How We Improved Our Recruitment Process

The first time I interviewed someone, I was terrible. I spoke 90% of the time. I made statements and asked if they agreed with them — she said yes to all of them. She was a friend of the person in the office next door. She was over 50, I was under 25. I had no other employees. The business was entirely online and the role was entirely computer based. She couldn’t use a computer proficiently. I gave her the job.

It then took me 4 full days to fire her. I read things like ‘hire slowly, fire quickly’ and I definitely agree. Once you’ve decided someone has to go, make it quick. However, I like to give people a chance to improve, a chance to shine. She told me a few times she’d learn, she’d get better. By day 4, I realised this wasn’t going to happen in a timescale that worked for me.

10 years later, I’ve learned a few things about how to hire effectively and find great people.

The Job Ad

We try to write a good, clear job ad covering the key skills. If we have required skills, we state them. Unfortunately, people without those skills will apply anyway and will say they have those skills.

The First Step

Ask them how much experience they have with your most important skills. Ideally get them to do this with the application. Some job platforms can put a step where they fill this out with their application. If you need an experienced juggler and they have 0 years juggling experience, they failed the first step.

Dealing with Applications

We use an email ticketing system or shared inbox. Most of those systems allow you to auto-respond to emails. We have a jobs auto-response that says ‘thanks for applying, we’ll let you know if you’re through to the next stage’. IE we don’t reply to every application personally unless they ask for feedback or we push them forward. Massively saves time replying to 200+ unsuccessful applications.

The Applications

We ask for a CV and cover letter. I wrote a blog post on our company site a few years ago saying how to write a good cover letter and some other stuff. The good applications will have read that or will genuinely write a good, personal letter and have a relevant, interesting CV. The bad applications will have a poor, generic cover letter. The cover letter should explain why they want to work for the company, why they like the sound of the job and why they think they have the right skills for it.

I also check the filename of their CV. If it’s ‘JohnSmithMarketing.docx’ then you know they’re applying for jobs in multiple fields. If it’s ‘johns cv latest new.docx’ then you know they’re not very organised. Ideally it should be a PDF so it displays consistently and should be named professionally. Like ‘John Smith CV.pdf’.

A CV is like a first date — you see what they want you to see.

Get Some Input

We then split applications into Yes, Maybe and No categories. Anyone that we think has potential we ask for more input from them. A CV is like a first date — you see what they want you to see. You need more information/interaction to learn more about them as a person.

We’ve done phone interviews as a next step and they work OK but are time intensive, require scheduling and it’s hard to go back over them later. My wife and I try to both be involved in hiring, so that makes it even harder.

On our last round we did a typeform questionnaire. That worked OK. We asked a few questions like ‘how could we improve x’, ‘why do you want to work for the company’, ‘how would you manage this project’. You get an insight into how people respond to those types of situations which is good.

Surely I deserve an interview

I also think it’s helpful to email candidates asking questions and see how they respond. Good candidates will have well written responses, reply fairly promptly, take initiative and be pleasant. I had one guy who submitted my name as one of the answers to the questionnaire and I asked him about it. He said ‘I didn’t do that, there must be a mistake’. I said ‘well that’s the answer in the box’. He said ‘I double checked at the time so I definitely didn’t do that, do you want me to answer it again?’. His first response should’ve been ‘Sorry, here’s my answer’. I rejected him. He asked for feedback. I said some of his other questionnaire answers weren’t very good. He said ‘well I didn’t think you were going to judge me on them, since I completed it surely I deserve an interview’. A couple of emails on my part easily move him from a Maybe to a No.

The Project

Next we do face to face interviews at our premises. We send over a project for them to prepare and present at the interview. We give no input on how they should show us their work.

In our last round we had one girl present on a laptop facing us all, she used an iPad for her notes and set up her phone as a WiFi hotspot. Prepared. We had another who looked at me and said ‘well, I guess can I use your laptop’. She had it on a memory stick and had not brought anything to present on, nor asked prior to this if something would be available. I use my laptop to structure the interview, guide questions, make notes etc etc. No, you can’t use my laptop. We had others who used printed material, collages and some more.

How much time they spend and how professionally they prepare the project says a huge amount about them and how much they want the job.

The Interview Structure

We learned half way through our recent round of interviews that when someone starts badly and it looks like it’s not going to get better, we need to cut the interview short. We started off by telling people we’re going to do the project, then questions, then scenarios. By doing that we locked in the format at the beginning of the interview so it was hard to change. Instead we simply said ‘let’s start with the project’. That way we can skip a part if we need to.

The Interview Questions

Be open, relaxed and casual. Encourage them to relax and open up. You want to know what they think, not what they’ve prepared. Ask open questions and do not lead the answers. Say as little as possible other than trying to coax out what they really want to say. For example if hiring for a gardener ask ‘Why do you like gardening?’ Few people prepare for that question and it encourages a natural, heartfelt answer. If they don’t love gardening, you’ll be able to tell, and you probably don’t want to hire someone that doesn’t love what they do.

Some other good questions:
Who do you think is a great gardener?
Which gardens do you love?
How would you improve x garden?
What would you like to be doing in 5–10 years?
What are your salary expectations?
What other jobs are you applying for?

These types of open questions encourage natural, unprepared answers that give insight into how they think. It’s also important to understand their ambitions and long term goals.

The most important bit of the interview for us is to step out of it half way through and check where the other person is at.

Stepping Out

We always try to interview together. Two people’s opinions are better than one person’s. The most important bit of the interview for us is to step out of it half way through and check where the other person is at. If you think they’re great and your partner thinks they’re terrible, it gives you a reality check. If you both think they’re great you go back into the interview with high expectation. Your high expectation is harder to fulfil so you start looking at them more critically. It’s easy to get swept up in someone so taking a quick break is hugely valuable.

We usually give them some prepared materials to review and answer while we’re out.

The Scenarios

The best way to see what someone is like at doing a particular task is to ask them to do it. To carry on the gardener example you could leave them 5 plants and ask them to say how they would care for each of them. If it’s a data analysis job give them some charts and data and ask them questions about it. This will give you key insight into how they actually perform the tasks you want them to do.

If you’re Jordan Belfort you probably want to hire wolves who will kill indiscriminatingly.

What To Look For

I believe that people have skills and talents. Skills can be learned, talents are the parts of their character that make them predisposed to particular things. For example I have a talent for understanding technology. I’ve never used a Mac before so it’s not one of my skills but I’m confident I could figure it out. We try to hire on talents not skills. Skills can be learned, talents are much, much harder to learn. If they love gardening and plants it doesn’t matter if they’ve never cared for a particular type of plant before — they’ll figure it out.

We also hire on culture. Culture combines attitude and personality. We want people who are positive, forward thinking, take the initiative, like to get on with others, are not too flashy or full of themselves and seem like nice people. They’ll fit in with the rest of us. If you’re Jordan Belfort you probably want to hire wolves who will kill indiscriminatingly.

We usually get an idea of what kind of culture someone has based on the above steps. But you can also ask others to help. Seat them in an area where they can chat with others and see what impression they give off.

The Offer

Once you’ve decided on the right candidate it’s important to make sure you let them know why they want to work for the company. Take care and time to make an offer that is fair and explain why you’re a good company to work for. You don’t want to go through all this work and then they take a different job!