You can fix your hiring process: Here’s your five-step plan

You’re welcome.
You’re welcome.
Image: REUTERS/Johannes Eisele
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As a manager who has usually taken over teams that have been struggling in some way, there is something that I’ve consistently had to do: fix the hiring process. Hiring well is a huge lever for team transformation. Getting it right doesn’t just mean hiring good people (although that part is crucial), but doing so in a way that is time effective for you, your team, and the candidates.

For a small-scale hiring process, you can often take on the process yourself and spend some time fixing it. However, as a leader (especially a new one), you want to be careful of the optics, and creating a perception that you’re bringing in “your people” as replacements. It can help to bring the current team along and make them part of this from the beginning. For a scaled process, you’ll have no choice because you can’t do it alone, so it’s important to determine what your levers are—and how to use them effectively.

Step 1: Know your numbers

This is your baseline. What’s your inbound volume? What’s the level of success at every point in the process? What are your diversity indicators? This is where you set up consistent reporting, which is key to measuring change.

You will need a spreadsheet. Whatever your ATS (applicant tracking system) sales rep says, the reporting will not be good enough. Consider any manual reporting steps an investment in deeply understanding your numbers, because you need to.

At this step it is key to understand:

  • The quality of your applicant pool on the metrics you care about (qualifications and diversity, most likely). Total inbound is often meaningless, so consider the number of people you move past resume review.
  • The efficacy of your process, indicated by the time spent on people relative to their likelihood of success. The less proportional this is, the more problems you have.

Step 2: Understand what you’re looking for

You need to understand what it is you are looking for, represent it in your job description, and map it to every point in your process, but particularly the resume review. The further you progress people who are unlikely to be successful, the more it breaks calibration of later stages because too many poorly performing candidates start to make mediocre candidates look good.

As you look through your process, do you understand what the evaluative purpose of each step is? Consider where it fits. It’s disrespectful to the candidate to say no toward the end for something you could have easily known (or did know) at the beginning. And besides, the sooner you say no to people who can’t be successful, the more time you have for people who can be.

It’s critical to be mindful of bias here, though, and to not index on shortcuts riddled with bias. “Worked on something complex” is better than “FAANG experience,” and “has demonstrated intellectual rigor” is better than “degree from $EliteInstitution”.

At this step the key is to understand:

  • What it means to be successful in this role and how it maps to the process.
  • How to optimize for a fast, respectful no.

Step 3: Calibrate, calibrate, calibrate

This is the most important part of the process. In a scaled process, it’s not enough for one person to be great at decision making; you need a replicable process so that everyone involved can make consistent decisions across the board.

This means rubrics and feedback. Rubrics support consistency and help standardize evaluation, but are meaningless without calibrating them. Double-evaluate everything as people ramp up on hiring, but then continue to have second opinions for a range of scores either side of the borderline. It’s the collective responsibility of the team to question decisions and give feedback to each other.

At this point, the key is to be clear about your checks and balances. For example, on my current team we:

  • Have two people on any candidate interview as much as possible; we debrief and give each other feedback after each one.
  • Normalize asking for a second opinion by double-reviewing every take-home assignment that passes, as well as those scoring within ~15% of the passing grade as a matter of course, as well as any others where the reviewer lacks confidence.
  • Double-review every application where the take-home assignment results in a “hard no,” so as to continually support the recruiter (who typically owns the resume review and initial screening) in calibrating their process.

Step 4: Debug your process

If we can accept that our process is in the midst of improvement, we can also accept that our process is probably falling short, and resulting in false negatives. Two levers to help identify these are surprising failures and wildcards.

An example of a surprising failures is someone with a strong resume who doesn’t make it as far in the process as we would expect. Digging into these situations—reopening them, and spending more time on the person—helps us validate our process.

Wildcards might be produced by giving the recruiter (or, where applicable, the referrer) a deciding vote on someone they feel strongly about and progressing them (this doesn’t apply to final decisions, but to early evaluative steps). Great people are often “spiky”—i.e. great in some ways, but not consistently across the board. If someone doesn’t excel in some early screening, but the recruiter is really impressed by them, it can be worth spending a little more time on the person to learn more about them. Especially in the case of a referrer, experience actually working with someone is more useful than any hiring process, so if they’re willing to advocate for someone, it’s usually worth progressing them. Sometimes you’ll make a great hire that you could have missed out on, and sometimes you’ll spend a bit more time to confirm a no—but showing your recruiter or referrer that you value their opinion is at least a win for that relationship.

At this point, you want to understand:

  • What are the triggers to investigate potential false negatives?
  • How do you— judiciously—use discretion in your process?

A great recruiter is an instrumental teammate in the process, but not someone you can delegate the full problem to.

Step 5: Stop looking for a straight line

Hiring processes fail in two ways: They result in bad hires (the focus of my article Three signs of a poor hiring process—and four ways to fix it), but more insidiously they shut out potentially great hires as you adopt an ever narrower definition of what you’re looking for, and fail to differentiate between what is straightforward to learn on the job (e.g. using Git), and what is not (e.g. grappling with a complex legacy codebase).

The challenge of any hiring process is the need to evaluate people in a consistent and orderly way (like jumping hurdles), when the role of most knowledge workers is more ambiguous (like running through a forest). We also evaluate people at a fixed point in time, but work with them for much longer, which is why evaluating people’s coachability and capacity to grow is crucial.

My friend Moishe wrote a fantastic blog post about how hiring is like “filling out the potato”, which is a metaphor I think about a lot, and I think goes well with the concepts in Gallup’s Now, Discover your Strengths. The reality is that great people are great at some things, and not great at others. When you’re hiring on hurdle jumping, you can “raise the bar” by making every hurdle higher, but that doesn’t necessarily result in a better outcome overall, especially when the job is closer to a distance race or a relay with the rest of the team.

At the end of a good process you should have a lot more information about your chosen candidate than just “passed every stage.” You should have a profile of the candidate, you should know what they will need support with, but most importantly you should know how they are great and how that will add to your team. (If you don’t, then maybe you should consider whether you’ve really found the person you’re looking for—and what you can learn about your process from the situation you’re now in.)

And then: replicate, replicate, replicate

I’ve gone through this process three times now, at volumes between 10 and 100 hires per year. Invariably, it’s a lot of work (ranging from three to twelve months in duration), but when the playbook is clear, the results are replicable. Increasingly, hiring well is a key competency for a manager—especially in a situation as competitive as hiring software developers.

Hiring great people effectively accelerates everything you are trying to do. Hiring badly, or slowly, creates a level of drag that will undermine, potentially to the point of destruction, everything you hope to achieve.

If your hiring process is ineffective, what are you waiting for?  See step 1, and build a process that works, and keeps working, over and over again.