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How startups can avoid making bad hires

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
Tryouts are just a face of life.
  • Aimee Groth
By Aimee Groth

Journalist, Author, Strategist

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The hiring process is a gamble on both sides. In an effort to prevent costly hiring mistakes, companies are attempting to collect—and share—more information up front, whether it’s through trials or better vetting.

Automattic, a publishing and development company, has long conducted trial runs before bringing someone on full time. “We used to hire people the way most other companies do. We’d screen résumés and conduct interviews,” Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg wrote in Harvard Business Review. “We invested a lot of energy in the process, and we believed we were being as rigorous as we could. Inevitably, some of those hires didn’t work out. … The more we thought about why some hires succeeded and some didn’t, the more we recognized that there is no substitute for working alongside someone in the trenches.” Recently more startups have followed suit.

“The best form of recruiting is referrals,” former Google public affairs manager Alex Abelin tells Quartz. “At Google we’d spend a lot of money on referring, but it’s not consistent and a lot of people just don’t do it.” During his tenure Abelin referred 125 candidates (“Ivy League, great resumes”), but Google only hired two of them. He recently launched job placement platform Liquid Talent, which focuses on connecting freelance designers and developers with employers based on geolocation, in real time (“an Uber for engineers“). Liquid Talent vets all candidates and companies before inviting them into the network: “When you’re vetting both sides, the quality of matches increase,” Abelin tells Quartz.

In addition to increasing the chances of better candidate/company matches, Abelin and Mullenweg are also creating systems that reflect how Millennials want to work. This generation values autonomy and an upgraded gig economy—with more worker protections—is the future of work.

Trial runs also remove the pressure of finding the perfect candidate, or “purple squirrels,” as recruiters call them. Some companies will wait months to fill a position when an otherwise good candidate (or someone in-house) could pick up the role. “It goes back to finding capable people,” former recruiter Lance Haun tells Quartz. “When you’re looking for a certain level of capability, past that you’re just making excuses for not bringing somebody on. Maybe they hit nine out of 10 things, and you’re really looking for those 10 things so you’ll pass on that person.” Trial runs reveal whether the 10th thing is really necessary, and gives candidates the opportunity to highlight other skills that may not have come through in the initial screening process.

Buffer, a social media management startup known for its experimentation with radical transparency, does 45-day trials with potential hires that they call Buffer Bootcamp. “We used to compare it to dating,” co-founder Leo Widrich explained in a video. “If you want to date a person for a couple weeks or longer, you don’t want to just get married after meeting someone for the first time.”

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