The 5 Non-Coding Tests You Should Always Give A Candidate Before Hiring Them
Here’s the truth: there are few decisions you’ll make as the head of a growing company that are more important than those related to hiring. Your company will only ever be as successful as your employees are effective.
The problem, of course, is that it’s almost impossible to determine which potential hires are going to further your company’s progress, and which are going to hold it back.
My co-founder and I have hired employees who looked incredible on paper — 10+ years of relevant industry experience, stellar educational background, impressive professional accomplishments — only to fire them six months later. At the same time, many of the hires who’ve been critical to our company’s success — whether they be engineers, designers, or project managers — were younger, less experienced, and less “polished.”
Over time, we’ve realized that the hires who grew into leaders and began driving results exemplified and shared certain intangible skills and mindsets that aligned with our values as a company.
What’s proved more important than an Ivy League education are things like passion, curiosity, grit, a desire to grow, and the ability to hit the ground running.
The question for other young companies thinking about this question then becomes: So how do you screen for these traits before making final hiring decisions?
Here’s what we did. Through a lot of trial-and-error, we developed a series of 5 tests that we make sure to run with every candidate during the interview process. The improvement we’ve seen in both performance and company morale is what made me want to write and share this.
So now, without further ado…
Test 1: Negative Feedback Test
The first — and maybe the most important — test is one designed to determine whether employees are able to take and grow from negative feedback.
The reason that skill is so important is because the goal of young startups, ultimately, is growth. Constructive feedback is crucial to that end. Employees who understand that will accept criticism, learn from it, and use it to improve, since that’s really the only way to get better at whatever it is you do.
On the other hand, if employees are not receptive to negative feedback — if it affects their morale and performance, or if they refuse to believe that they’re wrong or in need of coaching — whether it comes from a boss or from a peer, they’ll have a harder time adapting and growing. Having a team member who refuses to take advice from their peers can hurt the morale of other employees, nevermind waste a lot of their manager’s time. The worst scenario of this happening is when your team is small and the responsibility to give feedback is now bubbling up to the founder, a founder who may or may not even have the knowledge or experience to give this kind of feedback (e.g. an engineer giving feedback on visual design).
To screen for this specific scenario, during the in-person interview, we make it a special priority to have the negative feedback come from a peer (somebody they would work with if hired). This has become a crucial gauge for us to determine how well they will work in a team without constant managerial oversight. Having a team of engineers or designers that can run autonomously and self-police is truly the dream of any founder.
This is not to say that we aren’t looking for the candidate to defend their opinion. But there is definitely a good and a bad way to defend it.
The good way will garner the respect of all their peers and create a culture of continuous innovation through iteration, and the bad will make it so that their peers simply stop trying to offer their feedback — which runs us into that dreaded aforementioned scenario where the responsibility to provide feedback falls on the already overburdened shoulders of the manager.
Test 2: Email Test
The email test is designed to assess a potential hire’s commitment to the company, as well as how succinctly they communicate and organize their thoughts.
In short, we send an email to prospects after hours and request some sort of response or action from them, along with some kind of explanation or delineation of logic. We then assess both whether they respond — quickly — and how.
We do this because you can learn a lot about a person by how they write and structure their emails. But we also pay careful attention to the response time. At young startups, there are often a variety of fires that need to be put out at any given moment. You need your more foundational employees to be ready and able to act whenever called upon. If a prospect chooses not to respond to an important email for, say, several days — and, yes, this includes weekends and nights — we know they’re likely not the type of person we can rely on during tough times and likely not the right fit for a startup culture.
Test 3: Process vs. Product Test
Here is another important trait we look for in employees: whether they’re free-wheeling and creative, or creative but more methodical in the way they accomplish important tasks.
Ultimately, creativity is critical, but so is consistency and dependability, and the more process-oriented person will give you the latter. They couple their creativity with a proven ability to execute — and they can then explain their reasoning with logic.
I’ve found that unless you screen for this, you end up with purely “product” people who are skilled at bouncing ideas around a room, but are less inclined toward execution. When you ask them, “Hey, great idea, how do you want to start doing that?”, they simply don’t know.
In the world of young startups, ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.
Test 4: Proactivity Test
Next, we screen for proactivity.
We question: does the candidate follow up after the interview is over, or do they just go home? Are they asking questions during the interview? If you give them a project, are they able to make logical conclusions and assumptions based on research they go out and conduct on their own, or are they requiring a certain amount of micromanagement?
These questions are important because they show whether or not an employee can own processes reliably on their own. Employees at young companies need to carry their own weight. As much as we might want to, founders don’t have the time to micromanage or mentor.
Test 5: “Do They Give a Fuck?” Test
Finally, we come to the “Do they give a fuck?” test — or, the free time test.
This is an assessment, essentially, of what candidates do in their free time and, more particularly, whether they’re passionate about the work. For us (as a mobile gaming company), that means looking for candidates who are playing games, building tools for games, or just generally learning more about games and game design in their time away from their desks. As a founder, you need employees — especially early employees — to possess this sort of intrinsic passion about the work. If they do, you can rely on them to be there when you need them.
At the end of the day, these tests work. The things they screen for are important, especially for young startups.
Spotting them in a candidate — any kind of candidate — can save your company immense amounts of time and money. But even more importantly, these tests help founding teams more purposefully foster healthy and consistent company cultures — cultures that will sustain you through the inevitable ups and downs of startup life.