I Got 99 Problems And Your Hiring Practices Are All Of Them (Part 3)

This is the third article in my series about problems in the hiring process. The previous articles showed you how to attract and find candidates. You were successful, so they’re applying for your open role! You need to figure out which ones to talk with and who is qualified enough to bring in to have further discussions with your team!

FILTERING

From this point on, you’re trying to select the best potential employee from the entire pool of applicants. Every step in the process filters some people out. This is necessary. You can’t realistically spend a full day interviewing every person if you receive two hundred applications for one position.

We’ll look at the good and bad steps you can take, but the one question I always keep in mind is, “Can this person do this job well?” That’s it. Everything you are evaluating is contained in those seven words. Yes, even “culture fit”.

#37 Misuse of an Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

This is the why that pairs with #28’s what. Candidates don’t want to needlessly re-enter information, because they don’t understand the purpose. So… why are ATS helpful? How can we smooth out the rough spots in their use?

I don’t know if the tracking part or the filtering part of an ATS came first. I imagine the history of the two parts went something like this:

A Recruiting team was frustrated by having to keep track of all the candidates applying to the company’s open roles. Candidates were not getting timely contact, getting stuck (or worse, lost) in the hiring process, and generally having a confusing experience. The company was losing out on some great people because they would take all this as a sign of the company’s incompetence and abandon the process.

Some other overworked recruiters got tired of scanning resumes for the same keyword, which the uncooperative hiring manager didn’t bother to explain. They kept looking for people with JavaScript experience, and were frustrated when the hiring manager kept rejecting the resumes they presented that listed Java. (A note for the non-techies: Despite the similarities in the names, these programming languages are quite different. And neither will get you a coffee, unfortunately.)

People built systems to deal with each of these problems. Then someone combined the two into an unholy marriage. The tracking component is essential, but the filtering is simply lazy, and emblematic of the entire hiring mess we’re exploring.

What does an ATS really need to do to be helpful?

  • Store active job openings.
  • Store applications and link them to a job opening.
  • Parse names and email addresses from applications.
  • Notify recruiters and hiring leaders of new applications.
  • Track the stages of candidate progress: applied, screened, onsite, offer, hired, started.
  • Provide an easy / automated way to send (kind) rejections at the first couple stages.
  • Maybe it connects to a system to track approvals for offers.

That’s pretty much it. This will make the lives of the first group of recruiters much better, as they’ll have a manageable workflow, candidates won’t be lost, and they’ll actually be able to source effectively because brand reputation won’t have been tarnished by unhappy applicants.

But what about that keyword filtering? It’s not on the list. It doesn’t need to be. You did a great job of crafting a job description that wasn’t requirement or buzzword heavy (see #6–7), and you’re going to actually look at the applications yourself (see #38). Given that, there won’t be a need for recruiters to focus on keywords. If that’s not what they’re tasked with, then they don’t need a tool to make that task more efficient. They never wanted to do that in the first place!

It’s that unhelpful manager who broke the system. He (I try to be gender balanced in my writing, but in this story I think we all know it was a man) was “too busy” to read the applications, gave Recruiting some limited instructions, and the quality of the entire process shattered. You won’t be that kind of leader, because you know that you can’t be too busy for hiring (see #1). It is the job.

#38 Hiring leaders don’t spend enough time looking at applications

We’ve all heard the story that a resume gets looked at for only a few seconds, generally somewhere between six and thirty, depending who is telling the tale. Why does this happen? Basically, all the work gets shunted to Recruiting, and they’re dealing with every hiring leader at the company, so they have to trim time from somewhere in order to keep all the plates spinning.

But you don’t have to trim time. Looking over application materials is part of the time you have dedicated to the process (see #1). You’re focused on only your open roles, not every other leader’s roles. If you get a hundred applications for one position, that’s okay. You don’t have to read them all in one sitting. When the applications come in, you should look at them first, not the Recruiting team, and separate them into three groups.

Most will not be a match because they don’t address your requirements, either of skills (see #6) or application materials to be submitted (see #28) or quality of what they’ve submitted (typos and such). These are pretty easy to spot in the fabled thirty seconds. Flag them as rejections. In your ATS, include a very brief note (a couple words or a sentence) as to why you’re saying no. This helps Recruiting fine tune what they’re looking for. This note is also the check that someone has actually reviewed the application. This is one way you provide a paper trail that helps fight theoretical hiring discrimination lawsuits.

The few really great matches will be easy to spot as well. These people meet most or all of your requirements and explain why they want to work with you. You’ll be so excited that you’ll be tempted to read every word. You don’t need to. Flag them for recruiting to follow up. Provide any notes about what you liked. This also helps recruiters key into good candidates.

Some will be in that foggy area where it isn’t immediately clear whether they can be a fit or not. These are the ones you really have to read. Maybe they are a partial match for your requirements, or have parallel skills, or wrote a great cover letter that gives you a favorable impression. Perhaps it’s the opposite; something that initially caught your eye doesn’t have anything accompanying it to maintain your interest. Either way, you determine whether to flag them as a rejection or a follow up. If you’re truly on the fence, lean toward yes (see #40). Notes here might include a little more detail for follow up or explanation of rejection. On occasion, you’ll find someone who you think isn’t a fit, but could be a fit elsewhere in your organization. Let the relevant hiring leader know directly; don’t throw them back to Recruiting and assume they’ll do it.

Leaders not actually reading the application materials has a side effect: Application quality decreases. Candidates either try to include too much, so they can be sure to include something eye catching, or not enough, in order to adhere to some arbitrarily determined limit of page length. They devalue cover letters, because they don’t trust that they’ll actually be read. In addition to reading the materials, make sure your job description states that you actually will (again, see #28). You can’t expect candidates to heed the advice of customizing their resume for every application if you aren’t actually reading them. Why should they invest hours if you’re only going to invest seconds?

Now that you understand the overall approach, let’s look at the specific things to be looking for, or not, in applications. Most of the rest of this section will explore common stumbling blocks that cause hiring leaders to pass over potentially great candidates.

#39 Overindexing on referred candidates

It’s exciting when a colleague tips you off to a prospective candidate. You like Frank. He does great work. So when he tells you that George is great too, you take that as a good sign.

It may be as straightforward as that. George may actually be great for your team. But is he the best for your team? Or is it just easier to focus on George than to deal with all the applications? What is Frank’s motivation? Does he want to work with his friend? Will he get a referral bonus if you hire George?

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Frank is most likely to know other people similar to himself. Maybe they’re friends who live near each other. Maybe they went to school together. Maybe they’re interested in the same technologies. None of this is going to diversify your team. Frank is great, but you may not need Frank2. Consider the entire applicant pool. It’s better for your team in the long term.

Referrals are great. And it’s not unreasonable to move them into the follow up pile simply based on someone’s word. But let that be the end of the assistance George gets. If you go beyond that, it becomes a case of substituting someone else’s judgement for your own.

#40 Not having a reasons to say yes mindset

One of the problems with filtering is that it can quickly devolve into a search for red flags: Reasons to say no. Instead of asking why someone can’t be a fit for the role, ask yourself why they can. What skill do they bring or background do they explain that makes you consider your requirements in a new light?

The gain from this mindset is in diversity. There are many hidden biases that you will avoid if you’re evaluating candidates with this view, opening you up to all kinds of applicants. Changing this one point of how you think is very powerful. You’ll still be filtering and eliminating candidates, but you’ll be doing so for better reasons. Review the notes you make on the rejected applications. I guarantee they’ll be more factual, and less about applicants who “don’t feel like a good fit”.

#41 Filtering on “top” companies

I’ve seen recruiters reject a candidate because they hadn’t worked at any “top” companies. What is a top company? Who decides that? Top in what way? Market share? Brand recognition? Profits? I knew what they meant: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (FAANG) hire “the best”. But that’s a flawed premise of how to evaluate someone.

First of all, not everyone wants to work at those companies. Yes, really. Maybe they don’t align with those companies’ missions or simply don’t like large companies. It doesn’t really matter why.

Second, even if we grant the premise that FAANG-like companies have the best employees (and outside this paragraph I don’t grant that), they only have the best employees for their needs. That really has no relation to your company’s needs. Someone great at a company like those may not perform well for you.

Third, what makes you think someone currently working at one of those companies wants to come to yours? What are you offering that competes with them? In reality, that is, not in your dreams.

Lastly, and most importantly, this is another case of substituting someone else’s judgement for your own. Do you believe that Google has never passed on someone who would have been great? Do you think Amazon has never had to let someone go who didn’t work out? No one else is perfect, even these “top” companies. Neither are you, but you have a better chance at evaluating well if you do so for yourself, as only you know what you need.

#42 Filtering on “top” schools and certifications

This is very similar to the previous issue. We’ve been led to believe that the smartest people go to the best schools. It’s not that simple. Are there some brilliant people at Harvard and Stanford and all the other schools that come to mind when you think about great universities? Unquestionably! Can you attract the best of those to come work with you? Maybe, but I doubt you need my advice in the first place, so I’m flattered that you’ve read this far.

Why do you want people who attended these schools anyway? Are you trusting their admissions criteria (let me get out my substituting-someone-else’s-judgement stick to whack you with again)? How about their graduation criteria? How do you know that they produce great candidates for your team? A great school can be a signal that you’re talking to a smart person, but it’s not a guarantee, nor is the lack of that education a guarantee of the opposite.

I’m more interested in enthusiasm. If I’m choosing between a top candidate who attended University of <STATE>, who has done interesting projects, wrote a cover letter that made me take notice, and clearly wants to be on my team, versus someone who went to a top school, but has none of those other things… it’s not really a choice. Hire the person, not the resume.

I briefly mentioned the economic bias in this line of thinking earlier (see #8), and it bears repeating. Some people can’t afford to go to an expensive school. Most people, actually. Some can afford to go to a state school, or a community college, or the local library. What have they actually learned? That’s the thing that really matters.

Certifications are equally ambiguous, at least in technology. Teaching, finance, law, engineering (mechanical, civil, etc.), medicine, and more have actual certification tests and standards. Tech doesn’t really have that. Instead, again, you’re introducing economic bias (some certs are expensive, and the time it takes to attain them can be a cost that some can’t afford) for a third party assessment of a candidate’s skill. Many have achieved such skill without any certifications. If you want to know if someone is qualified in Cloud Systems Orchestration or Computer Networking, evaluate that for yourself. Don’t outsource it to a theoretical industry standard. Because there isn’t one.

#43 Believing someone is overqualified

Being overqualified is code for ageism… and I’m tempted to leave it at that.

At this stage, when you’re looking over applications, don’t make assumptions. A more experienced person may simply need a job. You don’t know that you can’t afford them. You don’t know that they’ll leave soon. Maybe they’re done pushing for the next promotion and want to perform well at work they can handle easily. Who knows? At this point, be happy that you have at least one qualified applicant, put them in the follow up pile, and evaluate them later.

#44 Filtering on previous job titles

How much experience does a “Senior Engineer” have and what scope of work are they responsible for? How many people / teams report to a “Director”? This completely varies, because there are no standards for these titles in technology. Even if there were, the responsibilities would still vary based on company size, industry, geography, etc.

I had drinks with a few CTOs a while ago. One question that came up was about the size our teams. My title was Manager at that moment, and my one team was larger than each of their entire departments. The title doesn’t matter as much as you think. The experience does.

#45 You are looking for a 100% match

The best match for your team is not perfect. Because perfect doesn’t exist.

Yes, I told you to trim down your requirements (see #6) and now I’m telling you that you may not even get all of those. For anyone who hasn’t thrown their computer across the room, think about this: Why would a 100% match want this role? What would they have to learn? How would they grow? Why are you so sure that you’re a 100% match for them?

If I find someone with that much skill, my first instinct is joy, then I remember that they’ll be bored in six months. My next thought is wondering if there is a more senior role available or if I can convert the open slot to one. I’ll definitely want to talk with them (see #43), but I’ll express my concerns. Maybe there is a reason they applied which I didn’t understand at first glance.

I’m looking for maybe a 75–85% match on my requirements. I’ll hire those people all day, and train them. They’re easier to find, they’re excited to learn, and I’ll be running circles around you while you’re still looking for your 100%. You think if you keep looking just a bit longer, you’ll find them. But it won’t be a little longer; it will be a lot. What if I can find a 75% match in a month, but it takes you nine to find a 100%? It’s as pointless to extrapolate productivity as it is to reduce people to single numbers, so let’s keep going. Those eight extra months you wasted (and that really isn’t an unreasonable estimate)? It will take two years for your 100% to catch up to my 75% in productivity, and even longer if my person actually learns something in that time and becomes more skilled.

But we have a “high bar” and “can’t compromise” or the team will suffer! More than having an open role for most of a year? Really? No. Your team suffers from not being a complete team. Your team suffers from work overload for extended periods. Your team suffers from endless interviews. Your team suffers from dashed hope as one person’s minor objection causes the cycle to restart. I’m not telling you to hire someone bad just to be done with it. I’m saying that you’re looking for a unicorn, but all you really need is a reliable horse.

#46 Filtering on employment gaps

You see a gap in employment on a resume and you think one of three things:

  • I wonder why that is?
  • They were fired.
  • If they were any good, they’d never be unemployed.

The first one is actually none of your business. Your curiosity is irrelevant. The second one could be true, but outside of your fantasy land, everyone has lost a job at some point, so it’s not a useful filter. The third one could actually be true (but you can’t really know either way). Here are some other things that could be true:

  • They were sick.
  • They were taking care of someone who was sick.
  • They extended parental leave.
  • They were taking care of an elderly parent.
  • They were having marital troubles, and chose to focus on that.
  • Their last boss was so terrible that they needed time to recover.
  • The economy tanked and jobs were hard to find.
  • They were looking for work but every company thought like yours.
  • They were traveling.
  • They were learning a new skill that wasn’t related to their career path.
  • They tried a job that wasn’t relevant to their career path.
  • They were doing classified work that they can’t mention.
  • They were sitting around watching movies.
  • They were captured by pirates.
  • An evil wizard turned them into a newt.

Did it get a little ridiculous toward the end there? No more ridiculous than you thinking this matters. A gap does not signal an answer to the core question: “Can this person do this job well?” It is, literally, no information.

#47 Filtering on short job stints

Focusing on short job stints is pretty similar to the last issue. Let’s see how similar! You think:

  • I wonder why that is?
  • They were repeatedly fired.
  • They’re a job hopper!

Or it could be:

  • Their previous bosses were so terrible that they ran to something hopefully better.
  • The economy tanked and they were laid off.
  • They were unlucky and they were laid off.
  • They’re so good that fantastic offers keep falling in their lap.
  • They were trying different things because they didn’t happen to find the perfect company the first time.

Maybe it isn’t the same… Oh wait, yes it is: You’re assuming things again and filtering on non-information. If you believe past performance is always a predictor of future results then you don’t believe people can learn and improve.

#48 Not getting back to qualified applicants quickly enough

You’ve considered all the applicants. Recruiting loves you because instead of sifting through fifty random applications, you’ve provided them with ten qualified applicants and some notes about each one. Now what?

Hopefully your new friends on the Recruiting team will fast track your role because you made their lives much easier, which should put you ahead of your less helpful peers. But what if they simply can’t? Priorities, workload, Ted is on vacation, whatever.

Agree on a time frame with Recruiting. Set up your ATS so that you or Recruiting can send messages to the people you’re interested in. A very simple message along the lines of, “We’ve reviewed your application and we are interested in speaking with you! We’re working on filling many roles at the moment, so it may take us a little while to continue the conversation. You will hear back from us with next steps by <DATE>.” That last part is the key. Whether the delay is two days or two weeks, committing to a deadline and sticking to it will earn you significant consideration from candidates. It will be better received than the typical response, which is actually no response at all, until suddenly a message arrives too late. People react better to certainty.

#49 Ghosting the applicants you’ve rejected

Someone has taken the time, albeit in some cases minimal time, to apply to your job opening. You need to let them know something. Soon. Don’t just fade away.

Ghosting at this stage is like starting a conversation with a friend about getting together for dinner next week. And then not continuing the conversation. How can that possibly have a positive outcome?

Again, this a place that your ATS can be powerful. All candidates at this stage can receive a brief form letter. You don’t need much more than something along the lines of, “We’ve reviewed your application materials for the <ROLE> and determined that you are not a match. We thank you for applying, and hope that you will consider applying for other roles in the future as your career progresses.”

That’s it. Don’t lie and don’t sugarcoat it. Did you hire someone else yet? No? Then don’t use that as a reason. Are you really going to “keep their resume on file and consider them for other roles”? You’d be the first one. Did they really have “very impressive qualifications”? If so, they wouldn’t have been in the rejection pile in the first place. The only person you’re making feel better at this point is yourself. Candidates will respect directness and honesty.

You should have your ATS set up so that this can be done with a few clicks. Own this. Make sure Recruiting does it or get it done yourself if you have to. The worst version of this is when you do nothing. Months later, someone “cleans up the system” and lots of rejection messages are automatically sent out. You’ve just reopened wounds for many candidates for no good reason.

Anyone you disrespect at this stage you should assume you are writing off forever, because while you won’t remember them, they will remember your company. Poorly.

PHONE SCREENS

Most commonly, the next step in the process is a candidate screen. This can be done by a recruiter or the hiring leader. It’s usually a phone call, but if video calls or in person conversations are suitable for both parties, those are fine as well. Preferable, maybe.

Personally, I don’t think these should be interviews so much as fact finding conversations. Is the candidate interested? Where are they in their job search? Are they okay with our listed salary? What can I answer for them that will help sell them on the role?

#50 Lack of clarity as to whom a candidate will be speaking with

This one is pretty easy. Will the phone screen be with a recruiter? The hiring leader? Someone else? Will there be more than one screen? Let the candidate know in advance so they can prepare. And don’t surprise them with a change when the call starts.

#51 Lack of clarity as to whether it’s a chat or an interview

This should also be easy. Be direct as to what the phone screen will cover. As I said in my intro to this section, I believe a phone screen should be more like a chat. If you choose to lean toward interview, that’s fine, but let people know that you’ll be doing that. You don’t get any bonus points for surprise.

#52 Inconsiderate phone screen timing

I’m sure you’d love to block off a few hours and have conversations with several candidates in a row. You probably won’t be that lucky. Some candidates have jobs which they can’t easily interrupt in order to speak with you. Unemployed job hunters may have other conflicting commitments or interviews. Many people may need to speak first thing in the morning, or after work in the evening. You should try to accommodate these requests. Think of what it says to a candidate if you inconvenience yourself for them. That’s a leader they may want to work with.

Be punctual. The candidate’s schedule could be as packed as yours, so a showing of respect for everyone’s time is a good way for all to begin the conversation.

Unless there is a compelling reason to delay, keep the process moving. Schedule phone screens quickly. Telling someone that you want to speak with them three weeks from now is clearly one of the ways that you lose out on candidates. Even if they haven’t been snatched up by another company, your lack of enthusiasm will become their lack of enthusiasm.

#53 Issuing homework

Yes, I’m taking a swing at coding challenges too. At least at this stage (we’ll come back to them at #77–78), I’m not a fan. Your thinking is that “we need to know if this person is technically up to our bar” and “it should take only a couple hours”. The former is too limited of a filter and the latter is naive.

I get it. You want technical skill. It’s a technical job. Perhaps that can wait and you get to know the person a bit first. Describe the kind of technical work that you’ll need them to do. Some will self-select out based on a description.

Whatever your time estimate is, the candidate will want to spend much longer on the task, because they want to provide something excellent. And since you didn’t provide clear goals about how the work will be rated (Accomplish the task and stop? Edge cases and exception handling? Tests? Documentation?), they have to do everything. But your evaluation time for the project is fairly well fixed, regardless of what you receive, because you know what your evaluation criteria are. Why is their time less valuable than yours?

Here’s the kicker: Not every candidate actually has the time to do this homework. What if they are in the interview process with four companies, all of whom are requiring these tasks? Do you have an extra fifteen or twenty hours this week to dedicate to high focus activities? What if they have a family they want to spend time with?

If you’re assigning these projects before the phone screen, then it’s simply shameful. The candidates at this stage deserve a chance to ask you a couple questions about the role before being handed work.

#54 Ghosting after phone interviews

Here’s the second of our three ghosts (maybe I should have used A Christmas Carol as an analogy). You and the candidate both took time to chat. You made a decision after that point. You are probably not keyed into the asymmetry of the situation: A week delay for you feels like nothing is wrong; the same time to a candidate feels like nothing is right. Try to move quickly and let them know if you will continue or not. Try to act like an adult, not a teenager paralyzed by fear of what someone might say.

As before (see #49), if you do need to delay a bit, that’s okay as long as you send a note with a clear deadline. The same rules about directness, honesty, ownership, and repercussions apply. If you were to provide a line of personalized feedback, whether positive or constructive, beyond the boilerplate, you’d be nearly alone in that regard.

Ghosting at this stage is like setting plans with a friend to have dinner next week. And then not showing up. You’re going to have trouble maintaining friendships if you keep this up.

Next up: In Person Interviews