Adventures in HR: Recruiting as a small company

Thoughts about an undervalued job.

Hey, this is Harry, one of the founders of diesdas.digital, a studio for digital strategy and product development in Berlin. Over the last weeks we’ve been pushing two job postings of ours (interns and developers) and we were lucky to get roughly 15 applications. Since we’re still a small company of ~10 people we naturally don’t have a dedicated HR department yet, so it was on me to sift through the applications, organize most interviews and conduct a few. Here are some observations I made.

Hi, I’m a dog. What am I doing?

0. What do we even call this job?

I’ve always loathed the term “HR”, as I don’t see humans as resources, but it’s a catchy abbreviation, so it stuck with most people. In an attempt to appear less corporate a few companies I know switched to Talent Management or Talent Acquisition or Employee Engagement. Any better than HR? I’m on the fence, as all those highlight different aspects of the role. Let’s use Team Development from now on, which has the problem of being easily confused with business development or software development, but is at least a little less menacing and encompasses caring for the existing team, as well as hiring. 🙃

As always this post is interspersed with loosely related photos from semi-interesting things that happened last week in our office. Like people sitting and walking.

1. Job postings are hard

When I published our internship job posting, I sent out this tweet with it:

I called it my favorite literary genre because job postings say so much about the company writing them, even without the author intending to do so. It’s all super nuanced: You want to convey dedication without making it daunting, convey fun at work without falling into the usual clichés of ping pong tables and muesli bars, convey company culture without turning people away who are different. You want to be specific enough to get the right applications, without making it so narrow that nobody applies. It’s a tricky balance act and there is a lot to read between the lines.

I decided to keep ours friendly, tongue-in-cheek and honest, with a few team photos, hoping to give a good impression of what it would be like to work with us. We use the same language as in all the blog post we write, so it (hopefully) feels authentic and goes naturally with the rest of our communication efforts. Too often there’s a huge gap between how a company usually communicates and how they write their job postings. We try to avoid that, which is of course easy for us because we’re still a rather small team which makes it easy to coordinate.

However, the important take-away is: Job postings reveal so much about the culture and inner workings of your company, that you have to treat them as first class citizens of your corporate communications. For a lot of people they are the first touchpoint with your company.

Mounting some pinboards in the office. Why is nothing ever done?

2. Interviews are hard

Over the last years I’ve interviewed dozens of people, but I still find it hard to bring structure and clarity to the process. Every situation is different, there usually isn’t a clear agenda and you just have to go with the flow. What makes this tricky: Some people excel in interview situations while others are super uncomfortable… in any case, the interview is rarely a sound indicator of how things would unfold later on. It might help to bring people back for a second time or do a day of test working in the office, but these activities also take up a lot of time. However, there are rarely shortcuts; if you want to grow your team in a sane way, then one simply has to invest the time to find and evaluate more people than fit your calendar. Which brings us to the next point…

We occasionally wireframe stuff and I simply love this style. 😅

3. My goodness, all this consumes a lot of time.

Last week I spent close to 50% of my time responding to applications, arranging appointments, inviting people, explaining how to get to the office, making coffee, following up after the interview, Skype calling people who couldn’t visit us in person, discussing the applications with my partners. This stuff takes up a tremendous amount of time, but it’s necessary to put it in: Just as I don’t want to read copy&pasted applications, applicants can (and should) expect quick replies, being treated with respect and a smooth process.

After all an application always goes both ways in the sense that as a company, we’re also applying to the candidate.

At Creative Mornings Berlin.

4. Making decisions

After doing all these activities for a while it seems to become normal to spend this much time writing emails, looking at portfolios, discussing about the pros and cons of different candidates. However, it’s important to make decisions at some point and move on. There’s never the perfect candidate and one shouldn’t get lost in the search for them. It’s also a good reminder that people aren’t complete when you meet them, so somebody lacking a desired skill might be able to grow into that position or role.

So we sat down at the end of last week, wrote all the names on sticky notes, looked at whom we had in front of us and made decisions about whom to pursue and whom to decline. That’s tough, but it’s in the nature of this process, that one has to make compromises and not everyone can win.

Meeting room situations.

Bonus round: Six tips for better applications

I’ve seen many applications, at different companies, for different types of jobs, but the same mistakes crop up everywhere. Here’s a list what makes my life easier when scanning applications and therefore more likely to get a positive response:

  • Send a well written email that is tailored to the company you’re applying for. This should go without saying, but if I sense you just copy & pasted your application, then it’s pretty much already over.
  • Don’t assume the person opening your email understands what you do: Even if you’re a designer applying at a design studio, they still might have a recruiter with no design background whatsoever sifting through all applications, providing the designers with only a handful of candidates. Craft your application in a way that somebody from outside your field will get it. Assume as little as possible.
  • Include a portfolio or some references, even if they’re just links to projects you worked on. CVs are fine, but life facts aren’t nearly as interesting as the projects you worked on.
  • Include a photo: So many people get this one wrong… if you send us an application then that application puts one question into our heads: “What would it be like to work with this person?” And answering that question usually starts with a face. If you don’t have one in your application, then we’ll fire up Google ourselves trying to find one. Take control of what we see and include one.
  • Don’t send documents larger than 10Mb. A lot of small companies use Trello to organize their recruitment process (we certainly do) and Trello attachments are limited to 10Mb on free accounts. So a large file breaks our usual process of sharing details, in return making it less likely your application will make it to everyone’s screen.
  • Specify the timeframe. When could you start? How long do you want your internship to last? If you have to give your current employer N months notice, then that’s useful information for us.
Dogs and clients. Our favorite office visitors. 🙃

Case closed. For now. Or is it?

Alright, that’s it for this week. I enjoyed my adventures in Team Development over the last couple of weeks, writing job postings, going through applications, following up on them and booking meeting rooms for my colleagues for interviews. We’re happy with the decisions we made so far and we’re excited to see where it takes us as a team and as a company. That being said, of course the work is never over, even if the current wave of applications is taken care of. We always welcome talented people, even if there’s no specific job posting out there right now, and of course recruitment if only one aspect of this job as well: Professional development and regular feedback talks need to happen, as well as onboarding the newcomers.

If I took one thing away from our first-hand experience of employing people over the last year, then it’s that I have much more respect for the profession of Team Development now, compared to when I was an employee myself. This stuff is super hard, especially when doing it in a respectful and empathetic manner. So cut your HR department some slack next time you see them—they are probably doing a great job behind the scenes!


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Until next time. 💞

diesdas.digital is a nimble branding and product development studio in Berlin, featuring a multidisciplinary team of designers, developers and strategists, each with years of experience in branding, interaction design and programming. We create tailor-made digital solutions with an agile mindset and a smile on our faces. You can hire us — let’s work together and make rad internet stuff! 🙌

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