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Our “No Assholes” Rule

Know your company’s values and hire for them exclusively.

Our “No Assholes” Rule

Know your company’s values and hire for them exclusively.


At Inkling, we have a “no assholes” rule. It’s a broad idea, but people here know what it generally means. It’s a subjective test of values that you have to pass in our interview process, and if you don’t pass, you can’t work here. The “no assholes” rule has helped shape Inkling’s personality, and it isn’t related to the skill-level of the people we hire.

Skills are nonetheless critically important, of course. Candidates must be able to do what the job requires, and must show potential to grow within the role. Skills are relatively easy to evaluate: coding challenges for engineers, design portfolio reviews for designers, and business case discussions for marketers, et cetera. There’s usually a recipe.

Values are a different beast. They’re subjective, and therefore harder to assess consistently. A “value” is a behavior a person generally favors over some other behavior, like saving time versus saving money, speed of execution versus attention to detail, or harmony versus productive conflict. They are not absolutes, but relative tendencies. In the simplest terms, values are the default behaviors you’d expect of someone in the workplace. They’re neither good nor bad and, taken together, they shape a company’s unique personality.

In a values-driven approach to company building, you should hire for skills that are complementary to your team’s existing skills, but hire for values that are consistent. Skills are specific to a given job; values should be global across the company (1). If you do it right, you’ll achieve a low attrition rate, hire people who enjoy working with one another, and establish an efficient hiring process that becomes self-optimizing as others identify the patterns of your approach. Skills might make or break a candidate, but values make or break a company.

So what, exactly, is a value? Here are three examples.

Thoughtfulness

People who value thoughtfulness tend to move a little more slowly. They tend to consider their actions before taking them. They tend to listen carefully to the people around them, and tend not to react quickly to stimuli. They’re usually empathetic and consider other points of view. (2)

You can identify this value in a candidate in a number of ways. You’ll see a healthy talk-to-listen ratio in the interview, and they’ll ask you reflective questions about your business. They’ll pause and think in conversation, leaving comfortable breaks of silence. And you’ll find their responses to be more concise and directly relevant to the topic you’re discussing.

In the workplace, they may frustrate people by not showing a sense of urgency, even if they actually have one. And you have to be careful with overly thoughtful salespeople, for example, because they may seek explanations for a sales failure when the correct action is to simply move on to a new prospect. There are tradeoffs in prioritizing any value.

By contrast, some companies prioritize a drive for results over thoughtfulness, and they get a different kind of employee. Take Zynga’s “revenue right fucking now” attitude. It’s neither good nor bad, just a different default prioritization. People there are thoughtful, too, but their priority is to just get it done.

Appreciation for Design

When you walk into a company’s office, you know whether they value design. Amazon is famous for its door desks, a sign of their deep frugality, which they prioritize over attractive, inviting design. Amazon.com is an ugly website, but a ruthlessly effective one. At Inkling, when you walk into our lobby, you see design. When you look at our software, you see design. Even internal presentations are usually nice to look at. We think hard about this aspect of our value proposition to employees and customers.

Candidates show a lot in the style of their resume: I’ve never seen a talented designer show up with something in Times New Roman, nor a businessperson who values design. Their hair, their attire and their general appearance matter. They often evidence an inability to ignore imperfection (3), sometimes explicitly (e.g., by describing frustration with a detail) or implicitly (e.g., by adjusting things on the table in front of them into a neat arrangement). If they brought a notebook, how’s their handwriting? Sloppy or meticulous? You can learn a lot from these details before the candidate even speaks.

It’s a value, so the choice is personal to your company: it is good to be frugal. It is also good to design things. Amazon does both, but they hire people who tend to prioritize frugality. Inkling hires people who tend to prioritize design.

Community Orientation

There’s a lot packed into a value this broad, but it boils down to how people view themselves as part of a group. Are they loyal to their coworkers? Are they more likely to put the company’s interests above their own? Perhaps most importantly, when they’re in the dumps, do they recruit others to their unhappy state (e.g., telling others the boss is an idiot), or do they seek solutions (e.g., talk to their boss in search of a solution)? Community orientation is about attitude, and where your personal well-being ranks versus the group’s.

I ask candidates open-ended questions about previous workplaces and bosses. I listen to the attitude—positive or negative—in the response, and I watch body language. Are they sad that they’re leaving the people they liked? Or are they happy they’re leaving the people they didn’t? Did they smile at the idiosyncrasies of their coworkers, or did they roll their eyes? How did they view themselves as part of the group?

Community orientation doesn’t work well at companies that value internal competition as a driver for company results, something for which Microsoft is widely known.

When push comes to shove, most companies lack the resolve to reject candidates who demonstrate incredible skill when they also demonstrate a value misalignment. It is tough to turn down a talented candidate just because she made you a little queasy in the interview, but it’s that resolve that sets disciplined, values-driven companies apart.

A few tips on enacting a values-driven approach:

  • Know your key values. You only have room for a few, so make them simple, memorable and meaningful. They are likely an extension of the founder’s personality, and are therefore likely immutable anyway. You need to identify your values, not choose them.
  • To maintain consistency of interpretation, you generally need the same person to interview every candidate for values (4). Usually it’s the CEO. Consistency is key to building a strong company personality and reputation.
  • Invent a value-centric mantra that people can easily understand. “No assholes,” “Move fast and break things,” and “Deliver more than expected” are good examples. You can have more than one.
  • Hire slowly, fire quickly. Do not compromise on values. Take your time to assess candidates thoroughly, including solid references and thorough interviews. Don’t short-circuit the process, ever.
  • Trust your gut. Skills can be objectively assessed, but values are much more subjective. Things that bother you a little bit in the interview almost always blossom into much bigger issues after the employee is hired.

You should be willing to nix a candidate based on uncertainty alone. Experience teaches you that the consequences of hiring a misfit are usually much worse than taking longer to fill the role.

With consistency and time, the process becomes more automated from the CEO’s perspective. At Inkling, the management team has reached a common, if implicit, understanding of our values; the more obvious mismatches are excused from the process before they reach me. That allows me to interview everyone we’re seriously considering, which prevents us from hiring the occasional misfit who makes it to me nonetheless.

Values-driven hiring is as much about who you don’t hire as who you do. (“No assholes.”) Identify your key values (5), learn how to identify those values in candidates, and hire only the ones who align. Exceptions cannot be made for supernatural skill. Be ruthless and consistent, and you’ll build the kind of strong and self-reinforcing company personality that every great company has.

-m

Thanks to Dave Lieb, Josh Forman and Dan Gill for their thoughtful feedback on this post.

Notes

  1. Individual teams will have their own values, too, which typically complement the companywide values. Engineering will have values like “takes responsibility for code quality,” and marketing may value a deeper attention to detail than the company default. They should never be incompatible with the global values, but for that team, they’re just as important.
  2. This is not the same as the MBTI “Introvert” classification, but I think it’s related. They call those “preferences,” and I call these “values.” Theirs are objective and (supposedly) measurable, but values are subjective. An ENTJ does not necessarily dislike an ISFP, but the odds are that people with conflicting values will find it difficult and unhappy to work with one another. People of conflicting values will also sometimes judge each other unfavorably. (“He’s sloppy.” “She’s a prude.”) MBTI is useful for helping people work together effectively; I don’t think it’s generally effective as a basis for evaluating a candidate.
  3. Inability to ignore is not the same as the ability to see. Some people simply can’t ignore the imperfection they see in the world; it’s a curse and a skill.
  4. I will do a separate post on the art of the values-based interview, which is obviously the core of this approach. Can’t pack it into a single post. Too long. Tried. Failed.
  5. Don’t conflate your aspirations with reality. You might want to be a design-forward company, for example, but if you haven’t got the patience and innate will power to achieve that focus, then perhaps you’re actually a speed-oriented leader. Embrace it and make it a part of your values. Your values are who you are, not who you wish you were.