Recruiting Best Practices
As you scale from hiring 10 people a year to 10 people a week, a small number of recruiting processes can go a long way in maintaining a high bar and expediting key hires.
Write a Job Description for Every Role
Many companies start off recruiting via personal networks for a small number of roles — for example, engineers and designers. As a company scales beyond individual contributors in a handful of functions, it is important for people hiring for a role to understand what is important in the person they hire. For example, if you are hiring a business development person for the first time, what should people look for in that person and role? An engineer on the interview panel might not know the difference between a business development employee and a salesperson. Clarifying skill set and role is important so everyone is looking for the same type of candidate.
Ask Every Candidate the Same Questions
For each candidate for a given role, ask the same or similar interview questions. This will allow you to calibrate candidates across identical questions.
Assign Focus Areas to Interviewers Prior to the Interview
Often you want to interview candidates for specific aspects of their role. For example, you might interview a product manager on their product insights, past accomplishments, culture fit, etc. Rather than have every person the candidate interviews with ask the same set of questions for every area, you could have three or four interviewers each focus on a different area that you assign to them before the interview. This will allow for an in-depth view of each area versus a shallow view of all areas.
Additionally, if you bring the person back for a second round of interviews, you can double down on areas of concern with more focused interviews.
Develop Work-Product Interviews
For some roles, the best way to assess a candidate (outside of direct prior knowledge from working with them) is to have them develop a work product as part of the interview. This could happen either on-site or as a take-home assignment. For example, an engineer could do a coding exercise, or a designer could be asked to do a quick set of wireframes or workflow for a hypothetical product. A marketing person could be asked to generate a hypothetical product marketing plan. In general, it is good to avoid asking for work or output on an existing company product to avoid the perception of getting free labor out of a candidate.
Score Your Candidates
As each person finishes their interview, it is good for your interviewers to enter feedback about the candidate before they talk to other interviewers. This avoids people biasing each other and forces each interviewer to take a written stance on a candidate. You can also adopt a numeric ranking system (for example, one to five points) or a simple “hire, no hire” scale. The key is consistency, as well as providing interviewers with a clear definition of what these outputs should mean. Consistent scoring can allow you to quickly reject or pursue candidates. In general, your scoring system prevents interviewers from having the easy out of a “neutral” option. Hence the “hire/no hire” framework would lack a “no opinion” option.
Every company I have ever worked for or with has realized that one of the biggest determinants of candidate conversion is how quickly you interview them and how quickly you can make an offer. Beyond conversion, a key metric to track is how long candidates spend in each step of the interview process. You should optimize for shorter times between each step and for rapidly getting offers out.
Check Candidates’ References
Reference checks are often the clearest signal on a candidate. You should reference-check everyone. Be careful with businesspeople — they tend to provide friends in their organization as references and in general will get glowing recommendations from their friends. I have found engineering and other functions to be more direct/honest when providing references for their friends. To compensate for this, try to broaden the scope of references you check for businesspeople to other functions to ensure clarity of their skills and areas for improvement.
Interview Diverse Candidates
Ensuring diversity (of gender, race or ethnic background, sexual orientation, social class and background, and more) in your employee base and interview process is the subject of numerous books and blogs. One excellent resource for this is Joelle Emerson’s Paradigm Strategy website, which focuses on diverse hiring practices.
There is a lot of detail and nuance in getting to a diverse workforce. A few key items:
- Ensure that you have diverse candidates for each role. You will never have a diverse employee base if you do not ensure diverse candidates in your funnel. Building a diverse funnel means not only sourcing a broader spectrum of candidates, but also thinking through the language in your job descriptions, how employees are represented on your website, and other factors that will affect who applies.
- Focus on eliminating biases from your interview approach. A number of biases exist in standard interviewing approaches. A simple example would be whether the name and gender of candidates is blinded at the résumé review stage.
- Provide benefits that support the needs of underrepresented employees. Paid parental leave is one simple example. Think through your broader potential employee pool and what benefits would support their ability to focus on their work at your company.
For a more in-depth resource, I recommend you read this white paper from Paradigm.
Scaling a Recruiting Organization
The use of recruiters by a startup will shift dramatically over the lifetime of the company.
As a small startup—say, three to 10 people—using a recruiter is usually not as useful as direct founder or employee networking or using LinkedIn and other tools. But as your company scales into the hundreds and thousands of people, you will want to bring specialized recruiters, sourcers, university program managers, and so on in house and potentially use retained external recruiters for executive hires.
Early Days: Your Team as Recruiters
Early on, the best approach to recruiting is to have people on your team actively refer people from their network. Similarly, many founders and early employees spend as much as 30 to 50 percent of their time (like when scaling from three to 15 people) on recruiting. There is no easy fix around it. You need to just grind through large numbers of people (via networking, LinkedIn, friends, etc.) to find the handful of people to join your team.
Some startups I know successfully hire someone who is a mix of office manager, social media manager, and recruiting coordinator. This person will often spend a lot of time scheduling referred candidates and reaching out to passive candidates via email and LinkedIn. Once the candidate expresses interest, this person passes them off to a founder or hiring manager.
Initial Scaling: The In-House Recruiter
Once a company hits a certain scale and is growing fast enough (adding 15 to 20 people per year or more), hiring in-house recruiters makes a lot of sense. The recruiter initially plays a few different roles that in larger-stage companies will get split up, including:
- Running the recruiting process (scheduling, collating feedback, coordinating with the hiring manager, etc.).
- In some cases, delivering offers (although I think hiring managers or founders can often do this).
The importance of the hiring manager and other executives being involved in the recruiting process (through informal conversations, extending offers, lunch meetings, etc.) cannot be overemphasized, no matter how strong a recruiting org you have. The candidates will always want exposure to people in key roles in the company. (Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook is famous for his “closing walks” with midlevel candidates.)
High-Growth: Multiple Recruiting Org Roles
When a company is growing really fast, the set of roles on the recruiting team tends to fragment, and you need to start specializing the types of people on your recruiting team: sourcers to find candidates, recruiters to manage the process, candidate researchers to assess potential hires, recruiting marketers to create an inbound pipeline, and university program recruiters to source students.
Executive Hires: Retained Recruiter
For executive hires, a retained search using an executive recruiting firm may work well. While you will continue to mine your investors and employees for leads, specialized recruiting firms have networks tailored to fill your general counsel, CFO, or other role that may simply be outside of your founder network.
Many companies make the mistake of spending months building a pipeline for recruiting the very best people, but then spend little time actually onboarding them to make sure they are successful.
Here are some simple ideas your office manager or head of people can try as you onboard new people.
Send a Welcome Letter
Send a welcome letter to the new employee — and cc all the teams that person will be working closely with. The letter will explain the person, their role, who they will report to, their goals for the quarter, as well as potentially one interesting fact about them that they are willing to share. The idea is to ensure that each new person has a clear role and responsibilities and that the rest of the organization is aware of these things. The interesting fact creates an ice-breaker to help co-workers start a conversation with the new hire.
Create a Welcome Package
Create a checklist of items that each new person receives as they show up for their first day at the company. This should extend beyond the utilitarian items of laptop and email address. Include a book on management the company aspires to emulate, a T-shirt or hoodie, and even a onesie, if the new hire has a newborn. You can also include a handwritten (or signed) note welcoming the individual to the company.
Use the Buddy System
High-growth companies tend to have their own jargon, internal tools, and random processes that are unique to them. Pair a new hire with a “buddy” — someone who is not in the reporting chain of command with the new hire who can take them to lunch, introduce them to people, and, importantly, answer any “stupid” questions they may have. Buddies tend be paired for one to three months.
Make Sure They Have Real Ownership
The biggest obstacles to happy employee onboarding tend to be 1) a bad manager/employee relationship, and 2) a lack of feeling of ownership for the area they were hired to work on. The previous owner of a project may linger longer then is needed in order to get credit for prior work done. Acknowledge their work, but ramp them down as quickly as is reasonable so the new employee can find their legs.
Each manager can set 30-, 60-, and 90-day goals for new employees. This gives a sense of direction, context, and structure for the new employee.
Old-Timer Syndrome and Early Employees
Some of the most valuable long-term employees of a high-growth company join early on. These employees often have earned the trust and admiration of the founders and CEO, and they have the cultural context and long-term mission of the company in mind, which enables them to achieve outsized successes in a high-growth startup. Examples like Susan Wojciki (Google employee number 16 and eventual CEO of YouTube) and Chris Cox (who joined Facebook as an engineer in 2005 and is now chief product officer) come to mind.
Unfortunately, some early employees also dramatically overstay their optimal tenure at a company as it scales. They may have gotten too rich and lost their hunger or simply not scaled their skill set and mindset along with the company. Some cling to the past, when they had lunch every day with the CEO and had input into every company decision. Employees like these should probably change roles, quit, or be managed out.