How to avoid hiring false positives — as much as possible

I was the sixth person hired at Typeform and, at the moment of writing this article — 5 years thereafter — we are slightly over 200 employees. As a result, I had to learn fast the ins and outs of hiring people in general and interviewing candidates in particular, and it turned out to be one of my favorite tasks as a manager.

To date, luck has been on my side. There’s a considerable amount of hiring processes that I’ve managed directly or helped out in some particular way like interviewing, filtering candidates or shaping roles, and I’ve been fortunate enough to identify the talent and potential of some amazing people who dared to apply for a job, whilst involved in few false-positive cases.

But luck is not the only ingredient to get good results when hiring. A person I interviewed some weeks ago said that it was “challenging but curiously didn’t feel much like an interview”, and whenever I explain my colleagues something about my tactics they usually say “Hey, I’m going to try that!”.

Thus, apart from telling you to cross fingers, here’s my two cents on hiring.

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False positives: A tale of FOMO and HODL

False positives are hires that turned out badly; that is, the newbie didn’t pass probation period or was let go few months later because things didn’t work well due to professional or personal reasons. Hiring is both an art and a craft so is not free of failure, but false positives usually happen for at least one of the following causes:

  • Culture affinity superseded skills assessment in the hiring process.
  • Role was not defined correctly.
  • Hiring process was hurried up due to weariness of losing an apparently good-enough candidate, or an urge to fill that position — quite similar to the effect of FOMO in the cryptocurrency world.

False negatives are more difficult to identify, if possible at all; usually takes a long while, sometimes after stumbling upon that candidate somewhere else and discovering how well they have been doing. Following the cryptocurrencies metaphor, false negatives are HODL and can be due to many reasons, for instance:

  • Hiring workflows presents issues.
  • Lack of alignment of everyone involved in the hiring process.
  • Role and responsibilities were not signed off before starting the hiring process.
  • The position offered is new to the company and may involve a cultural or operational challenge for stakeholders.
  • The hiring team for that position is not the best fitting for identifying the right talent.
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Your “reptilian hiring brain” will try to push you to think in false positive/FOMO (rush to hire) and false negative/HODL (fear of hiring) terms when evaluating some candidates. You need to accept that you are indeed going to have both false positives and negatives, but that you can reduce the impact if you realize soon enough whether you or someone in your hiring team is in a HODL or a FOMO mindset, and identify why is that happening.

If your company has many false positives, there’s something that both HR and managers are getting terribly wrong, and if there are many false negatives your organization needs to improve at talent management, not only when hiring but most probably with current employees too. If there are none of either, I salute you and your organization and would like to learn from you.

There are some scenarios where a company will, consciously, take the risk of false positives. In that case, the company should be willing to let go without delay or hesitation those professionals that shouldn’t have been hired. Keeping a confirmed false positive for any length of time compromises employees’ morale and the quality of their work, and puts into question the manager’s suitability for leading.


Before interview time

Filtering and screening

If your organization wants to increase headcount fast, you should have a nice plan on the table to choose next hires wisely. The first big batch of new employees will establish the foundations of whole departments, influencing priorities, facing major challenges, and designing workflows. Some of the variables I prioritize for that scenario are:

  • Diversity of profiles: Diverse teams are stronger and better performers than homogeneous teams and are better at avoiding confirmation bias. One of the most forgotten diversity factor is age, specially in startups. Hiring a young team is as cost-tempting as easy and brings lots of energy in a startup or a new area, but counting with employees over 40 is a key factor for team stability, short-term efficiency, soft skills development, and mentoring — not to mention acquiring some hands-on expertise.
  • Resourcefulness: When building a new team or area, focus on people who can take care of things in messy and changing scenarios and also be helpful to other team members. These profiles are fast learners and have a strong sense of ownership, but they also must be highly collaborative and enjoy teaching others. They will be the glue to hold the team together when the second batch of hires arrives to the team, that is, when both team size and structure starts consolidating with some level of complexity.
  • Multi-talented: Hybrid profiles are great for a team or service that just got started, as they can change hats rapidly and notice and focus on new needs effectively. Even if some of those hybrids overlap in terms of skills, it’s good to have some redundancy and anyway their career paths most probably will diverge over time.
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Hiring as a learning loop

No recruitment process is ever perfect and as the organization evolves so it should as well. Here are a few of the topics you can iterate on a continuous basis:

  • The individuals involved in an specific hiring process: Is there a good representation of different levels of seniority and expertise variety involved so all angles are covered? Moreover, is the hiring team for that position diverse enough in all possible ways?
  • What kind of candidates does the job offer attract?: What you say and how you say it will bring certain profiles and not others knocking on your door. The approach to both designing the position and making it public must change depending on the the target profile (senior executive, manager, intern…). If you company is using the same writing style and featuring the same perks for all positions, your HR managers should notice a weird pattern common to all hiring pipelines.
  • Look at how the best companies do it: Compare their careers page and the job offers for specific positions with yours. If you can have a call with them or find a talk given by them about hiring, take notes. Try some of their tactics in the next hiring process you have in your hands.
  • What is being overengineered?: Are there redundant interviews sharing the same scope? Is the interviewer-feedback template cluttery?
  • What things are still not in place?: It can be the requirement of new roles having a clear position inside a team before publishing the offer, a sign-off process for a cross-functional position across all stakeholders, a salary band not yet shaped…
  • What perks are offered?: Kind reminder that, albeit enjoyable, a ping pong table is not a perk related to work but a perk about chilling out. For a seasoned professional true perks are things like being able to choose your own equipment, a solid remote or telecommute policy, personal learning and development budget, the possibility of visiting other offices to meet and work with other teams IRL, etc. These shouldn’t be confused either with things like health insurance or gender-neutral parental leave, which are part of the compensation package.

The moment of truth

The scope of any interview depends, firstly, on the current stage of that hiring process. The first interview, for instance, should focus on the basic expectations of the employer and making sure the filtering of resumes worked as expected. Both scope and purpose must be clear for each interview of the hiring process, so the sum of the interviews cover all the angles.

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Structure

Most of times you don’t need weird formats or including surprises into your interview; you can use the usual interview structure and adapt it to the stage in the hiring process and add key questions for that candidate in particular according to what you see. As rule of thumb interviews should have, in debatable order:

  1. Review professional career of the candidate (resume, portfolio, etc.) and clarify any doubts about it.
  2. Questions pairing up details of the professional profile with the position offered, with the scope of technical knowledge, operative capacity, management skills, etc.
  3. Interviewers explain more details about the role and the scenario (team structure, strategy and mission, workflows, roadmap…).
  4. Final round of questions, from both ends.
  5. Interviewers set expectations about the hiring process. Not about whether the candidate has passed the interview or not, but about next steps in communication, pace, and deadlines. It’s common to many companies that candidates don’t receive any information regarding everything they will have to follow through (number of interviews, tests, trips, etc.) and that they don’t receive a follow up in days or weeks; as a result, some think they’ve been rejected and pursue other positions elsewhere.

Flow

Some things I keep in mind when leading interviews:

  • Smile. Let the interviewee feel at ease, be as empathetic as possible if there was any kind of minor difficulty or misunderstanding prior to the meeting (unless you want to test that person in a stressful situation).
  • Push gently, step by step, out of their comfort zone. Explain that there’s no right or wrong when answering some of the questions. Don’t start with the most difficult ones, keep those requiring a higher level of abstract reasoning for when you have confirmed that the candidate seems promising and once the interview has acquired a rhythm and an “ambience”.
  • Make them forget they are in an interview by breaking the candidate’s long explanations with comments and more questions, so it feels like a conversation. Do not let them set rhythm or focus, unless you want to let them drift for a specific reason. Keep an eye on their micro-expressions and keep them slightly off-balance so their true personality and the truth in the professional profile they present themselves with can come to light.
  • This is not about you being liked as a person, or approved as an expert in your field or as an amazing interviewer. You been more or less likeable will only matter if you are ready to make an offer and you really want the candidate to work with you but you don’t have a great project or career path to offer at the moment. Anyways, being liked takes time — if it happens at all, but respect must happen for a professional relationship to work.
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Questions to profile better

If hiring was just about how much a list of skills fit a job description, it would be quite easy and a good bunch of candidates would meet the most obvious requirements. But there’s more to consider. That person is going to spend part of their life in your company. Don’t try to play the psychologist but to understand the character behind those skills.

These are some questions I asked to people we actually hired:

  • Do you prefer playing as white or black in chess?
  • Tell me about a bad experience you had when you where selling shoes.
  • How are you managing your music career in your free time?

If the candidate joins your company, a good bunch of people are going to spend time with that person. It’s not a matter of having similar hobbies or a shared weakness for Stilton cheese, but about knowing how that person breathes, how they see the world, and if that vision is compatible with their hopefully-to-be colleagues.

Also, investigating a bit a surprising background or career move in the candidate’s past can give you interesting information about things like capacity to address crises, self-control, conflict management, long-term vision, resourcefulness, capacity to finish what they start, hidden career hopes, etc.

This is, basically, my rationale to avoid automated screening as much as possible and get an hiring manager specialised in the department or area the position is for. So much talent can be rejected for not using the chosen keyword or having an unexpected professional background, and so many unfitting but good-on-paper candidates can pass through and reach interview stage because they know how to hack appearances.

Tricky questions

Last, but not least, here are some of my favorite questions to surprise candidates, make them think out of the box, and overall pushing them — just a bit — around to see how they react and answer:

  • Imagine it’s your birthday, and I come to your desk and gift you a magic wand. This wand grants answers to three questions, from any group of people you want. Can be grandpas based in Buenos Aires who like knitting, or everyone who uses a phone with Nougat in Manhattan. You choose who you ask, and they have to answer, honestly, your three questions. You can ask whatever you want, for it’s your birthday. What would you ask?
  • There’s as many ways to classify people in the world as people themselves, but for this question we will use a very simple one. It’s a three-types system: the kick-starter — a builder who leads projects from scratch and takes care of new teams and areas, the manager — who keeps programs and teams improving and focuses on operational excellence, and the mercenary — who gives service across teams and only in some stages of projects and processes. How much are you, in percentages, of each one of those types?
  • Imagine it’s your birthday, and I come to your desk and gift you a box with 10K customer-care cases already addressed and closed. They are properly classified per topics and pricing plans, and all metadata is there too, including how long it took to resolve them. What would you do with them?
  • If we hire you, what do you think you would miss from your previous position?
  • (Question for a remote position) Imagine we hire you. You know that sharing physical work space can cause a bit of friction. What personal treat or mania do you think we will be thankful of not suffering from you thanks to this position being remote? It can be anything, for instance cracking fingers, singing aloud, tapping on the table with a pen…

Creating and using your own set of tricky questions is not the holy grail that will reveal who is the best candidate, but those questions can help you to learn about a candidate’s skills, thought processes, and personality in a way that is difficult for them to prepare beforehand.


Where’s the culture in all this?

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The thing about getting answers from a candidate about their culture fitness is simply not asking them about it.

In fact, do not mention your company values at all, because it’s like giving a student the answers to an exam. The candidate will, anyways and consciously or unconsciously, do their best to adapt their behaviour and answers to push for culture fitness — specially when their skills and experience are not so well aligned with the requirements for the position.

Keep in mind that there’s no way a candidate can prove beyond doubt that they are going to be a good culture fit. They can mention elements from your Values section at your website, but that’s just keywords learnt from a theory book; they can be jolly people to talk to, but that won’t be a magic spell to get trust from colleagues on important matters; they can say, and many probably will, that they like the culture and values in your company, but that’s a bluff as the knowledge they can have is limited, at best of times.

Culture fitness is the most subjective topic to evaluate and, due to its nature, is in continuous risk of being influenced by the interviewer’s biases, so the more interviewers keeping an eye on it the lower the risk of hiring someone unfitting. Thus, there should not be an interview dedicated to that topic; all the interviews should support that filtering.

Culture itself is something that shows with facts, behaviour, interactions, language used… For a company, values are a set of aspirations for the kind of work environment they are pursuing with employees, and nurturing a certain culture is a way to achieve it. A culture can’t be infused into an organization just by hiring people who seem to like the company’s traditions and perks. When interviewing candidates, keep in mind that great employees support and evolve great cultures, and every time you hire someone both the organization and the culture evolves, changes, for the better or worse, because they bring their own understanding of work culture with the rest of skills and expertise you asked for in the job description.


Get to really know your candidates. You have, average, one hour. Go!