Austin Harris thought his years as an investment banker had taught him all about tough job interviews—until one that started with a daybreak run though New York City’s Central Park and ended in a cramped office gym for a round of pull-ups, push-ups, squats and burpees.
It wasn’t easy keeping up with his prospective employer, a former college football player and co-founder of a company that makes nutrition bars, said Mr. Harris, 35 years old. When they started talking business, he said, “I was breathing pretty heavily and trying to recover.”
He made the cut, though. Mr. Harris is now chief financial officer of the food company, aptly named Health Warrior Inc.
In parts of the corporate world, the fitness enthusiasm of top executives is spilling from the gym to the workplace. Some sinewy CEOs find exercise clears their minds as it strengthens their bodies. When hiring and networking, more are substituting spin class and protein shakes for golf and steak dinners.
To some workers, the boss’s fitness craze is just crazy, especially in the high-stakes environment of job interviews. Few want to share a pungent sweat with their future boss or be judged on how much they can bench press.
Laura Yecies enjoys hiking, just not in high heels, part of the business outfit she wore for a job interview at a software company in California’s Bay Area. The chief executive asked her on an hourlong “walking interview” through town, she said.
“There was no warning or heads up,” said Ms. Yecies. “If I said no, he would think I was a wimp.” She went but later decided she didn’t want the job—in part because she didn’t think she would enjoy working for the CEO.
Ms. Yecies, now the chief operating officer of a technology company, said she keeps her work and exercise separate.
Such jaunts are a side effect of a broader corporate move to encourage employees to take better care of themselves. More than a quarter of U.S. companies have on-site fitness centers, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Nearly a third organize fitness competitions.
The first meeting
Ben Carus had with his future boss, New York private-equity executive Strauss Zelnick, was a weightlifting and cardiovascular workout that left Mr. Carus sore for days. Later, when Mr. Zelnick took him to a boxing gym for the first time, Mr. Carus said he nearly threw up.
Mr. Zelnick, who is more than 30 years his senior, also beat him in a sit-up competition.
“Sometimes you dread it,” said Mr. Carus, age 24, “but I’ve never actually canceled a workout or said no.”
Among the lessons he said he has learned: Don’t eat a heavy meal before joining the boss at the gym. Don’t try to lift more than you can handle.
Mr. Zelnick, who often works out twice a day, said he always offers people the choice to instead get coffee or a meal.
Some employers confessed to weeding out applicants in the gym.
John Osbon said when he was a Wall Street managing director he played basketball with job candidates. He would step on their feet or yank their shirt in games, he said, to see how they reacted. If they kept their cool, they passed the test.
“They were all fair fouls, and I didn’t hurt anyone,” Mr. Osbon said. “You have to take someone down to size.”
Mr. Osbon, now a money manager in Boston, said sizing up people in the gym doesn’t always work. Once, he lost a promising job candidate after telling him they could lift weights together regularly. “He never came back,” he said.
Julie Gilbert, who runs a software-technology company in Minneapolis, recalled the time she was invited by a potential business partner, John Henka, to join him at a gym popular with bodybuilders and powerlifters. They spent an hour jumping onto boxes and pushing weighted sleds across the floor.
“I thought I was going to pass out three or four times,” she said, but nonetheless “cleaned their clocks” in a timed competition: “I had no apologies.”
Mr. Henka, a Marine who was impressed by Ms. Gilbert’s showing during the grueling workout, said, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut, occasionally.”
Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Henka, who runs a staffing agency for veterans, have since collaborated on several hiring programs, and Ms. Gilbert hired her operations vice president on Mr. Henka’s recommendation.
Paul Warburg, the president of Xenon Arc, a technology services company, sometimes takes job applicants on mountain bike rides outside Seattle, he said, but only asks if they express an interest in cycling. He recalled a New York job interview with Martin Franklin, then-chairman and chief executive of Jarden Corp., a consumer products company. Mr. Franklin had been working out that morning and asked Mr. Warburg if he would mind continuing the job interview in the sauna. “I was enjoying the conversation,” Mr. Franklin recalled.
“I didn’t want to cut it short.” Mr. Warburg agreed, saying he weighed the risk, a potential boss maybe seeing see him without clothes, against the potential reward, if all went well, of a lasting business partnership. “Talk about total transparency,” he said.
Mr. Franklin, who hired Mr. Warburg, said the human-resources chief later advised him to keep future meetings and company business out of the sauna.