A Better Hiring Process
Traditional interview processes don’t work. Here’s a better way.
Most companies interview job applicants exactly the same way: Different members of the hiring team meet the candidate, ask them a series of questions and try to use the answers to decide if the candidate will be a good fit. In some roles, they ask the candidate to solve a brain teaser right there in the interview so they can watch them. In general, this process does not work.
Why does it not work? Unless you are hiring for a position where the job is just answering questions, or solving brain teasers while people watch, you aren’t really testing how well the person can do the job. As a result, hiring teams fall back on resumes and references to make decisions which leads to systemic issues like discrimination. The people you are most likely to hire for a position is someone who has had that same job before somewhere else, which shuts the door to people coming from non-traditional backgrounds.
Even worse, the Q&A style of interview allows for the unconscious bias of the interviewers to significantly influence the decision. Deciding if a given answer is good or bad involves a lot of interpretation and interviewers can interpret the same answer in different ways. This is one of the many reasons that companies lack diversity! There is no pipeline problem, there is a blockage in their pipeline that filters out people from diverse backgrounds.
A Better Approach
If you were to build an interview process without knowing anything about how interviews are currently done, what would it look like? You would probably ask the candidate to do the job and watch how well they do it. In fact, that’s exactly what you should do! We call these “work simulations” and they replace traditional Q&A interviews by putting the candidate in the role they are interviewing for to see how they do.
You have to be careful here. Some companies ask applicants to do “test projects” over many days which amount to free work. Many candidates can’t afford to spend days working on something for free, and even if they can, using their work is unethical. To build a good work simulation process we need to be respectful of the candidate.
Here is the process I have developed over my career, which balances the needs of the company and respect for the candidate into a reliable work simulation based interview process.
Step 0. Before We Start
Before even reviewing the first resume, you need to plan out the entire interviewing process. You need to create all of the materials needed for the entire process, which includes the following documents:
Job description for the position
Questions you plan to ask in Screening (Step 1) and the rubric for proceeding
The written exercise that will be used in the Interview (Step 2)
Rubric you will use to evaluate candidates after the Interview
Again, you need to create all of these before you start reviewing candidates. Bias often creeps into interview processes when teams develop their rubric or evolve the questions over the course of interviewing candidates. You need to avoid that by doing all the work up front.
You should meet with everyone who will interview a candidate BEFORE the interview to set expectations about the criteria for the position and what you expect them to review with the candidate. They should be familiar with the job description and rubric so they can keep them in mind during the interview, instead of inventing their own criteria. There is no excuse for wasting a candidate’s time with unprepared interviewers.
Finally, ensure that you will be as responsive as possible to candidates. The brand you build with candidates is formed through communications, honesty and how quickly you respond to them. If you don’t have the time to be hyper-responsive to candidates then you need to rethink your approach before you get started.
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Step 1. Screening
Screening involves reviewing resumes and talking to candidates to see if they are a good fit for your simulation. When reviewing resumes it can be useful to hide details about the candidate that are irrelevant to the job, such as location, gender, where they went to school, etc. to avoid any possibility of unconscious bias. There are many tools you can use for this, which also ensure your job descriptions are as inclusive as possible.
After a candidate is identified, you should speak with them by phone to ensure there is a high likelihood they will be able to complete the rest of the process. The goal of screening is not to evaluate their ability to do the job, but just to ensure they have a good chance of doing well in the simulation. This is an important difference since you can evaluate the latter over the phone, but not the former.
Failure to screen well risks wasting a lot of people’s time, so do this well. Apply the rubric you have already created and be consistent in its application.
Step 2. Written Challenges
Candidates should be provided with a written challenge that describes a problem they would likely face in the position, and given ample time to provide a written solution. Not all people work best in front of a whiteboard, so this is a chance for the candidate to show us what they can do in a low pressure, free form environment. The challenge should take no more than a few hours to prepare for, as any longer than that will be too much of a burden.
Great written challenges are problems your team has already encountered and solved in the past, so that everyone is very familiar with it. The challenge should provide enough background information for the candidate to understand, but be open enough for them to express themselves in the way they feel most comfortable. You are not testing if they will do the job the same way you would, you are testing if they can do the job well.
There are examples of great work simulation challenges and templates at the end of this post, available to paying subscribers!
By their nature, there is no “correct” answer to any of these challenges. That is a good thing! If your challenge has a right answer then you aren’t really open to candidates with unique approaches or working styles, you’re just looking for someone who fits a specific mold. The job of your interview team is to decide if the candidate’s approach to the problem fits the rubric.
Written solutions take all forms, ranging from code to documents to powerpoint presentations. If possible you should allow the candidate to choose their method of written solution as it tells you a lot about the candidate. Some people communicate better in long form documents while others prefer diagrams and slides. However they communicate best is what you want them to provide.
If a candidate refuses to do the written challenge, or clearly does not put any effort into it, then you should terminate the process here. Candidates will show you their interest in the position based on how they approach the challenge.
Everyone on the interview team should be given a few days to read and review the written solution. They should not need to waste the candidate’s time asking them to rehash their ideas, they should be ready to start every discussion from a common understanding.
Step 3. The Interview
The interview is a half-day period (2-4 hours) where the candidate is invited to a series of group and individual sessions that mimic a working day at the office or on video conferencing. All of these sessions should center on the written challenge and their written solution, and delve into different aspects of the problem, their proposed solution and the details therein. Your interview team should challenge the candidate, build on their ideas and extend the problem in news ways just like real working sessions.
The end goal of these sessions is not an answer, but an understanding of how the candidate works with your team. Were they defensive when their ideas were challenged? Were they equally effective in both group and individual meetings? Did they listen as well as talk?
For example, an Account Executive candidate might be asked to give a presentation to the sales team, meet with the VP of Sales and meet with members of the marketing team. All of those sessions would center on the written challenge and the work the candidate has already done, so that the candidate is never having to react in the moment and the discussion can go deep since everyone has done their homework.
It is also important that, during group sessions, the interview team members talk to each other as much as the candidate to show how the team dynamic works and to avoid putting the candidate in front of an “inquiry board”. This is a work simulation, so the team should act as if they are a team working on the problem together.
As soon as possible after the on-site interview, the interviewers should capture their thoughts in written form, assessing the candidate against the rubric. You do not want faulty memories to introduce yet another form of bias.
Step 4. Candidate Review
All members of the interviewing team for a candidate should meet as soon as possible after the interview to review the candidate. For everybody attending, you should review your notes from your interview, consider thoughtfully any unfair biases that you might have (either for or against the candidate).
The person making the hiring decision will lead the discussion and first ask everyone to share the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate in round robin fashion. After any necessary discussion ensues, the decision maker will ask everyone to provide a recommendation on whether to hire the candidate in the same round robin order used for feedback. This happens at the end so that all interviewers can learn from each other and everyone has a common knowledge base.
The hiring decision process is not a democracy, the hiring leader is the only one who will make the final decision. However, the input of the committee is the most important input into that decision making process and as such should be considered above all else.
Why does this process work?
Remember that the interview process is as much about selling the candidate as it is about us evaluating their skills. There is no better way to sell a candidate than to show them what it’s like to be on your team, which is exactly what this process does. At the same time you are watching how they would do the job, they are watching how you work. Very few companies provide such an opportunity and it will help you stand out.
At the same time, you have a rare opportunity to see exactly how this candidate would approach the position and work with your team. This simulation is a preview of the first half-day of their time on the job, and that should give you enough information to know if they can do the job well.
My gold standard of interview processes is when candidates that you reject for a position refer their friends, because they think so highly of your company they want others to have the opportunities they missed. I’ve had that happen with all of my companies following this process, in no small part because of how much it shows you respect the candidate.
There is no such thing as a perfect interview process. While this is better than traditional Q&A processes, there are many improvements you can make and likely even better processes being developed today. Whatever you use for interviewing, never be satisfied that it’s good enough. Challenge yourself to be better with every interview and your team will be better off for it.
Resources and Templates
Here are some examples and templates to make adopting this new kind of hiring process easy and fast. I’ve changed the details, but they are all based on real challenges used by real companies with great success.
It includes a mix of individual contributor positions (Engineers & Account Executives) and senior leadership (CROs & CMOs) all using the same process.