Open LinkedIn on any given day and you’ll find a post about how awful interview & selection processes are — from processes that are long & drawn out to the absence of any communication to candidates. What is bringing these issues to the forefront? We have a busy job market, with more open jobs than job seekers available. There is a new generation of job seekers, who represent a shift in values & expectations. And I know more than one frustrated recruiter who spends a lot of time consoling disheartened candidates.
One such LinkedIn discussion brought me to this question: What does your hiring process say about your company?
Your hiring process communicates a lot of information to a candidate about your company, its leadership, and its culture. What does yours say? Do you know? And is that the message you want to send? Is it aligned with your values and your brand in the marketplace?
I’ve chosen three common interview practices to explore. For each, I’ll define what they are, outline the hidden messages they send to candidates, and offer ideas for improvement.
Practice #1: A lot of interviewers (& interviews.)
This past weekend I heard from a candidate who was interviewed by nine (9!) different interviewers for one job. Nine 1-hour interviews for a middle management position in a manufacturing facility.
From his perspective, the conversation with the hiring manager was the best one — and the only one that added value to his decision-making. The rest were odd. The interviewers were unprepared, uninterested & uninviting. They hadn’t read his resume and didn’t know the job he’d applied for, they didn’t practice active listening or ask follow up questions, and they made no effort to make a professional connection beyond the interview hour. One interviewer, a tenured manager, did other work during the video-call (and admitted it to the candidate).
What you think this practice says to the candidate: We are thorough & inclusive, and we want you, the candidate, to meet & connect with people you’ll be interacting with.
What this practice unintentionally says to a candidate:
- Decisions at your company are by consensus, so progress is slow & likely more dramatic than it needs to be. It also implies a lack of trust — as in, we need a lot of people to talk to a candidate because we don’t trust ourselves to make a good decision, we don’t trust each other and have to do things ourselves, or we simply use consensus for cover in case it goes wrong.
- Engagement is achieved through involvement. Implies that conflict is considered bad, not constructive. You involve anyone who wants to be involved in order to avoid conflict.
- Success is an individual effort. You may talk a good game about teamwork & being ‘one team,’ but the reality is people feel they are on their own to figure things out — and therefore, want control over anything that could impact their personal success.
- Interviews are necessary, but also inconvenient. You know the candidate is interviewing with a lot of people, so if someone is not prepared, it doesn’t really matter that much. Plus, though each interviewer gets a say in whether the candidate is hired, there is no expectation they will be invested in the candidate’s success once hired.
You could argue for the candidate in my example that he got a true sense of the company and how it operates, and he was able to make an informed decision when it came to considering their offer. He described it as an energy-draining experience, which left him to wonder if working there would be an energy-draining experience, too. He also questioned the company’s priorities, ethics, and future.
More is not always better.
If you tend to have a lot of interviewers and/or a lot of interviews as part of your process, consider:
1. The needs of the candidate: How will each interview and interviewer add value to the candidate’s decision about whether your opportunity is right for them? Each interview should have a purpose — not just for you to learn about them, but for them learning about you — so you both can make a good, informed decision.
2. Future talent needs for your company: The interview process can be used to build the kind of relationship with a candidate that transcends the current job posting. The candidate in front of you may not be right for the position you are interviewing them for. Do you mean it when you say they you hope they’ll apply for future opportunities? Then connect in a way that demonstrates that.
3. The role each interviewer will play in the candidate’s success if they come on board. I believe if you recommend a candidate for hire, you should also take interest in that candidate’s success at your company. If you aren’t part of their world, don’t have time to help, or are uninterested in participating in other people’s success, then don’t join the interview team.
4. Giving the game away. Be clear and transparent about the who, what and why about every interview & every interviewer. Inform the interviewers and the candidate. Give each interview focus and purpose.
Also consider whether consensus decision-making is working for or against you — for hiring, and also in other areas of your company. (Too much decision-making by consensus is a sign you have a leadership problem.)
Practice #2: Square hole, square peg.
This is when we keep interviewing candidates until we find one who has ‘been there, done that’ for every challenge we can possibly think of that a person in that role could face — a candidate that checks every box, for whom this job will be easy because they’ve seen all of this before. The underlying thought is that they will already know what to do and will hit the ground running. As a bonus, we won’t have to manage them much.
What you think this process says to a candidate: we are thorough, know what we want, and know what we don’t want.
What this practice actually says to a candidate:
- Internal mobility is limited. Each question you asked is concerned with a specfic experience on the “required” list in the posting. That tells the candidate you are not interested in what else they can do or are interested in doing. And though you may not always notice, your candidate can sense your disappointment when an example they share doesn’t fit perfectly with the question behind your question.
- Creativity & innovation are stifled. For innovation & creativity to thrive, you’d need an environment of psychological safety; one that embraced learning through trial and error and rewarded vulnerability. Your need to check every box suggests your culture doesn’t tolerate mistakes. Performance — not practice — is what’s valued & rewarded.
- You aren’t going to micro manage — but you might not manage at all. Which means you don’t understand how important managing is, or possibly, what managing is. And that could be a sign of bigger problems in the organization.
The underlying issue here is the need to find the perfect person. But there is no perfect candidate. The feeling it leaves with the candidate is that you are more interested in what is wrong with them than you are in what is right. You look for holes, deficits, reasons not to hire. Used all the time, it creates an environment of fear, and a systemic (though unreasonable) expectation of perfection.
The square hole, square peg practice can be helpful when you want to transform an area of your business and need someone with special skills. You may need someone with experience using a particular technology, or to drive change in a department to better align it with changing customer needs. Maybe you are after large scale transformation and need someone who will be able to drive change within your culture while also shifting the culture, working outside of it and within it at the same time.
If your company over-uses the square peg, square hole practice, consider:
1. Shifting interview questions away from experience & toward character. Dig into how the person thinks about himself, others, and the world. Check in about success habits, attitudes & philosophies. Explore what (or who) triggers them, and how that shows up. Discuss their aspirations & how the position fits with their life. Get curious about their self-awareness & how this job will help them stretch or how it fits into their career path.
2. Ask about development. What was the last book the candidate read, and how did they apply it? What goals have they set and what are they learning about themselves through the process of achieving them?
3. Find out what they would do differently this time. Anyone who has perfected their craft has made some mistakes along the way. What were the worst ones? What did they learn? How did it change their approach?
If you are serious about changing your paradigm: hire people — on purpose — who do not have experience doing the job you are hiring for, but who have the success attitudes and habits needed for good performance.
Practice #3: It’s a ‘batch’ process.
This is the practice of interviewing a group (or batch) of top candidates so you can evaluate them against each other, rather than evaluate individual candidates against stated criteria. When you interview a batch of candidates, you tend to uncover traits or skills that you hadn’t considered important until you found them in one of the candidates, and these traits often become differentiators. That said, waiting until you have a batch of candidates prolongs the hiring process for all candidates, and you can lose your best options to other companies.
What you think this process says to candidates: We know every candidate is unique and are interested in finding out what you would bring to the role — and how that compares to other candidates.
What this practice says to a candidate:
- You are not sure what you are looking for and you think you’ll know it when you find it. Chances are I’m not quite it, but you won’t let me go until you know for sure you can’t do better, so you will string me along in case I’m as good as it gets. It’s not exactly a vote of total confidence. Imagine taking a position under these circumstances — thinking you still have something to prove, even though you got the job.
- You are not confident in your ability to make good hiring decisions. Having people to compare helps your confidence. But that could mean you lack confidence for other kinds of decisions. Plus, if you don’t trust your own decision making, how do you trust others on the team? Will you trust me?
- My performance will be evaluated not on its own merit, but against a backdrop of other people’s performance. Which means we are all in competition against each other. What is my motivation for helping other’s succeed — especially if their success doesn’t directly impact my own? What is their motivation to support & encourage my success?
A batch process makes selection a competition — and I’m not talking about the candidates. The competition is internal and centers around who is more “right” about which candidate is best and whose word bears more weight than others in the process. If you have interviewers vote for their favorite, who has the power to break a tie? Or to override the vote? Games around power, control and influence can quickly override what is best for the cause.
If you are dependent on a batch practice when you hire, consider:
1 . Changing how you prepare. Before you start meeting candidates, get clear about what you want — and what you don’t. Identify your must haves and how you’ll assess them. Write out your fears, as well as your hopes. Know the difference between a must have and a “hope to have”. Then set your decision criteria & how you’ll measure. Align your questions accordingly.
2. Setting up a candidate scorecard & evaluating every candidate individually. If a candidate doesn’t measure up, be honest, and let them go. You won’t be satisfied if you have to fall back on a candidate who didn’t measure up.
3. Sticking to the plan. Resist the urge to go off script because you ‘like’ something about a candidate. And resist comparing discarded candidates against those still in the hunt.
4. Checking references yourself as the hiring manager. Make a plan for what you’ll ask references — and ask candidates for the kinds of references who can speak confidently to your questions. Checking references yourself means you get the information first hand — not through the lens of Human Resources or an outside recruiter.
The “batch process” makes recruiting very difficult — especially in our marketplace today where there are more positions open then talent to fill them. If you are dependent on the batch process, you will want to build some new skills & confidence around employee selection.
The broader goal is to align intent & impact.
The first step is to admit there is (or could be) a problem. Then you can set out to explore it and determine a course of action to bring your practice more into alignment. Here are a few places to look:
- Consider where your process is congruent with your values — and where it isn’t. For example, your values include transparency & respect for others — but the results of that assessment you ask candidates to do as part of your process? Those results are not shared with the candidate unless they are hired. How could you share those results with the candidate in a way that demonstrated transparency & respect?
- Seek feedback from prior candidates. Reach out to people who have recently interviewed with you — both those you hoped to hire and those who didn’t fit the bill — and ask them about their experience. What was it like? How did they feel? What worked? What didn’t?
- Collect & analyze data. We all have biases, and they tend to show up in our practices. What does your data tell you about your biases? Do you tend to overlook middle-aged candidates? How do women fare? Is there a demographic or psychographic that seems to be looked on more favorably in your selection processes? Check the data; see what, if anything, it has to tell you about your process.
At a minimum — make sure the people you involve in selection understand the importance, purpose, and intent of your process so they can represent. And please give your people permission to opt out if they can’t give it 100%.
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