Humanize your hiring

Recently I have gained a lot of new experience in the interview process. I unfortunately, like so many others in the time of COVID19, have not remained unscathed. It has been both challenging and educational. The market is very competitive right now, owing largely to the number of people who are looking for work in my field, but also due to the fact that companies are being much more poignant about their hires due to the uncertainty of the economics that surround us. I have had more conversations than I can count with recruiters, hiring managers, and an array of technical employees. Some have gone well, some better, some not so good. But a common thread among them is that very few have felt awesome. As such I have started to think much more critically about the experiences that I have been having. I have been in my field for some time now, I have grown my skills to what would be considered a senior level, and I have also developed a deeper understanding of what I can offer to a company as well as what I expect in return.

The interview is the first meeting and the first impression for all parties. As such it is by far one of the most important interactions that can occur. What I have found is that too often it seems that companies are not as well prepared for this process as they might like to be. Furthermore, I have see the same short comings in the interview process now across many verticals which leads me to believe that the issue here is one of a more systemic nature. I think that companies, which are made up of people, develop their interview processes based on the experiences of the people within. The problem here being that this has unwittingly persisted a process that doesn’t really work all that well. That’s not to say that companies don’t hire good people, but more to say that the process absorbs energy and effort in non-productive ways and often leaves the people who go through it with a less than desirable taste in their mouths. I think however that since we all have traveled this same shaky bridge to potential employment that we have allowed ourselves to shrug it off as being “just the way it is“.

Now, after having traveled this bridge time and time again in the past number of months I am of the mind that it can most certainly be better. Better for the people who enter the process, whether they be on the side of the interviewer or the interviewee. But also better for the company, the outcomes, and the progress of how we relate to one another. The following is a summary of some of the considerations that I have come up with that I feel might lead to a humanization of the hiring process.

Start with the hard questions…

To begin out with, I think it’s important for a company to look objectively at their existing process. Remember, companies are communities of people, and those people involved in the hiring process should begin by asking themselves the following questions, thinking back on their own road to getting hired.

  • Is the experience in your companies process adversarial or humanist?
  • Did you feel the people interviewing you spent as much time developing the companies process as you would a feature of their product?
  • Did they view you in the role of an applicant as a commodity, or as a flesh and blood asset?
  • Would you want to go through the process again with your company if given the option?

breaking down the interview as it stands…

Often interviews come across as adversarial. They are riddled with tests or barrages of low level questions that feel more like roadblocks than invitations. At times it even feels like an interviewer is set more on trying to prove that a candidate can’t hack it than they are on examining the person’s skills and commitment to their craft. Sometimes interviewers will ask candidates to answer outlandish questions or intensely difficult logic problems. Sometimes interviewers will throw a challenge at a candidate that requires hours (and sometimes more hours) of unpaid work. Companies will put candidates under time crunches or ask rudimentary questions that aren’t actually informative or directly related to the level of the position being interviewed for. Unfortunately this doctrine does not seem to be novel.

Job interviews should be the golden gateway to a company. They should be the first introduction to how wonderful working there is. They should be something that people walk away feeling empowered by, whether they get the job or not. The hiring process should give the candidate the impression that the company put real time and effort into the process, and that they want them to succeed. A company should want to hire every single person who they interview.

As a candidate you are putting yourself at the mercy of the company you’re seeking a job with. Candidates are exposing their entire career in the hopes that a company will pick them as the best fit for their needs. As an applicant you are hoping that you get fair compensation for the years of work you have put into your craft. The last thing that you want to do is go through this feeling like you are defending yourself instead of representing yourself. Especially when the interview processes can last weeks as it currently stands.

It can be better for everyone…

The responsibility of interviewing should be on the company. When a company decides to open a role, they should to be ready for the work that comes with that. They should block off time for team members who are involved in the interview process to evaluate and participate in preparation and implementation. Pre-screening and interviewing should be approached with the same vigor that a company might bring forth when developing an awesome new feature or improving an existing product; after all, hiring is an investment in the future of the company. The process should not only be well designed to evaluate the specifics of the role, but it also should not be one size fits all. The interview should fit the role as well as the experience level of the candidate.

consider doing more with less…

I have heard companies argue that there are often too many applicants to spend that much time on each. But I think this is more a problem of approach. In code when a problem is too big, we break it down into smaller problems. It would stand to reason that similar logic could be applied to interviewing. Let’s consider some ideas on how to improve the pre-screening of candidates to not only lessen the load, but also to deepen the quality of consideration given to each applicant.

First – The Application:

  • Start by reducing the initial applicant pool. Instead of trying to write an entire novel at once, work one chapter at a time. What if you only took 5 – 10 applicants at a time? This would allow a company to divide their efforts in pre-screening in such a way that would allow them to fully evaluate each individual. A company could then further reduce the pool based on this to as little as 1-2 prime candidates, and focus further efforts from here. Keep in mind that it’s also okay to come out of this pre-screening with no prime candidates, this just means that the team would circle back and accept another small set of applicants to consider. If the position needed to be filled more quickly it simply becomes an issue of either widening the initial pipeline, allocating additional resources to the pre-screening process, or a combination of both.
  • Transparency is a buzz word these days, but often companies struggle when it comes to really lifting the walls. It could be a wholly beneficial exercise to begin the transparency practice with the interview. Why not include a description of the pre-screening process, or even the entire interview process in the job posting? I think the benefits here could be two fold. Not only would this work to help immediately establish trust with the applicant, but it would also allow an applicant to pre-screen the job and make a more informed choice about if they are willing to commit to the process and if they really have the skills to succeed within it. If anything this would probably result in fewer shotgun applicants; people who toss out applications en mass just to see what might stick.
  • Pre-screening is by its nature a very procedural endeavor. As such the design of this part of the hiring process should dictate a highly standardized execution. Using a set of standardized punch-points is a reasonable approach. But, companies should ask themselves if those punch points are so limiting as to create a divide between the application and the human behind it. Consider using questions that invoke deeper evaluation such as does this candidates application and resume include examples which might demonstrate a thirst for learning which would be beneficial to the innovative nature of the position we are hiring for? This is not to say that companies shouldn’t consider more traditional requisites such as years of experience, but instead that they should aim to enrich their pre-screening in a way that invites them to get to know a candidate through the otherwise objective lens of the application.
  • There is often no better way to get to know someone than to entreat the experiences of others who have known them in the past. Why not ask the applicant to provide 1-2 solid reference statements up-front? Not only does this enhance an applicant’s confidence in their candidacy by allowing others to brag about them, but it also builds personalization into what might otherwise be a highly impersonal step. This could be further improved by providing guidance for how these references should be developed. Maybe including a question on the application such as…

Please provide 1-2 professional references from people you have worked with in the last 2 years. At lease one of them should be someone you reported to directly. Please ask them to answer the following question in 4-5 sentences. Based on your experience working with this candidate, please explain why they would make an ideal choice as a senior iOS engineer at OurAwesomeCompany.

Make sure that the references are limited to professional or academic only and have relevant experience with the applicant within the last 1-2 years. Candidates should provide evidence of this.

  • My final suggestion here is based on a personal frustration. Cover letters once served as a way to get to know an applicant more deeply. However, today I don’t personally believe this is still true. I feel that more often this is meant to check a box and I honestly question if companies actually read them. My position on this is based on experiential evidence from conversations during interviews that would have potentially been fulfilled if the interviewer had in-fact read the cover letter I had drafted. Why not skip the cover letter and ask a more poignant question as a part of the application? Consider asking a candidate to explain in 200 words why they want to work for your company or why they would be an excellent fit for the roll. Invite them to brag about themselves, entice them to talk about how awesome they are.

Next – The Interview:

So many companies have the “gate keeper” interview, which equates to the do we like you interview. I really question this practice, I feel like if a company gets to the step of offering a candidate an interview, they should really already know that they probably want to hire them. Instead create a conversational and engaging interview which, and it should become clear if the applicant will fit the team in more interpersonal ways as well as professional. I would even go so far as to say that the first interview should potentially be the only interview. The following are some considerations that could help to enrich the interview.

  • Make it a longer interview

Why not set aside a 2 or 3 hours to talk with the candidate? Currently many interview processes ask candidates to spend more time than this as they stand. This change would allow for a more natural and organic conversation. It also should make the candidate feel like your company cares about them and really wants to get to know them. Furthermore, if your company is willing to potentially invest tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into a salary for this person, it would only make sense that the interviewers would want to really spend some quality time with the candidate before hand.

  • Include all members of the team who will actually work with the candidate

Consider skipping the HR gate keeper interview, instead lean on the pre-screening process, and then invite everyone with a stake to join. It is true that this would probably disrupt the normal work flow of the team. But if your company rethinks how hiring is consider it might find that making this a more natural part of the totality of employee responsibility encourages planning and elevates some of the stress around these occasions. Keep in mind that not every from your company who participates needs to be there for the full duration of the interview. It’s okay to break this up into a series of conversation blocked into a single event.

  • Continue the practice of transparency

Why not give the interview questions to the candidate 48 hours before the interview? Is there actually a benefit to maintaining secrecy around the process, especially once a candidate has been invited to participate in it? Instead make the conversation about the candidate, let them show off and shine. Try these conversation points on for size.

Consider the roles you have listed in your resume, which of them are you the most proud of? Prepare 2-3 talking points for us that you feel illustrate how incredible your contribution was to this role. Be prepared to answer technical questions about this role related to architectural choices you made or contributed to, challenges you faced and overcame within this role, and how this role was critical to the development of your professional character.

Consider the role you are the least fond of. How did this experience make you a better professional? What did you learn in this role that empowered you to continue in your profession?

Consider your portfolio of work, isolate 1-2 specific technical challenges that you have faced that truly resonate with you. Be prepared to discuss the details of these challenges. We would like you to articulate how these developed your skill, what enabled you to over come them, and how these experiences better prepared you for a role at our company.

Select a code sample that you have written for us to review with you. Ensure that it contains enough complexity for us to have an in depth conversation about it. If you don’t have a sample that you can share with us, select a product that you have worked on that we can look at the public interface for. Be prepared to discuss benefits and pitfalls of your contributions and choices you made within them. Take this opportunity to wow us and show off. Keep in mind we want to see accomplishments that challenged you, not necessarily your slickest stuff; something you are really proud of.

What I love about this last one is that it puts the interviewers in the hot seat, they don’t know what to expect and have to prove their knowledge and interest to the candidate, while giving the candidate a chance to really shine.

  • Use a rubric to establish democracy in your process

Consider developing a rubric that illustrates what the candidate should be able to do, what their proficiencies should be, and what the interviewers will be evaluating them on. Provide this to them at the start of the interview, use this rubric to evaluate them after the interview is over. Then, no matter what provide the finalized rubrics to the candidate after they are completed. If you pass them forward in the process, send them the rubrics, if you decide not to proceed, send them the rubrics! This lets them know why or why not, it validates their effort and shows that your company and team cared enough to not only standardize the assessment of candidates, but to provide feedback based on the effort the candidate made. It also provides information for the candidate on where the interview team believes they are strong, and where they may need to focus their improvement effort. Below is an example rubric, it’s just an example but should demonstrate the principal.

Evaluators would circle the box in each row that best describes the candidates skill in that rows area. You can easily use this to score candidates and determine who best fits the needs of the role.

Third? – The Second Interview:

I think a company should actually ask themselves if this is really needed and if so WHY? What real purpose does this interview serve? Is this just another gate keeper interview, maybe with the CEO? If so, could this member of the team have been involved in the first interview? Team members who are involved in the interview should be limited to those who will have direct management of or interactions with the candidate on a regular basis. It’s important to establish this rapport and trust the interview team to make well informed decisions about additions to the company. I often find that each interview after the first technical ends up being either another do we like you test, or a slimmed down repeat of the previous conversations. This could so easily be avoided by enriching the initial conversation and also would help to avoid prolonging the process as a whole.

Finally – Turning a candidate down:

This I am sure isn’t fun. I do think it’s actually okay to do this via email. Setting up a call with a candidate to turn them down can be very misleading, and really puts people on both sides in an awkward position. If a company has really done the due diligence during the process, and prepared documentation of feed back for the candidate doing this via email should be sufficient. Make sure to include the feedback and take the time to craft a little personalization into the email, for example.

Hi John,

Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us. We truly enjoyed learning more about you and your work. You clearly have invested in your career and we feel honored that you considered us as a possible step in your journey. We have chosen not to proceed with your candidacy at this time. This was not an easy choice for us, we carefully considered your skills, but we felt that there where other candidates who might more perfectly fit our current needs. We have attached the rubrics that were completed by the team members who interviewed you for your review; we believe that it’s important for us to communicate with you on how you were evaluated.

Best in your search,

The Company

This email would take a team member minutes to write and shows that your company really considered and evaluated the candidate. Providing the rubrics is impartial and fair, and helps the candidate to understand what points impacted the decision.

The Good News – Extending an offer:

I probably should have noted this before, but job descriptions should come with a compensation statement. A company should know how much they are willing to spend to hire someone, provide this information early on. This lends itself to the practice of transparency and helps to eliminate concerns around this critical part of the employment relationship. Be direct, if the role pays 90k period, state that, if the role falls into a range of 90k – 115k make that clear. It should be clear up front whether your company is willing to negotiate salary, this is really important for potential candidates to know as they decide if they will apply.

If a company plans to use a compensation scale open up a conversation with the candidate when an offer is extended, provide them with the assessment tool and ask them to self assess. Openly compare this to companies pay scale assessment. Is there a huge difference? Is the candidates self assessment significantly higher? Consider having a dialogue with them about why that is? Be willing to be flexible and be willing to meet them somewhere in the middle. Consider setting terms up front based on performance, and offer them in writing…

“How about we bring you on at 95k, at your first periodic evaluation we will revisit this together, and we are open to adapting your pay to meet your performance at that time if it’s appropriate.”

Go over the rubrics that the team completed based on the candidates interview. This is critical, it shows that the hiring team is constructive and fair and that they truly believe that the candidate is the best choice. If there are growth points to address, spells those out clearly for everyone. This sets new hires up with easy entry goals, and allows candidates to make a fully informed choice about whether to select your company as their employer or not. Companies should be empowering potential employees to put them on trial. Show candidates that your company is the best choice, and that your company is just as invested in the their future as you are asking them to be in yours.

Final thoughts…

At first glance this probably looks like quite an investment on the companies part, and it is. This evolution of this process means that a company will have to spend time and energy developing a hiring procedure that is fair, transparent, and as well thought out as everything else they do. It means a company will have to pay its current employees to invest time and energy to ensure the future of the company rests in the hands of people who feel valued and welcome. People who are excited to join the team because they fell validated and empowered from the start. People who actually believe that their employer believes that they are an asset and not just a commodity.

A new level of trust might have to be established to enable the hiring team to prepare and evolve the process. But it will be worth it. Word of these types changes will spread. Companies that build this level of empathy into their hiring will be recognized as a discerning figure among hiring bodies. Current employees will feel like they matter beyond the bounds of their titles. They will feel that they have some power over their daily lives at the company, and gain a renewed sense of ownership as a result. People who don’t work out will be left feeling like they got a fair shot. The process will attract candidates who truly want to be a part of what a company stands for instead of hundreds of applicants that have to be waded through. The very best will stand out and they will fight to be a part of what a company embodies. Humanize your hiring process. The responsibility of this is on the company because it’s their job to make the people who seek them out feel like they actually matter.

Until next time…

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