The hiring test
I recently changed jobs. It took me some solid five months to find a new company since I started applying, so you can imagine that I was involved in many different hiring processes.
You’ve probably heard about The Great Resignation as this unavoidable movement where employees quit their jobs. There is a lot to say about this, but the reality is that the job market post-pandemic is fierce. Many startups are competing with big tech on compensation and perks, and the employee looks at other things before they decide where they want to work: a flexible schedule, remote-first, diversity, culture, and values. Companies are trying to adapt to this, and some of them realized that the hiring process is not just a way for them to filter candidates, but to sell their company and demonstrate they care about people. Unfortunately, based on my experience during these last months, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
If you are an engineer and have ever checked job offers in StackOverflow you are probably familiar with The Joel Test. Those are 12 simple, yes or no, questions to test the quality of a software team.
I thought I would provide my own version of the test when it comes to hiring. A set of 12 simple questions that you can ask yourself as a talent acquisition manager (TA) or hiring manager (HM) to evaluate the quality of your hiring process.
I’m based in Barcelona (Spain), and I’ve interviewed at some of the biggest tech companies in the city, but also at European companies and a couple of American ones. I applied to be Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering, so basically management roles with no coding challenges (although I had to do a few of those for some companies). I’m not considering the content of the job description, the type of questions the candidates are asked, or who should interview them. My test is about the hiring process, from the moment the TA contacts the candidate for the first time until the candidate gets an offer or is rejected, and simple things we can do to improve the candidate’s experience.
I’m a HM myself. I haven’t done this process in the past. I intend to do it from now on.
The hiring test
- Is the hiring process clear and has it been communicated to the candidate during the first interview?
- Can the hiring process take place in less than four weeks?
- Do you analyze your hiring funnel?
- Are you giving and asking for feedback after each step?
- Are you contacting the candidate when the process has not been successful?
- Are you asking for feedback from candidates who are rejected?
- Do you have to repeatedly re-schedule interviews or are you late to them?
- Do you offer the candidate the option to talk to other people?
- Are your interviewers prepared for the interview and do they understand what they want to get out of the interview?
- Do your interviewers share unbiased feedback with each other after each step?
- Do you prepare for each interview?
- Do your interviews feel like a conversation with the candidate?
Contrary to The Joel Test, the aim here is not to get a score that you share with the candidates, but to reflect on the process and see if there is something you, as a HM or TA, can do about that.
1. Is the hiring process clear and has it been communicated to the candidate during the first interview?
I usually had to ask during the first interview about the process, and on a couple of occasions, this changed mid-way to accommodate a new manager, a new set of engineers, or even a new recruiter that replaced the initial one.
What to do about it?
Think about why you need a new person in your team, who should be interviewing and why, and who will be making the decision. Communicate this to the candidate as soon as possible and try to commit to it during the whole process. Bonus points if you can add this information to the job description.
2. Can the hiring process take place in less than four weeks?
The hiring process is very stressful for a candidate. For management positions, there are probably a lot of people that might want to meet and evaluate the candidate, but if the whole process can’t be completed in under 4 weeks you are probably over-complicating things. The reality is that the longer the process, the higher the chances that another company snatches that candidate from you.
In one of the processes I was involved in for a Director of Engineering in a startup in the UK I had an initial conversation with the recruiter, and a week later with the VP of Engineering, who would be my manager. The interview went well, but at the end he told me that they would contact me again in 3 or 4 weeks because they had just opened the position and wanted to evaluate more candidates.
What to do about it?
Make sure the hiring process is clear before you start and you know what you are looking for, so as soon as you find someone that fits the requirements, you can move forward and make an offer. Also, try to get feedback from the interviewers as soon as possible after each step to avoid delaying the process too much. Also, analyze your hiring funnel, so that you can remove any unnecessary steps that are not adding value.
3. Do you analyze your hiring funnel?
Understanding the impact of the different steps of the process is fundamental to preparing a streamlined but well-designed hiring process.
I was involved in a hiring process as Director of Engineering where I met 2 different engineering managers (direct reports) in 2 separate meetings, and they both asked me almost identical questions. In the same fashion, I was involved in another process for a position as Engineer Manager where I was interviewed, again in different sessions, by a manager (peer), a director of engineering (but not my manager), a product manager (another peer) and then the VP of Engineering (again not my manager), and again I couldn’t see much difference in the types of questions they were asking separately.
What to do?
Analyze your funnel, check how many people are filtered in each step, and make sure every step is adding value. Also, make sure everyone involved in the process is synchronized and that they know what their goal is so that they don’t all ask the same questions to the candidate.
4. Are you giving and asking for feedback after each step?
I think the only company that was good at this in all the processes I was involved in was the one I finally joined. And yet it is so simple to do. This is fundamental to keep the candidate engaged and show that you care about them.
I have multiple experiences here. In most cases I was contacted a few days, or weeks, after the interview, assuming the interview went well. On two occasions the TA managing my process left the company mid-way and nobody contacted me until I emailed them weeks later. Around six weeks after the interview I got contacted by her again, saying that she had been away (?) and she wanted to retake the process. The company that I finally joined was awesome at this; they contacted me the day after each step, they asked for my feedback and let me know what the next step would be or when they would tell me if I had passed or not.
What to do?
Assign a TA for each candidate. If the TA leaves the company or goes on holiday or can’t continue for whatever reason, make sure someone replaces them and contacts the candidates. Also, after each step, send an email or schedule a quick call to discuss the step or to give more information to the candidate about the next step. If you haven’t been able to reach the interviewers to get their feedback, still let the candidate know when you expect to have more information. Keep them engaged. Care about them.
5. Are you contacting the candidate when the process has not been successful and giving them actionable feedback?
Another simple one, but one that many companies fail to do. We should always communicate to the candidate when and why they are not a fit. Try to give meaningful, actionable feedback. The candidate probably spent a good amount of time preparing and interviewing, the least you can do is spend some time trying to explain the reasons why he was rejected and how they could do better next time.
I’ve had a number of experiences here, both with big and small companies. In one company, a TA contacted me, I had the first interview with her, then I moved to the next stage and then radio silence for two weeks. I contacted her a couple of times by email asking for any news, with no response. I was no longer interested. If this is how you care about people in your company, I think I’ll pass. In another case, after no less than six interviews, I was rejected. I asked for feedback, and they didn’t reply. Finally, for another company, after getting to the end of the process (again no less than four interviews, one of them two hours) I was told that they had rejected me, and they would have expected more passion on people management during my interviews.
What to do?
Easy, don’t leave the candidate hanging there. If you don’t care about the person, at least care about your company’s, and your own, reputation. A candidate that has been ghosted from a process will probably have no good things to say about your company. It takes almost no effort to send an email, thank them for their time and tell them politely that they have been rejected. For top marks, spend some time collecting feedback from the candidates and delivering this feedback in a way that is actionable for the candidate.
6. Are you asking for feedback from candidates that are rejected? (and also those who reject you)
I mentioned earlier that it’s important to analyze your hiring funnel to understand if it’s well designed. Another tool that you should definitely use is asking for feedback from the candidates that you don’t select (or any candidates).
I have probably been involved in around 20 hiring processes, and only a handful of them asked me for feedback after the process. In one of the processes where I got to the end but I turned it down, they didn’t even reply to ask for more details.
What to do?
You can use a number of tools today to prepare a simple form that is sent to the candidate at the end of the process and ask for their feedback. Some recruiting platforms already have this functionality. Regardless of the result of the process, we should make sure that the candidate felt treated with respect during the whole process and they leave with something positive. Feedback is a gift.
7. Do you have to repeatedly re-schedule interviews or are you late to them?
Be reliable. Be. On. Time.
I had a couple of interviews where the interviewers were late. And I’m not talking 2–3 minutes late. I’m talking like 10–15 minutes late. In another process, the TA asked me to set some time in Calendly for a first interview. I did. Then, the day before the interview, he asked me to do it again because that day was a bank holiday in his country and he had not realized it before. I did that, but there were no more available dates until more than one week later. On the day of the interview, he contacted me again saying that he was sick and asking me to re-schedule to the end of the week (three days later). I agreed. On the day of the interview, again he asked me to re-schedule for next week, because he was still sick, and proposed to contact me the next week when he felt recovered. When he contacted me again almost three weeks had passed since the originally scheduled date, and I decided that I didn’t want to participate.
What to do?
Unexpected things can happen, but the key here is how you deal with them. Make sure that you can contact the candidate if you are going to be late, and that you apologize when that happens. Also, if you have to repeatedly reschedule a meeting with a candidate, think if someone else can maybe cover for you, or if you can reshuffle the steps in the process to avoid keeping the candidate waiting too long from one step to the next.
8. Do you offer the candidate the option to talk to other people?
The hiring process is both an opportunity for the company to interview the candidate, but also to share what you are as a company. You might decide that you only need a couple of engineers and the VP of Engineering to hire a new Engineering Manager, but that might not be enough for them to get a picture of the company.
Only one company (the one I ended up joining) offered me the chance to talk to other people outside of the regular hiring process.
What to do?
Ask the candidate if there might be someone they would like to meet before making a decision. My recommendation is that you do that once you have told them that you are going to make them an offer, or even after you have made the offer so that they don’t feel that they could screw up their chances of getting an offer by having yet another interview.
9. Are your interviewers prepared for the interview and do they understand what they want to get during the interview?
Let me start this one with one example:
I applied for a European company that wanted to hire a senior engineer manager to support the growth of their team, who had just a few, inexperienced engineering managers. In my first interview with the recruiter, he asked me a couple of questions about my experience and then asked me, “Do you have experience in strategy?”. Obviously, he was expecting a straight yes, but I tried to explain what my experience was supporting the business strategy from the engineering team. After my explanation, he asked me again, “Yes, but do you have experience in strategy?”. I don’t even remember what I replied to that, probably I asked for clarifications, but he told me that he felt that I didn’t have enough experience there and he thought I was not a fit, so we decided to finish the interview, barely 10 minutes after the start.
What to do
Try to avoid “killer questions” during the interview, unless they are a hard requirement, and make sure the right person is evaluating them if you absolutely need it.
10. Do your interviewers share unbiased feedback with each other after each step?
This one is debatable. Obviously, I think that any information that is shared should be as unbiased as possible, but by keeping every step isolated from the rest you could be losing opportunities to go deeper when a red flag has been detected, and also to avoid situations like the one below.
I applied to one company through a referral (an ex-colleague already working there) as a Director of Engineering, and in my interview with the TA she told me I didn’t have the experience required for that role, but I could maybe apply for a position as Engineering Manager. To be honest, I just wanted to get past the TA and talk to the HM, so I said yes. Days later I got another interview with another TA who was handling that position, and when we started the conversation he told me I was overqualified for that role and it didn’t make much sense to continue.
What to do?
Every interviewer should understand why they are interviewing the candidate and make the most of their time. If they don’t think the candidate is suitable for the job they should say so to the hiring manager, and either remove themselves from the task or do the interview to the best of their ability, otherwise it’s a waste of time for the interviewer and the candidate. Also, if you share feedback from a previous interview, try to be objective, don’t say things like “I loved this candidate, he is great!” or equally “I didn’t like her at all, she is not a fit for the company”.
11. Do you prepare for each interview?
What does it mean to be prepared? Read the profile before the interview, take some notes, decide where you need further clarifications, have a mix of behavioral and situational questions. Have an agenda where you introduce yourself, explain how the interview will go, and leave time for the candidate to ask questions.
What does it mean to be prepared for each interview? It’s good that you have some questions prepared, but you should adapt to the conversation. Use the candidate’s explanations to go deeper and ask more questions if you think that’s interesting, but feel free to skip the ones that he already answered.
In one of my processes, I had the initial interview with the TA and then I moved to the second stage with the HM. The interview was ok, it was a pleasant conversation and I think I answered all his questions with clear examples from my past experience. I didn’t get any feedback for two weeks, so I emailed them and the TA set up a call with me a few days later. She asked me how I thought the interview went and I said that it had been good, but I had a few more questions and I wanted to know what the next step would be. She told me that unfortunately, the HM felt that I had not enough experience in big companies and that they wouldn’t continue the process. Needless to say, I didn’t get any comment during the previous interview asking me anything about my experience in big companies, even though I had been managing a team of over 30 engineers for two years.
What to do?
Read the candidate’s profile. Prepare your questions according to that profile and make sure that you come to the interview with a curious mind. If you think that the candidate is not a fit, don’t interview them, it’s a waste of time. If you have doubts, be direct and try to address those issues during the interview.
12. Do your interviews feel like a conversation with the candidate?
Keep in mind, the more the candidate talks, the more you learn about them. The more the interviewer talks, the more the candidate learns about the company. You want a balance.
I don’t really have a bad experience here. Most of the people I interacted with during the interview were polite enough, but in some cases, I felt they were distracted (they were all remote interviews) or not very interested in the conversation. In one of the companies, one of the steps was talking to a couple of employees from the company, and I believe the purpose was just to get to know each other because we barely talked about work.
What to do?
Give your full attention to the candidate during the interview. Take some notes, but let the candidate know that you are doing so. Also, introducing yourself and explaining about the process and the company is a good way to give the candidate some time to get a bit more relaxed, because that’s the version of the person you want to get to know. Be serious (jokes are definitely dangerous with someone you just met) but approachable.
As I said earlier, the job market is changing and we need to constantly re-evaluate what we do and how we do it if we want to remain competitive when it comes to hiring talent.
Do you think you have room for improvement in your company when you consider all these aspects? Is there anything that you think I’m missing?