I Got 99 Problems And Your Hiring Practices Are All Of Them (Part 6)
This is the sixth and final article in my series about problems in the hiring process. The previous articles covered everything from continuous recruiting efforts and job descriptions to onsite interviews. Now we have to make some decisions in order to get (and keep) great employees.
- Part 1: Foundational Steps and Job Descriptions
- Part 2: Sourcing and Candidate Turn-offs
- Part 3: Filtering and Phone Screens
- Part 4: In Person Interviews
- Part 5: In Person Interviews Continued
- Part 6: Decisions and Ongoing Responsibilities
Your team has collected all available signal. Now you need to sift through that and make some determinations. Which finalists are eliminated? Which would you hire? Which of those is your first choice? All the changes I’ve suggested have been aimed at making this step as easy as possible, but there are still places to stumble.
#87 Not reviewing a candidate quickly enough
Memory fades, so you need to get all the interviewers together quickly to have a discussion about the candidate. Ideally this would be at the end of the interview day, but leaving some room for reflection on a decision can be valuable, so the next day could be a good choice as well. That would mean that you couldn’t interview on Fridays though, because longer than an overnight delay is too long. Whatever you decide, have the review meeting scheduled ahead of time. It’s a necessary and important function, so don’t simply hope you’ll be able to squeeze it in.
Also, have a quick chat with anyone the candidate interacted with beyond the interviewers. Was there a front desk person who greeted them? Did they eat lunch with other employees? What were those interactions like? 99% of the time you’ll hear, “They were fine / pleasant / nice,” and not much more. On occasion you’ll hear a deal breaker or a really positive comment. For me, the deal breakers are a real thing. If you treat the front desk disdainfully, I don’t even need to have the review meeting. You didn’t pass the jerk test, so it’s over. Similarly, one can fail at lunch by saying something awful. Neutral or positive comments should be presented by you in the review meeting.
The longer you take to review one candidate also influences the total time to compare candidates. Delays snowball, and then your find out that your first choice has accepted another offer. Don’t hinder your own efforts.
#88 Listening to opinions, not facts
At some point in your review meeting, an interviewer is going to “have a feeling” about some aspect of the candidate’s performance. You can’t let that stand, as it’s only an opinion at that point. You need to probe further in order to get to a fact. Neither can you dismiss it, as one of your team members is trying to express a concern!
What’s the actual issue? How did it manifest in their conversation? Do they have notes that they can look at for more detail? (They should.) I advise focusing on this one person and keeping the rest of the team silent for a moment. You don’t want anyone influencing this opinion either way, especially not by someone trying to talk them out of how they’re feeling. You want a factual statement about something that happened. Others can then share an experience that differs or supports that. When there is a difference of experiences, that’s when you have to use your judgement. It’s part of your leadership responsibility.
#89 Overindexing on culture fit
He’s not going to take a swing at company culture, is he? He said candidates care about it, so it’s important to present well (see #29)! Our culture is really important to us!
Culture is indeed important, but for purposes of hiring, I believe it can used as a disingenuous filter. When I hear, “We have a great culture,” or, “We want to make sure a new hire is a culture fit,” I worry that people… don’t always know what they’re talking about. If I poked at those sentiments a little bit, they wouldn’t be able to define what the culture at their company is. Or maybe it’s that while they think their culture is unique, if stripped down to the base elements, almost every company only really wants three things from its employees:
- Help the company succeed.
- Do great work.
- Don’t be a jerk.
And that last one is optional at some companies (although it’s the most important to me). A precious few care about doing significant social good as well.
With regard to hiring though, “lack of culture fit” more often is used as a catch-all to disqualify someone instead of admitting that decision is based on opinions (see #88), bias (see #70), or outright discrimination. It can’t be contested, because it’s not based on facts. No meaningful feedback can be given (see #94) because, again, it’s not based on facts.
Here’s a curveball that I threw right past you: Those three bullet points above aren’t culture. They’re actually values. Many companies have grand value statements, citing a dozen different ideas. I find them usually to be variations of the above three.
I have read a lot of articles discussing the difference between the two ideas. Since exactly none of them agree with each other, and I didn’t particularly agree with any of them at all, I feel free to give definitions a try myself:
- Values are the company’s goals; culture is how employees act while achieving them.
- Values can be declared; culture must evolve.
So what are some examples of culture?
- How do you communicate? (email, phone, SMS, IM, meetings, walking to people’s desks)
- How much do you work? (Monday-Friday 9–5, long weekdays, six day weeks)
- Where do you work? (an office, multiple offices, remote, work from home)
- Do meetings always start on time?
- Do you have regular all-hands meetings?
- Do employees socialize at the office?
- Do employees socialize outside the office?
- How freely do leaders share information? (open book, a few secrets, need to know only)
- What is the office layout like? (private offices, shared offices, cubicles, open layout, mixed)
- Do employees eat lunch together?
- Do employees yell at each other?
- Do people bring food to the kitchen area to share with co-workers?
- When Jake in Marketing brews a fresh pot of exotic tea, does he invite others to share?
- Do you have Nerf gun battles?
- Is the office too hot or too cold?
- Is the office generally quiet or noisy?
I would be hard pressed to evaluate whether a candidate is a culture fit for most of those.
Another damaging piece of this is that you don’t actually want a culture fit in the first place. If you do, then you’re saying you want more people like those who are already there. Won’t that fly in the face of your diversity efforts? One wonders how you formed a culture in the first place. Instead, look for those who will add to, or even disrupt, your culture. That’s how you grow. Hopefully, this entire guide will help you assess if someone is a fit for your company’s values and misfit for your culture.
#90 Not factoring in nerves
The hiring process is stressful. While it may be annoying and frustrating for hiring leaders and other interviewers, it’s nerve-wracking for job seekers due to the asymmetry of power in the situation (for almost all applicants). Everyone handles this differently. Some people are good at interviewing (see #75) and others, less so. The symptoms manifest in many different ways. You’ve been compassionate and done your best to make your guest feel at ease. Many will still be on edge despite your efforts. Try to remember that during your evaluation.
#91 Removing decision making from the hiring leader
In a quest to remove all bias, some companies have started a trend of referring all candidates to hiring committees. The committee takes all the notes from all the interviewers and then this theoretically impartial group renders final judgement.
While this may work for the handful of companies with unlimited applicants tripping over themselves to work there, for everyone else, it’s a bit much. Instead of trying to remove bias, own it, and help the interviewers understand it (see #70). Don’t let a faceless group, who probably won’t be working with the future employee, decide who gets to work on your team. This may be a fine system for analyzing data, but humans are more than piles of numbers.
Similarly, when you’re evaluating the interview results with your team, don’t cede your decision making authority. A leader thoughtfully takes in all the advice, allowing for the possibility of their mind being changed, comes to a decision, and then explains it. This is not a democracy.
Consider a couple examples, with eight interviewers:
A result of one for hiring and seven for rejecting the candidate. You’re the only pro vote. Would you hire the candidate? I hope it’s obvious that you can’t. Not only is it not a democracy, it’s also not a dictatorship. You do have to listen to your team.
A result of five for hiring and three for rejecting the candidate. Would you hire the candidate? In a democracy, you would! In a hierarchical structure, you can’t. The one person you add won’t add more value than the three who object. What if they all really object and resign? What if it’s not so severe, but they just don’t work as effectively with someone they didn’t want as a colleague? This could happen subconsciously. Note that in this case, it doesn’t really matter whether you are in the group of five or three.
A result of seven for hiring and one for rejecting the candidate. Would you hire the candidate? This is actually the hardest result to handle. I don’t believe you should require a unanimous decision, as that makes it too easy for anyone’s (un)conscious bias to be a veto. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to dismiss a lone objector. Their experience is still valid! Why does only one person object? Is there something unique about them (only female interviewer, perhaps) that caused their experience to differ and allowed them to draw an opposite conclusion? What if the lone objector is you? Do you overrule your team? Maybe. But you need to be able to make a pretty solid case as to why.
#92 Using reference checks
Reference checks are useless, for multiple reasons. A candidate supplies three names. You ask those people some questions. What are you expecting to hear? Any candidate not able to supply the names of three people to say nice things about them is not someone who will get past your screening process anyway. They’re handpicked by the candidate: Of course they’ll have positive comments! If you do happen to hear something different, why is that opinion more valid than your interaction with the candidate?
To counter this, you might consider backchannel reference checks. You get in touch with a previous company or find a previous manager via LinkedIn connections and ask them some questions. But the candidate didn’t supply these names. Probably for the same reason they didn’t list all their failures on their resume: They don’t highlight their strengths. Why are you going to listen to the opinion of someone you don’t know? This is yet another example of substituting someone else’s judgement for your own.
I feel that it’s unethical to seek out this information at all. If the candidate wanted you to talk to these people, they would have said so. What else are you going to investigate? Blogs? Social media? Why? Because you can? Where do you draw the line? Are you planning to go to the address on their resume and root through their trash cans? If it’s not part of the application package, it’s out of bounds.
The exception would be a background check. If someone was terminated from a job for gross behavioral misconduct or financial malfeasance, you need to know that. Those are handled in a very specific manner by your HR team.
#93 Taking too long to make a decision
It’s usually easier to come to the decision that you don’t want to hire someone. There was an issue, and that person is not a match. You let them know and move on. When you have two great finalists and have to choose, or have one good one and wonder if you should wait for someone better, paralysis can set in. That delay can cause you to miss out on one or all of them, and then you’re back to square one.
Making the tough call is part of your role. There is a differentiator between any two finalists; find it. If you have someone who has passed all your tests and your team likes them, get them. Don’t sit around dreaming that the perfect person is around the corner (see #45).
#94 Not giving actionable honest feedback to rejected finalists
You have a responsibility, as an adult human, to provide a meaningful explanation to those you reject at this stage. “Not a culture fit” or “we went with someone else” is pretty weak. HR and Legal should want you to write at least a few sentences about why you’re rejecting someone, so it’s on file and defensible in the highly unlikely case of a hiring lawsuit. The conflict comes when you want to share that feedback with the finalist.
If someone asks for feedback, you should give them those few sentences as well. Legal won’t like this. Legal likes providing no reason at all, because then there is nothing to be used against the company. They also don’t like the idea of you getting drawn into a debate with a rejected finalist (and you probably don’t care for that either). I’m asking you to try to convince Legal to move from a position of zero risk to one of infinitesimal risk. They aren’t going to budge. But there may be an argument to be made to people who can overrule them.
Providing honest feedback enhances your brand reputation. Someone might take that feedback, work on the issues, and reapply in a year. Or they may tell a friend that they were treated fairly and recommend that the friend apply. They may give you a good review on Glassdoor.
Providing feedback is kind. It’s a human thing to do. How do you prove to the outside world that you care about your employees if you don’t demonstrate that you care about your applicants too?
Providing feedback helps this entire process get better. After an interview that doesn’t result in a hire, the company is able to adjust their efforts, because they know why they rejected someone. A finalist cannot, because they don’t. This perpetuates the existing system. If every company acts this way, how can they expect applicants to ever improve? A finalist learns something, improves themselves, and goes on to a career at another company. They understand the value of feedback, and they give feedback in the future when they become a hiring leader. Thus, things slowly improve.
Yes, occasionally, it goes the other way: A company will make an offer and a finalist will reject them. The person usually gives a reason. Companies don’t seem to have a problem trying to persuade the candidate to reconsider in that case, so this should nullify the “avoiding debates” argument. What’s okay for one side should be okay for the other.
My suggestion: Establish how feedback will work before you get to that point. During the initial conversation (or even in your job listing), try something like, “If we elect not to make you an offer, we will provide feedback, so that you can learn from the experience. If you elect not to accept an offer we make to you, we’d like to hear your feedback, so that we can improve. We will not try to change your mind at this point, and would appreciate the same respect from you.”
The last issue is when Recruiting follows up with a survey about the hiring process. If you’re not providing feedback to candidates, why should they act differently for you? If you’re only getting replies from the people you hire, that’s a pretty skewed sample. If anyone wants these surveys to be meaningful, it’s a necessary quid pro quo.
#95 Stalling (or ghosting!) finalists
You’ve interviewed one finalist, but because of scheduling, there is a gap before you can finish talking with the others. That’s okay. An honest conversation covers that. “We’re talking with a couple more people. We will have a decision next Thursday.” If you’re reasonable with them, they’re more likely to show you the same courtesy.
You could be in a situation where there are two people you’d be happy to hire, and you don’t have the budget to hire both. You make an offer to your top choice. What do you do with the other person? Typically, radio silence. Absence of news will be treated as the worst possible outcome. Your backup candidate doesn’t know they are that, and you, rightly, can’t tell them because you never want them to know they are a second choice employee. So what do you do? Move as quickly as possible. Have a direct conversation with the top choice. Ask if anything is holding them back from saying yes. Ask when you can expect a decision. There could be immediate returns from you having been reasonable with them throughout the process.
And then there is ghosting, act three. It is less common for companies to completely drop the ball at this stage; however, impersonal emails are still the default. A candidate who has reached this stage truly deserves a phone call. From you, not a recruiter. Delivering difficult but honest news is another of the challenging leadership tasks on your plate.
Ghosting now is like meeting up with that friend to have dinner, getting up from the table to use the restroom, and then simply leaving the restaurant. They have no context to process what happened. It’s a wonder you have any friends if you treat people this way.
#96 Negotiating compensation
Here, all the way at the other end of the process, is the 247th way that listing fixed compensation (see #15) will aid you. When you tell a finalist that you want them, there will be nothing substantial to negotiate. Perhaps relocation costs or the starting date. Those should be solvable in one phone call. If they turn you down and you shift to a backup, you won’t have wasted days with back and forth negotiations.
#97 Lack of distributed authority
You’ve made your choice! You’re ready to assemble the offer letter, so you head over to your Recruiting team, a celebratory bottle of champagne in hand! They’re happy, but they tell you that all offers need approval. From your VP. And the VP of HR. And the Head of Recruiting. And the CTO. And the CFO. And the Chief Counsel. And the CEO. Your tears mingle with the champagne bubbles.
At a small startup, the executive team will be cautious with each hire. They need to be. Each person represents a significant percentage of the company, and thus has significant impact. They need to be very skilled and motivated. Beyond a certain point, this process has to move faster. You can’t be stalled a few days while waiting for a couple rubber stamp approvals from people who haven’t met, and truthfully may never meet, the new employee. Approval from a department head and conditional approval from HR, pending a background check, should be enough. The budget was approved and the salary is fixed (yet another benefit of this), so you’ve removed the obstacles.
Often, board approval is needed for stock options (if you’re doing that, see #17), but it’s typical for that meeting to occur months after an employee has started. The number of options is known and included in the offer letter, even though the pro forma approval hasn’t actually happened yet. This is normal.
#98 Exploding offers
You send the offer to the hopefully new employee. You should have already had a conversation with them, so they know it’s coming. Then someone decides to put in language stating that the offer will expire (explode) in a couple days. This is neither reasonable nor respectful. It sends a poor message as well. Do you want to show your new employee that you operate primarily based on intimidation? That won’t make them eager to accept.
This could be a very large decision for them. You could be asking them to move. They may need to discuss it with their family. It may affect their spouse or children. Or they may have a longer commute, which affects home life. Maybe they’re choosing between two offers. Give them every reason to say yes to you. Be available to have conversations and address concerns. If you’ve been fair, they’re more likely to talk with you instead of dragging their feet. If they’re waiting on another offer, then you have to wait with them, or make a decision to move on to a backup candidate. These are tough calls with regard to timing, but you’ll have to make them.
Success! You have a new employee joining your team. You can go back to your “normal” leadership tasks. Sorry, no. There is still one problem to go, and it’s more challenging and important than all that have come before. If you ever want to get a rest from the hiring cycle, then you need to make sure people stick around. Otherwise, you’ll never catch up.
You’ve already started the retention process. All the positive changes you’ve implemented in order to make hiring run more smoothly are the foundational steps for employee enthusiasm and happiness. Happy employees don’t leave. They don’t even entertain the thought when recruiters come calling.
But your new hire isn’t in the door yet. The hiring cycle isn’t complete until they’ve actually showed up day one, filled out their employment paperwork, and started working. Keep in touch after the offer letter has been transmitted. Make sure HR sends them information about what materials to bring on day one. These are typically just documents so they can fill out an I-9 form, and maybe banking information for setting up direct deposit. Make sure IT gets in touch so that any preferences can be accommodated. If there are any special office equipment needs, have Facilities reach out. If possible, you might invite the new hire to stop by and say hi to the team, or sit in on a meeting. Start building inclusion as soon as possible.
There is a trend of new hires ghosting companies, by simply not showing up for their first day, which is clearly not great. But neither is it unexpected. These things are cyclical. Companies treat candidates badly when jobs are scarce; candidates treat companies badly when jobs are plentiful. You reap what you sow. The entire point of this series is to improve hiring so that the experience you deliver is so much better than your competition that no candidate would choose any company but yours.
What should day one look like? Well, they’ll go through a well-established orientation and onboarding program, of course! Don’t have one of those? Help build it.
As the absolute bare minimum, figure half a day for HR paperwork, culture stories, office tours, IT demonstrations and equipment setup, Facilities introduction, Security and Information Security introductions, short chats with department heads and the executive team, lunch, etc. If there is time after that, you can have the new hire join their team for more personalized onboarding, but this may not start until the next day. If there is more content to provide, and this takes a full day or two, that tends to be a good thing. New hires will feel more included and that bolsters their enthusiasm.
Set up a buddy system. This requires another employee, from outside your team or even department, who volunteers to help a new hire. They’re available to answer any and all questions, especially those that a new hire might feel embarrassed to ask: forgetting part of training, not understanding a company culture item, etc. They should also check in with the new hire every week or so. It’s probably safe to let this relationship trail off after about 90 days, by which time the new employee should have established confidence and more peer connections.
There should be 30, 60, 90 day, and 1 year checkins with whomever runs your onboarding program, most likely connected to HR. These are useful both to make sure the employee is doing well, and also to provide feedback to the company about areas in which the program can be improved for future new hires.
Get your team member established in all your local rituals as soon as possible. Book your one on one meeting with them. Make sure they’re added to the calendar for all recurring meetings, reminders, and events. See if they have any requests that hadn’t occurred to them before starting.
You hire for two reasons: growth or replacement. Growth is exciting, and that’s already going to require a large chunk of your time. Replacement isn’t always a bad thing, but as long as someone is still happy and growing and producing great work, you don’t want to lose them. Let people come up with interesting work to pursue, foster a learning environment, keep them connected to the company’s mission, and continue to treat them fairly. Those people won’t leave you. Otherwise, you’re back to step #1.
I can’t imagine you’ve gotten this far unless you have some hiring difficulties. Whether or not you agree with all, or even any, of my suggestions, your options are either to change something or wait for the economic conditions to shift so you can go back to treating employees like cogs. Clearly I prefer change.
You don’t have to memorize the entire list, but if you keep a few points in mind, you’ll be focused on the things that will improve your hiring experience most:
- There are information and power asymmetries in the company’s favor.
- All evaluation questions boil down to, “Can this person do this job well?”
- Be open to possibilities, with a reasons to say yes mindset, rather than looking for red flags.
- Don’t substitute someone else’s judgement for your own.
- Avoid hiring jerks, no matter their level of skill.
- Remember that you’re hiring people.
Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback! What suggestions did you like? What other ideas did they stir up in your brain? Have you implemented some of these already?
What suggestions do you think are unworkable? Which would be the hardest to implement? Which ones didn’t I think through well enough?
Are there hiring gaffes I missed entirely? If there are enough ideas, maybe I’ll write an addendum or sequel. But really, I hope over time we can reduce the number of entries on this list. Good luck and keep searching for great people; they’re out there!