will continue to rely on transparency. We monitor the results and will make corrections as necessary.

We are all affected by this change together. Digitalization challenges all of us! It always makes me happy when I notice learning effects in myself, in my team and in the business units. After a recent digital job interview, a CENIT manager told me: “This is a real leg up for me in terms of how to lead virtual teams, people who are now all working from home.” Isn’t that great?

What potential do you see for CENIT regarding digital job interviews? What are the next steps?

Because the pilot has been successful in Germany, we invite our international offices to adopt the program as well. Their respective HR teams can decide for themselves whether or not the format suits the social and business etiquette in their country.

Here at HQ we have already taken the next step: We will switch our Assessment Centers for trainees and students to a digital format.

In closing, what experiences do you take from this project to the next digitalization tasks?

You can digitalize everything, you just need to bring a certain measure of creativity to the table. The fact that I can’t touch something doesn’t mean it’s any less real! We need to break down the barriers in our heads! And you have to get the participants ready to take the next step.

Many thanks for this conversation, Tobias!

Contact person

Swetlana Isaak

Swetlana Isaak

Communications Manager

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