Business Case Studies are More Popular Than Ever for Job Interviews. But are Companies Going too Far?

July 19, 2022

Everyone knows that job interviews have changed a lot over the past few years. There’s been a proliferation of job interview formats, from behavioural interviews to panel interviews to phone screen interviews and beyond. The pandemic catapulted video interviews, which had been already rising in popularity, to mainstream acceptance. Companies seem to be interviewing more than ever. Third interviews, fourth interviews, even fifth interviews are turning the hiring process into a marathon.

Alongside these various changes is another practice that’s becoming increasingly common, especially in Argentus’ recruitment specialties of Supply Chain Management and Procurement:

The business case study.

Typically, companies will ask a job candidate for a case study as part of a final interview. Sometimes, they’ll require it earlier on in the process.

Case studies can be simple, or complex. In some cases, companies will ask a Procurement candidate to offer a case study of how they went through the proposal and supplier selection process for an assigned category.

In another example, a company will ask a Director-level supply chain candidate to provide a detailed roadmap and strategy for a supply chain transformation, all within a week—or, if the candidate is unlucky, a weekend.

It’s understandable why companies want to include case studies in their hiring process. They want to see the candidate in action. As the old writer’s adage goes, it’s better to “show” than “tell.” Companies understandably want to see the kind of deliverable they can expect if they make the hire.

But in a market where there’s higher demand for candidates than any time in recent memory, more candidates are pushing back on case study requirements. Most candidates are happy to put together a case study and strut their stuff. But sometimes, companies ask for detailed, labour-intensive case studies, only to pull the plug at the last minute without even addressing why the candidate didn’t get the job, or why the case study wasn’t up to snuff.

In short, candidates only want to do case studies if the company is serious. And companies need to be thoughtful about how they use them as part of the hiring process. There are a few big questions about case studies: The first is, are these case studies practical for companies doing the hiring? The second is, are they ethical?

The practical considerations: are case studies making it harder to hire?

As we’ve covered quite a bit on the Argentus blog over the past few months, we’re currently in a candidate’s market for supply chain and procurement. That means companies are competing to attract a scarce number of job candidates.

Say a candidate is pursuing three to four job opportunities at once, which is a situation we see all the time in this market. These candidates aren’t just applying for multiple roles—they’re often interviewing for multiple positions or even fielding multiple offers.

When presented with two, or three, or four, similar roles, and only one requires a lengthy case study, would you blame them for choosing the role where the company trusts their ability, without them having to work an entire weekend, unpaid, to prove it?

Practically speaking, a case study is a luxury for hiring managers, not a necessity. Companies need to be thoughtful about how, and when, they ask candidates for a case study. They need to be aware that sometimes the case study is like asking a candidate to do a power lift at the end of a marathon. And some candidates—even the best candidates, who have limited time—will simply bow out.

The ethical considerations: should companies pay candidates for doing case studies?

There is also the issue of paying job candidates for their time. While some have argued that candidates should be paid to do job interviews—especially in a tight job market—most experts agree that job interviews are a kind of necessary unpaid labour for candidates. After all, they’re exploratory, and probably don’t result in any concrete work product that the hiring manager can use. Job interviews are just the way things are done.

Case studies are a bit of a different story. It’s one thing to spend time researching a company’s direction and strategy, to explain your past experiences and offer high-level direction on how those experiences help develop that strategy. But it’s another thing entirely to be asked to deliver a complete supply chain strategy in full, without being compensated for your time.

This amounts to the kind of detailed work product that a consulting company would charge thousands of dollars for, but in this case, the person preparing it isn’t being compensated, other than with the possibility of securing a job. The hiring manager does end up with concrete, actionable work that they can use, whether they hire the candidate or not.

We’re not saying that companies are “stealing” the work product of interviewees without hiring them. The point is more that it’s a kind of “grey area”—unpaid work that results in a direct benefit to the company. It’s the kind of work that you would pay a consultant to provide, even if you didn’t use it. It often leaves a bad taste in candidates’ mouths, by sending the message that a prospective employer doesn’t necessarily value their time.

One solution to this issue? Pay candidates to complete a case study—especially for the kind of detailed, strategy-defining presentations that Directors and above deliver. If they’ve come this far in the process, their insights are going to be valuable in concrete terms. And even if you don’t hire the candidate, who knows? You might be able to use some of what they produced.

None of this is to say that case studies don’t have their place in job interviews for supply chain, procurement, or any other business interview. They do. They’re a crucial tool in your hiring toolbox. But rather than using case studies as a catch-all requirement, companies are well-served to think judiciously about how and when to employ them.

But what do you think? Have you been asked to do a case study as part of a job interview in supply chain or procurement? Are you a hiring manager who uses case studies in their process? We’re curious to hear about your experiences, or how you’ve used case studies to make your hiring process more effective. Let us know in the comments!


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