The first three weeks of our hiring timeline

How to copy our great hiring process, step by step

We recently hired our 9th full-time employee. The Hearken team is proud to have developed a transparent, collaborative, and well-defined system for hiring that attracted a diverse pool of strong applicants. We learned a lot from others out here on the Internet about best practices when recruiting and hiring, so we wanted to give back and share what we learned.

The pool of candidates who applied was excellent: most had the experience we were asking for, and the demographic makeup of candidates reflected our outreach efforts: More than a third of applicants identified as people of color, and about one-sixth identified as LGBTQIA. More about those stats at the end.

This is a step-by-step guide to how to do this same hiring process yourself, from ideation to making an offer. We give insights about what made this process strong, what we would have changed, and share some anecdotes along the way.

No one on our team has much hiring experience, but we banded together for the cause and did our research. But you may be asking yourself: Who’s to say this advice is worth anything?

Well, what does our newest team member, Janine Anderson, have to say?

“From the perspective of someone who went through this whole process on the other side, this was, truly, the most pleasant and straightforward hiring experience I’ve ever gone through — and I would have felt that way even if I hadn’t been offered the job at the end. If I were now to be in a position hiring someone elsewhere, I’d be pushing that enterprise to be this intentional with the hiring process.”

And even people who we didn’t hire had nice things to say about the process. From one applicant, responding to our rejection email:

“Applying for this position has been a delight and unlike any experience I’ve had in terms of feedback and timeline information. It should be industry standard and I just wanted to commend your team for that.”

Table of contents for this post:

  • Quick overview of steps we took
  • Deep dive into each step
  • tl;dr outline of what docs we created
  • Overview of applicant stats
  • What we’d do differently next time
  • What we’d like applicants to do differently next time
  • Reading list about hiring best practices

The 11 steps Hearken took to hire our latest team member. (Quick overview)

Step 1: Define the job in writing.

Step 2: Define the application process and timeline.

Step 3: Write an outreach plan. Assign tasks and deadlines for sharing the job posting.

Note: The three steps above are the most important steps to getting good candidates. Do not rush them. It will take more time later if you do them poorly.

Step 4: Post job, execute outreach plan.

Step 5: Review applications, scoring each on a rubric.

Step 6: Of top scoring applications, move on to review their resumes, again scoring each on a rubric.

Step 7: Talk with the others reviewing the applicants and see who on average scored the highest. Choose several to interview. Reach out to those folks to set up interview times. Promptly notify everyone who is not advancing to the interview round.

Step 8: Write interview questions. Consider what you’re looking for in each answer.

Step 9: Complete first-round interviews. Have each member of the team independently rank the top people they’d advance to the next round. Discuss, from those that made the top spots, which to advance. Set up those second-round interviews. Promptly notify (with more personalized notes) everyone who is not advancing to the second round of interviews.

Step 10: Write second-round interview questions that address the weaknesses and concerns team members have about each candidate. Also write questions that aim to validate what you believe are the unique strengths of each candidate.

Step 11: Complete second-round interviews. Have team members independently rank their top choice. Discuss and come to consensus. Offer that person the job. After that person accepts accept, promptly call the other final round candidates to close the loop.


Deep dive into how each step looked for Hearken, and why we did it that way:

Step 1: Define the job in writing.

What it looked like for us:

We had hired for this same position almost exactly one year earlier, so we had a good place to start from. One member of the team took on the task of reviewing that job description and updating it to how the position looks now.

A few discussions needed to happen before the job description draft could be finished:

  • Are we prepared to have a fully-remote team member?
  • What strengths and skills were missing from our team?
  • Do we want someone with more experience and/or different experience than we have?
  • What kinds of experience do we value? (For us, that included a debate about whether “newsroom experience” needed to be in a traditional deadline-driven newsroom, or whether experience freelancing or working in content-creation outside of news would be just as valuable.)

After a draft of the job description was complete, we shared it with others in the company who should see it. We also had discussions with company leadership about whether we could list the salary range explicitly, and be clearer about benefits offered.

Why this step is so important:

Having a collaboration on the description that started on our team and allowed for feedback from other teammates served a couple of purposes.

First, it meant we could build consensus as a company about what we needed in our next team member. And it meant that as we created the rest of the hiring process, we knew exactly what we were looking for.

Second, it was valuable to learn from the mistakes we made in our last hiring process. Those who had most recently gone through it had the chance to share their thoughts about what to spell out more clearly this time around. For example, since this position had been budgeted at a specific salary, not a range, there wasn’t really room for negotiation. Given that, we thought it made sense to let candidates know up front what the salary would be, and save everyone on both sides the nerves of wondering about whether a negotiation would arise. It also allowed us to feel confident that the people we spent time interviewing would be likely to accept an offer, since they knew the salary before applying.

Step 2: Define the application process and timeline.

What it looked like for us:

During two previous hires on this team, there was a Google Form application that candidates filled out, and then they e-mailed in their resumes. We decided to stick with that format. We reviewed and updated the questions on the application form.

We also made a timeline of milestones for the hiring process, and decided which to share publicly and which to just have on our calendars internally.

In creating the application, one of the most difficult discussions we had was about whether/how to ask candidates about their demographic information. We wanted to make sure we were attracting a diverse field of candidates, and the only way to know that for sure was to have people self-report. But it took a while to find wording that felt appropriate (and legal). We also discussed when/how/if we would see that information during the process of reviewing applications (and agreed to not consider it as part of the application review/score). Ultimately, we asked this question in an optional section at the end of the application:

Why using an application form is better than a cover letter, IMHO:

Once we decided the skills, values, and ways of thinking that mattered for a person in this role, it was easy to build a set of pointed questions that got at what information we needed. This meant applicants didn’t have to write a (oft-dreaded) cover letter, and we didn’t have to try to read and parse through those (oft-useless) cover letters. We were able to be transparent about what information about their experience was most valuable to us, and they had the chance to deliver just that.

By including up front when the application was going to close (and then closing the form so it’s impossible to apply), there was no ambiguity about whether we were still accepting applications.

Step 3: Write an outreach plan. Assign tasks and deadlines for sharing the job link.

What it looked like for us:

We made a list of almost 70 places/people that we wanted to contact and ask them to share the application or send candidates our way. We ended up reaching out to 50 of those 70.

These are the columns of the spreadsheet where we tracked our progress:

  • Who to send it to (person or group)
  • Who is sending it (which member of the team is responsible for making this happen)
  • Sent (mark X)
  • Notes
  • Reach out as connector (person who might be an ambassador for us to this group, or whose name we can drop when reaching out)

To get these emails sent out and posts to jobs boards up, we scheduled two work sessions where all three members of our team sat down and did the work at the same time. Doing these tasks takes time and it was important to us to make sure it got done.

We put specific people on the list (college professors, people we know from conferences, etc.) and names of places where people who might be qualified hang out (Slack groups, Facebook groups, listservs, etc.). But we also wanted to make sure we reached outside our network (more on why below), so we also included job boards — both paid and unpaid — and particularly considered which boards might reach candidates that we wouldn’t reach otherwise. We paid to post our job on the ONA job board and JournalismJobs.com. We also talked to several colleges and universities and asked them to share it on their job boards, and many did.

We also wrote a Medium post introducing the members of our team to the potential applicants, to let themselves get to know us a little more (and hopefully be less afraid to apply). Plus that was one more place linking to our job posting, one more network of people who would hear that we’re hiring.

Why it’s important and what to keep in mind:

Getting down in writing who we would contact (both inside and outside our networks) and where we would post the job was a helpful foundation. We’d heard from others who have recruitment and hiring experience, like NPR’s Doug Mitchell, that the most important groundwork in getting a diverse pool of applicants is being conscientious about cultivating your networks long before you actually open a position. This opens doors to people who will help disseminate your job, and who might apply themselves, long before you know you need to hire.

Between the three of us on the team and with help from folks across the rest of the company, we put together a respectable list of connectors and channels to spread the job. Making this into a group activity helped us to be creative, letting one person’s ideas spur more. It also helped us each to be accountable for promoting it widely.

Because we’re a well-connected, equity-minded group, we made sure to have our list of contacts reflect the type of diversity that we wanted to end up with in our pool. We have made a conscious effort to make connections to and learn from the open and awesome people in our field. That paid off, because we had a willing group of people within our industry to vouch for the position and spread it.

It’s also key to find ways for the job to make it outside of your own networks as a company, (as far-reaching as they might be) by posting to the broadest possible channels. Within reason, of course. It’s not worth posting it in places where no qualified candidates would see it, maybe because they work in a different field or wouldn’t yet have the years of experience required.

We made sure to tweet at #ReignyDayJobs, a great Twitter repository of job opps, many in media, started by @ReignofApril. We made sure to put it places where journalists looking for work might happen upon it, and we knew that from own team members’ own past experience it can be as literal as places like JournalismJobs.com.

Ultimately, after looking back at our Google Analytics, we figured out what had driven the most traffic to the position. Individual referrals were a big source, whether a connector shared with just one person or posted to a listserv or Facebook group. Twitter was the single biggest driver of clicks. Media folks live there all day, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world does, too.

Step 4: Post job, execute outreach plan.

What it looked like for us:

We posted the job description on our website, and shared that link from our social accounts and in our newsletter. We posted the job on two paid job boards, as well. We left the job application open for one month. We did the bulk of our outreach plan in the first two weeks of the month, and then began reviewing applications.

Why it’s important:

The first step to getting a diverse pool of applicants beyond your own networks is actually advertising that your company has a position open, publicly, for all to see! You would (maybe not) be surprised about how few media companies take this first step. Leaving it open long enough for it to percolate through various networks is also key — we thought a full month was generous, and would recommend at least a few weeks.

Step 5: Review applications, scoring each on a rubric.

What it looked like for us:

When all was said and done, we received 113 applications. We had planned to review the applications in two batches — once about 10 days into the job being posted, and the rest after it closed. We ended up reviewing in three batches because of the high volume of applicants. The first batch had 41 applicants, the second batch had 22, the third batch had 50. Because of this system, we were interviewing some first batch applicants before some third batch applicants had even applied. That’s not a good or bad thing, just something to be aware of.

The rubric we used was very simple — for most questions it was a scale from 0 to 2. A couple examples:

Q1: Tell us about a newsroom or area of journalism that could benefit from Hearken. How and why?

Q1 rubric: Makes a strong argument and demonstrates understanding of Hearken’s value (0–2)

Zero meant the applicant didn’t understand what Hearken is / does

1 meant they sort of understand but don’t make a strong argument

2 means they they demonstrate a strong understanding of our work and make a strong argument for how we could benefit a newsroom

Q5: Tell us about a system you’ve developed to solve a problem in your life, workplace, or community.

Q5 rubric: Demonstrates strong capacity for problem solving, creativity, and / or strong organization skills (0–2)

Zero meant the applicant didn’t actually tell us about a specific example

1 meant that they told us about the problem but didn’t clearly explain how they solved it or their solution did not involve a system

2 meant they gave a great example and explained it well

After scoring the candidates, we totaled up their points. Each of the three members of our team scored the applicants separately, and we didn’t see each other’s scores until the scoring for the batch was complete. Then we averaged our scores for each applicant.

Why it’s important:

Although each of us scored the applications separately, the rubric gave us a set standard for scoring based on the same values. Reviewing applications separately allowed room for our individual judgment, while still staying accountable to our established metrics. Then averaging the scores for each candidate reduced the weight of any one person’s bias.

The application and rubric system allowed us to gauge whether the candidate understood our company’s mission and the role and whether they would add needed skills to the team.

We didn’t want to start by reviewing resumes because what mattered to us most was the applicants’ understanding of our mission and their passion for engagement work. If we started with resumes, we might be able to check off some experience-boxes, but then end up with a batch of people who miss the boat on our mission. Or, we might be discounting people who don’t seem to have all the experience on paper alone, but that clearly would be worth considering. Starting with applications allows a more wide-ranging group of people to shine through.

Step 6: Move on to review the resumes of only the top scoring applicants, again scoring each on a rubric.

What it looked like for us:

We set a point value cut-off for applicants. If someone’s average application score was below that point, we didn’t bother to look at their resumes. However, we did talk about where that cutoff point should be with each group, and were willing to hear appeals for any particular candidates who were near the cut-off point.

For batch 1, we reviewed resumes of 14 of the 41 applicants. For batch 2, we reviewed 6 of the 22. For batch 3, we reviewed 15 of the 50. So in the end, we looked about a third of the resumes that came in (35 of 116).

We scored resumes on only three criteria, which made it pretty quick:

  • Experience in newsrooms (0–2)
  • Experience with audience engagement or community management (0–2)
  • Experience in something outside our own experience/strengths (0–2)

0 = none, 1 = some, 2 = a lot

Same as with applications: we scored applicants’ resumes separately, then totaled their points and averaged the scores each team member gave them.

Why it’s valuable to do it this way:

Our system of averaging and then open discussion meant that if one of us felt strongly about a particular candidate, they would not get cut before this phase. It was great to go into the resume step having read the applications, thus having a deeper sense for each person. This rubric and scoring for resumes helped us build consensus quickly within our narrowed-down list of people. We were able to score the resumes pretty objectively based on the rubric — you either check off a box or you don’t — and then average those scores to get the clear answer.

But again, we still had an open dialogue that held multiple factors in mind. For some applicants, their resume clearly revealed that they didn’t have enough practical experience for this particular role at this time, and we were able to cut them. For others in more of a grey area, we allowed room for more discussion: Perhaps they lacked years of practical engagement experience but had blown us away at the application phase. Even with a pretty clear sense of the experience we wanted, we had an open discussion that allowed room for flexibility and for anyone’s enthusiastic feelings about a candidate. We considered whether a candidate from a historically discriminated-against group may not have a title or position that accurately reflects their work and potential, and how we can consider those candidates on equal footing with others who may have been given more opportunities/promotions/titles for similar types of work.

Step 7: Talk with the others reviewing the applicants and see who on average scored the highest. Choose several to interview. Reach out to those folks to set up interview times. Notify everyone who is not advancing to the interview round.

What it looked like for us:

We interviewed 10 people in the first round. Three from batch 1, three from batch 2, and four from batch 3. We picked those people because they either had one of the highest combined scores and/or because there was something about their application that made them an exceptionally impressive candidate (like having experience that was especially relevant and valuable to our team).

In the application, we asked what the best time of day / day of the week was for an interview, so it was easy for us to reach out and schedule those with candidates.

One member of our team notified each applicant once they were ruled out (so, if they didn’t advance from application scoring to resume scoring, or from resume scoring to interview). There was a column in the spreadsheet of applications called “rejection sent” where she could track her progress.

The inbox after we sent emails to the candidates to notify them they were not advancing to the interview round.

Why it’s important / what to keep in mind:

We wanted to be as quick as possible about updating anyone who didn’t move forward. We’ve heard and experienced horror stories of folks hanging in limbo for months waiting to get a definite no, even after the position has been filled. It was important to us to be as transparent as possible about our timeline and to be decisive enough to let a batch of people go. We are a small team of people who have other full-time jobs to do. We figure that if we’re able to hold ourselves to this standard, bigger companies should be able to manage timely feedback, too.

Step 8: Write interview questions and a list of what you’re looking for in each answer.

What it looked like for us:

We started off with questions we’d asked in past hiring processes, revised a few, and added some new questions to address specific needs of our team at this time. We had 9 questions, plus the important “What questions do you have for us?” We aimed to leave ⅓ to ½ of the interview time for the candidates to ask us questions, and they all were able to fill as much time as we gave them.

Then for each question we wrote down what we’re aiming to learn by asking the question. For example:

Question: Tell us about a time that you evolved your actions/job description based on a need you saw within your organization.

Goal: Understand how well they’ll work in a startup environment. Gauge initiative and flexibility.

Looking for: Someone who has some kind of intrapreneurial experience. Someone who’s transformed an aspect of their workplace or identified a need in their workplace and taken the initiative to build a position that meets that need.

Another example:

Question: The most crucial part of our interaction with many journalists is helping convince them that engagement is a worthwhile effort, and enabling believers to institute wider culture change in their newsrooms. Tell us about a time when you persuaded coworkers or bosses to do something in your newsroom differently, and what did you learn from that interaction?

Goal: See how they handle difficult situations, how they communicate.

Looking for: People who think in terms of systemic change. A thoughtful approach to teaching/communicating (not an edict). Effectiveness/resilience (if unsuccessful on first try).

Why it’s important:

Like with our rubrics for the application and resumes, we wanted to set a fair and consistent yardstick by which we were measuring each candidate. But interviews shouldn’t be one-size-fits all. So we always asked follow-ups and at least one question that was in response to their particular application or resume.

Step 9: Complete first-round interviews. Decide which candidates advance from the team’s top choices. Set up those second-round interviews. Notify everyone who is not advancing to the second round of interviews with a more personalized email.

What it looked like for us:

We went old school and each wrote down our top choices on a piece of paper (without discussion) and then held up our lists for the rest of the team to see and discuss. It helped (time-wise) to not discuss all 10 candidates, only the top few who had managed to impress all three of us. Narrowing it down to only two or three for the second round was a challenge, so we ultimately asked for feedback from someone else in our company to help us keep the list short.

Why it’s important and what to keep in mind:

We have a horizontal team that operates through consensus, so every member of our team had to agree at this phase. We also needed to agree because we all have to work with this new hire. Fortunately, we had similar top rankings for the first round.

Step 10: Write second-round interview questions that get at weaknesses/concerns team members have about each candidate. Also write questions that aim to validate what you believe are the unique strengths of each candidate.

What it looked like for us:

We had 8 questions that we asked all second-round candidates, and from 3 to 6 candidate-specific questions. And again we left time for questions from the candidates, but several used up their questions in the first round so this round it didn’t take up as much time.

Why it’s important / what to keep in mind:

The candidate-specific questions were important to address any concerns that cropped up the first time. Overall, the second round were people we felt confident would like this role and succeed in it, and we had to get down to a finer point. We needed to be armed with whatever information we’d want to use to make a final decision.

Step 11: Perform second-round interviews. Have team members independently rank their top choice. Discuss and come to consensus. Ask for references. Check references.

What it looked like for us:

We again wrote down our rankings of the candidates. Then we held up our slips of paper, and started talking through each of our rankings. Once again, we all agreed on our top candidate, but we still had a long and drawn out conversation to ensure we were making the right decision. So make sure to leave plenty of time for discussion!

Our CEO asked for the references of our top candidate and performed those reference checks. It was a chance for her to make sure there were no bad surprises lurking in the past behavior of the candidate, and to feel reassured that past colleagues agreed that this person would make a swell addition to our team.

Why it’s important / what to keep in mind:

This is the moment to speak or forever hold your peace. It was an opportunity to talk through our final decision and air any last minute concerns or questions as a group.

Step 12: Offer that person the job. After they accept, make phone calls (not emails) to all other final candidates.

What it looked like for us:

The offer and the acceptance happened from a Friday to Monday (pretty standard, as far as we know). Then once we had the acceptance in hand, one member of the team took on the unenviable job of calling each of the other finalists. We didn’t want to make this rejection by email or by voicemail. Unfortunately, that did mean we had to leave a few suspenseful voicemails, which is not ideal, either.

Why it’s important / what to keep in mind:

Having spent two hours interviewing someone, the least you can do is give them a call if they didn’t get the position! (We read this piece for inspiration at this stage.) It’ll strengthen you, so just go for it. You never know when you might want to hire that person for another opening or another role entirely. Your goal here is to maintain positive vibes and keep the door open for future opportunities. However, make sure not to get their hopes up or keep them in waiting about an imminent possibility unless there really is one. You want to maintain positive regard for each other, not to keep people on the hook.

(Want to meet the person who impressed us throughout this process and got the job? Janine Anderson shares why she left a wonderful newsroom to join Hearken’s ranks as an engagement consultant.)


tl;dr: Here are all the docs we created:

  • Job description Google Doc
  • Job application questions Google Doc and then Google Form
  • Outreach plan Google Sheet
  • Application form responses Google Sheet
  • Rubric Google Sheet
  • First round interview questions Google Docs
  • Second round interview questions Google Docs

Pro-tip: Google’s templates for a lot of these resources can be a good place to start.


When we followed this process, here’s who applied

Of those who chose to answer optional questions about their demographics:

  • 76 people identified as women, 27 people identified as men, 1 identified as gender non-binary
  • 40 people identified as being people of color
  • 21 people identified as LGBTQIA
  • 2 people identified as disabled

Considering that we had 116 applicants, that means:

  • Two-thirds of our applicants were women
  • One-third of our applicants were people of color
  • Nearly one-fifth of our applicants were LGBTQIA

(Also, to be clear, these categories are overlapping, since these are three different attributes of a single person — gender, race, sexual orientation. So that’s why the numbers add up to more than 100%. They aren’t intended to be added together.)

All in all, we found that the applicant pool was very strong and diverse.

Of the 10 finalists we interviewed: Five were women of color, four were white women, one was a man of color. We hadn’t looked at their responses to the optional demographics questions when we scored their applications and resumes, so this majority-POC, majority-women pool of top applicants came from them being excellently qualified and writing a strong application, and from the success of our outreach strategy.


What we’d do differently:

  • Tell the applicants that we’d be looking at their application answers first, so they shouldn’t assume we have knowledge of what’s on their resume when writing answers.
  • Stagger the times when we each ranked applicants, and if an applicant scored particularly low by the first reviewer, not waste anyone else’s time reviewing that same applicant. It can be as simple as having someone start an hour or two before everyone else so that the others can skip low-scorers as they move through.
  • Schedule more time for reviewing applications and resumes. We blocked out a couple of hours on a couple of days. It took more than 8 hours each for us to review and score the 100+ candidates applications plus the resumes of 35 of those candidates.
  • Send interview candidates at least one of two of the bigger questions well in advance so they can prepare, so we can get a sense of how they speak when they know what’s coming. (Part of this specific job is also being able to answer questions when you don’t know what’s coming, so we didn’t stress it too much this time, but maybe next time.) It can help us sift out what’s nerves vs. what’s lack of preparation.
  • Give ourselves more flexibility in our promises to candidates between first interviews and making an offer. We think we should have been less transparent about the dates that people would hear from us about whether they made it to the next round. There was a moment when we wished we could keep more people in the mix longer in case second round interviews leveled the field rather than widened the gap. We ended up waiting to reject two candidates until the offer was accepted, even though those candidates didn’t do second round interviews. They were just floating without an update for almost two weeks, which couldn’t have felt good for them and definitely didn’t feel good for us.
  • Refine our rubric. We realized (too late) that we could use a metric to evaluate candidates’ communication styles: Does this person use an appropriate tone in their writing? Do we get the sense that they could communicate in the “voice” of our company to our customers? Maybe we could add another score to account for the intangible sense that a candidate wouldn’t jive or communicate well on our horizontal team or with clients. We chose not to interview one “perfect score” candidate that we all had reservations about because of this issue.

What we’d recommend candidates do differently:

  • Answer the application questions! An unreasonable number of applicants wrote responses on the application that didn’t actually answer the question we asked. It doesn’t matter if what they wrote was interesting. If it didn’t answer the question, they scored poorly. Answering questions well is a large part of the job we were hiring for, so failing to answer an application question was an expellable offense. (Example: When we said: “Tell us about a newsroom or area of journalism that could benefit from Hearken. How and why?” Some people just gave a newsroom name, but didn’t say how or why. Other people just gave us their life story / pasted in their resumes.)
  • Follow directions. If the instructions say to email a specific address, using a specific subject line, with your resume attached, do that. Don’t use a different subject line, or send it to a different email, and expect us to go looking for it. (We did go look for it, and still considered it, but ticking off your reviewers immediately before they score your resume isn’t a smart move.)
  • Prepare for interviews. We were lucky that everyone we interviewed had done their homework. Sometimes a lot of homework! But from past experience this isn’t always the case, so worth noting here again. Learn about the company, and have questions prepared to ask the interviewers.
  • Answer questions in interviews, too. Again, make sure you’re actually answering the question. If that means asking for clarification or pausing to gather your thoughts before you start, that’s OK! We paid close attention to the way that the interviewee communicated: whether they understood what our questions were, clarified when confused, and were able to provide us with the relevant answer. How well the interviewee packaged the right information in response to the question at hand was, in our view, a predictor of how well they would be able to do this job: to diagnose needs and communicate the right information when partner journalists ask questions and need resources.

We hope that you find this guide helpful in your own hiring processes. It’s always a work in progress, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but hopefully by continuing to share our successes and failures, we’ll all improve.

Our hiring process reading list:

What other resources or good reads on hiring should we add to the list above? Let us know on Twitter: @wearehearken.

Thanks to Summer Fields and Julia Haslanger for writing this post, and to Ellen Mayer and Jennifer Brandel for editing it.

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