Startup Recruitment: Part 3 - Your hiring process
This article is all about the hiring process: why it’s important, how to set it up, what tools and methods to use to best assess candidates. We’ve also included interview tips, questions, assessment ideas and scorecards to get you started.
Why it matters
It maximises your chances of getting the right person for the job
The right hiring process is one that measures and tests for the skills and attitudes the candidate will need to succeed in the role. Getting it wrong has real consequences: the cost of hiring the wrong person stands at 30% of the employee’s first year of salary according to the US Department of Labour. But the cost goes beyond financials. Hiring the wrong person has a negative impact on company culture, and if you’re an early stage startup it can make or break your business.
Candidates remember their experience
When you create a hiring process you’re in the business of creating a candidate experience that will reflect on your employer brand. Get it right and even rejected candidates will have positive things to say. Get it wrong and you’ll already start getting negative reviews on Glassdoor. This is important more than ever when you’re a young startup that doesn’t yet have the recognition and prestige of a big org anyone would want to work for.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the steps required to have a winning hiring process.
1. Know exactly what you’re looking for
Before you set a hiring process you should know exactly what role you’re hiring for. In Part 2 of this playbook we shared some of the questions to help guide your hiring strategy. The next step is to identify what the ideal candidate could look like by developing a scorecard.
In WHO: The A Method for Hiring, the authors define scorecards as “your blueprint for success” and state that they should have:
- A description of the mission for the role
- Outcomes that you want the person in the role to achieve (e.g. grow the community to 10,000 by the end of the year)
- Skills that fit with the role and the company culture (e.g. communication, attention to detail)
Here is a guide and samples scorecards to help you create your own.
That scorecard is your north star when you’re hiring for that specific role. It’s the constant reminder of what you should be looking for and you should use it to evaluate candidates throughout the hiring process.
2. Set up the process
Your job is to set up a hiring process capable of testing and assessing the skills, the attitude, the ability to deliver the outcomes you want, of a candidate. As a result no two hiring processes are the same. But they will include a variation of these steps:
- Pre-employment screening tests
- Reference calls
A. The Application Stage
Here’s your first chance to meet a candidate and decide whether to take them to the next stage of the hiring process. To do that well, you want to make sure you’re able to screen them on their background, their motivation, and their skills at this stage.
- Go the traditional route and ask candidates to submit their CVs/Resumes and a Cover Letter. The CV/Resume will give you a sense of their backgrounds, the cover letter will highlight their motivation to apply for the role, their relevant experience and skills.
- Use a Resume/CV only approach. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend you do this because you risk losing out on qualified candidates who have non-traditional backgrounds, and letting unconscious biases creep in.
- Ask candidates to answer application questions instead of submitting a cover letter. If you decide to go down this path, make sure the questions are testing for motivation, skills, and potential deal breakers.
- Example questions: Tell us why you are a great fit to be a Product Designer at our company. Why do you want to work at our company? Why did you apply for this position? What have you created that you’re proud of? Can you provide a sample of your work (e.g. link to an online portfolio/ upload an attachment)? What do you want to achieve in this role?
You’ve received a number of applications, you’ve screened them and you now are ready to start meeting the most promising candidates. That’s when interviews come in. But there are many types of interviews in a variety of formats - from situational to strength-based, from phone to video, from 1-1 to panel interviews.
What interviews should you include in your hiring process? It depends but you want to consider including these few.
The talent screen
Also known as the phone or video screen, this is the first interview you want to have with a candidate. The goal here is to shortlist the A players and save you time from taking to the next stages candidates who are unlikely to get the role.
How to do it well:
- Keep it under 30 minutes
- Find out more about the candidate’s background
- Ask basic info - e.g. where would they be ready to start, their salary range
- Understand their motivation for applying
- Assess their communication skills - e.g are they effective communicators
- Identify any potential red flags - e.g. consistency in what they said vs their application
What are your career goals? Why do you want to work at our company? What are you really good at professionally? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses professionally?
The skills based interview
Also known as a competency based or situational interview. This type of interview is designed to assess whether someone has the skills needed for the job. For example, you’re hiring a product designer. You want to make sure they’re great at communicating and teamwork but you also want them to be able to prototype and wireframe, do user research, and visual design. The skills based interview allows you to test for those skills.
How to do it well?
- It can last between 30 and 60 minutes.
- Give candidates enough time to think before answering.
- Write down the key skills you’ll need for the role and design questions around that.
- Use a mix of behavioural and situational questions. Behavioural questions allow you to know how they’ve used those skills in the past, and situational questions will give you a sense of whether they’re quick on their feet through hypothetical scenarios.
- If the role you’re hiring for requires some technical knowledge and skills, make sure you ask questions designed to assess those skills.
- You may want to have a take home assignment be the basis of the interview. E.g. you’ve asked a candidate for a Product Manager role to create a deck of how they’d go about creating a new feature for your product. The first half of the interview could be a 10 minute presentation followed by 20 mins of discussions. (We’ll talk more about take home assignments later in this post).
- Describe a time when your supervisor gave you a new responsibility and how you handled it.
- Give me an example of a time you made a process more efficient. How did you do it?
- If our competitor, X, released a new product, Y, how would you advise our team to respond?
- If you had to increase sales revenue by X% in Y months, where would you look for potential customers?
- What kind of research methods do you use? (For a UI/UX Designer)
Technical interview: Assessing specific skills
Hiring anyone technical? You want to make sure they have the technical, and the problem-solving skills required to succeed at the job. Technical interviews allow you to do that and to go a step further: instead of being told about their technical skills, you can see them in action.
How to do it well?
- Keep it to 45 mins to an hour.
- Make the interview your own by asking questions and giving coding exercises that are specific to what you need the candidates to do. If you’re looking for someone who is really great at Python or React, test for those skills during the interview.
- Data scientists, software engineers roles aren’t the only type of roles with a technical interview. Other roles that you might want to have a technical interview for are: UX/UI Designers, Product Managers, User researchers.
- You can decide to make the interview a technical questions and coding exercises only interview, or mix it up by also including situational and behavioural questions to get a 360° degree view of their technical skills.
- Example questions: What coding language are you most comfortable with? Describe the troubleshooting process you’d follow for a crashing program. Where do you place most of your focus when reviewing somebody else’s code? Describe a difficult engineering problem you recently solved.
Cultural fit interview
Just like you’re hiring the person with the right skills to maximise your chances of your startup succeeding, you also want to hire a team that fits with the company culture you’re building. Getting it wrong here could mean hiring people who make your company a toxic work environment and struggling to retain hires. That’s where the cultural fit interview comes in. It allows you to assess whether someone would thrive in your company environment.
How to do it well?
- Keep it under 45 minutes
- Make sure you have defined your company’s values and long-term objectives and create questions that help you evaluate if the candidate values the same things.
- Cultural fit interviews aren’t about assessing whether you’d like this person enough to have a beer with them so don’t make them informal interviews where you ask candidates about their hobbies etc.
- Ask questions that will help you spot those toxic behaviours and red flags: e.g. dishonesty, arrogance, discriminatory behaviour
Describe the type of work environment in which you are most productive. What would make you quit a job in the first month? What do you hope to achieve during your first six months here? These are our values: which one resonates with you the most and why? Which one resonates the least and why? Have you ever found a company policy unfair or inefficient? If so, what was the policy and why? What did you do or what would you do, in this case?
General interview tips
Now that we’ve gone through the different types of interviews you could add to your hiring process, here are a number of recommendations for how to generally do interviews well.
1. Make sure you have your set of questions for each interview. Don’t wing it if you want your hiring process to be as rigorous as possible. Having a set of questions you can ask during the interview makes life so much easier - you won’t have to come up with questions on the fly and you can focus on listening to the candidate’s answer and assessing them.
2. Ask the same questions to all candidates. If you want to standardise interviews and ensure you’re evaluating candidates on the same criteria, don’t go and ask random questions to some and another set to others. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask clarifying questions to dig deeper - you can. But they should be on the back of the list of questions you ask every candidate.
3. Prep for the interview. Read a candidate’s application, make sure you have the requirements for the role top of mind, and have your scorecard at hand to note down how well a candidate is doing against the assessment criteria. Be ready to answer any question the candidate may have about the role and your company.
4. Let the candidate know what they should expect at every interview. Communicate how long the interview will be, if there’s any prep they need to do before, or if there is an exercise they need to do before the interview. E.g. Analyse these materials 30 mins before the interview, tell us the key takeaways, what are the key questions that come to mind, and what would be your recommended course of action. Be as transparent and clear as possible - you might go as far as sharing the type of questions they might be asked.
5. Use every interview as an opportunity to evaluate candidates on their communication skills, attitude and consistency. Every interview with a candidate is an opportunity to get to know them better. Ask yourself if they are concise in their communication, if they actually answer the questions, if they’re good at listening. Ask yourself if a candidate is positive, down-to-earth or if they are rude, arrogant, and negative. And finally do their answers match what they’ve said in their application or previous interviews? Major red flag if not.
C. Pre-employment screening tests stage
Whether you call them pre-employment screening tests, take home assignments or tasks, or even case studies, they are all about getting candidates to show you their skills & aptitude instead of just telling you about them. Tests come in many shapes and sizes and can be used at different stages of the application process.
Screening stage tests
These are standardised tests that you get your candidates to do either as part of the application process or as the next step after passing an application screen. Think cognitive skills, coding skills, or numerical skills tests tests. These are not tests you tend to create yourself but are offered by platforms like TestGorilla, Pymetrics. The pros? You get to see relatively early in the hiring process whether someone has what it takes skills wise and decide to take to interviews only those who meet the bar.
Post resume interview stage assignments
These assignments are given to candidates after one or two interviews. You’ve got to know them a bit, you’ve gone through their work experience with them and you think they might be a fit. You’re now keen to see, with the assignment, how they think, whether they have the skills required to do well in the job. Unlike screening stage assignments, these aren’t standardised tests. You’re going to be creating them, and this gives you the chance to create a task that the candidates would have to perform on the job. Example:
- For a Sales role: write a compelling prospecting email, create a presentation for a prospective client about the startup.
- For a Software engineer role: build a dashboard, build a compliance platform feature using react.
How to do it well?
- Make sure any task or test that becomes part of the hiring process is rooted in the must-have skill set for candidates for the role. If you’re having trouble prioritising which skills you want to test or design a task around, go for the skills you do not want to have to teach to the person you hire for the role.
- Don’t overwhelm candidates with too many tests. No one wants to do 5+ tests for a role with no guarantee you’d get a job at the end. So use tests sparingly.
- Get candidates to do the same tests to be able to compare their outputs/results.
- If you’re making screening stage assignments part of your hiring process, Don’t reinvent the wheel. Go for a third party provider that has made these tests their bread and butter. We’ve already shared two examples above but here are some more: Coderbyte, Cauldron
Keen on post interview assignments?
- Pay candidates if you want them to do a task that is a longer project as part of the hiring process. There’s nothing worse than asking a candidate to do an assignment that may require them to work the equivalent of a full time job for a week. If you’re looking to create a long coding task that you can deploy to production, check out Miodo
- Provide clear instructions to candidates and let them know what your expectations are with this assignment. E.g. What are your expectations about how much time they should spend on it (e.g. no more than 3 hours)? Is the assignment going to form the basis of their next interview? What skills are you assessing with this assignment?
D. Reference calls
You’ve found your A+ candidate. Their application was top notch, their interview performance blew the team out of the water and they did so well in the tests too! Before you send them an offer and conclude the hiring process, remember reference calls. Also known as candidate vetting calls, they allow you to test what you’ve learnt about the candidate so far by talking to the people they’ve worked with. We recommend that you do them because they’re the closest thing you’d get to a more objective picture of a candidate, their performance, how they work with others, and if there are any red flags you’d have to keep top of mind.
Conducting an effective reference check
- Keep it under 30 minutes
- Let candidates know you’ll check references during the process
- How much you should do depends on the role you’re hiring for. Hiring for someone at VP or C-suite level? You should consider doing at least 4. If you’re going for someone junior 1 or 2 references will do.
- If you’re hiring someone senior, make sure you get a reference call not only with their former managers, but also with their peers and the people they’ve managed.
- Don’t just stop at the list of references the candidate provides. Make sure you do your own research and find other people to contact for references.
- Ask the same questions of all referees to make the process as standardised as possible and make comparing notes easier.
- Pay attention to what referees are saying and how. If they’re enthusiastic about the candidate and they believe in them that should come through in how they talk about them. That’s a sign of a positive reference call. If they’re lukewarm, or have little to enthusiasm for the candidate, that’s not a great sign.
- Example questions: In what context did you work with the person? What were their biggest strengths? What were their biggest areas of improvement back then? How would you rate their performance in that job on a scale from 1 to 10 and Why?
3. Communicating your process
You’ve set up your process and you’re ready to open up to applications and get hiring. But the work isn’t yet over. There are two things you want to do.
Tell your candidates what to expect
Set up a careers page on your website or create a notion page focused on careers where you not only share what roles you’re hiring for and some info about the company, but you give clear information about how many steps there are in your hiring process and what they are. But the communication doesn’t stop at the front door.
You want to continue to communicate to candidates what they should expect throughout the process - whether that’s an interview or a case study - to give them the info they need to put their best foot forward.
Here are two example hiring processes:
Assess the process
You’ve gone through the process and you’ve found the best candidate out there. But there is always room for improvement. Go through every single step of the hiring process and find out if you can make it better. Were most candidates confused by these set of questions? Should we be stricter in who we make go to the next stage following the phone screen? What percentage of candidates made it through at each stage? Were the tools we used good enough? These are just some of the guiding questions you should be trying to answer whilst assessing your hiring process.
We hope this playbook has been useful for your recruitment needs. We’ll leave you with a few useful tools that may help streamline your hiring process further.
If you want to dive deeper on all things hiring processes, here are some additional resources:
- Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street
- Always Be Hiring: a Playbook for Early-Stage Founders – Soaked by Slush
- Mechanize Your Hiring Process to Make Better Decisions | First Round Review
- The Anatomy of the Perfect Sales Hiring Process | First Round Review -Why Now’s the Perfect Time to Retool Your Hiring Process and Get Creative | First Round Review -
- Pre-employment testing: a selection of popular tests - Workable
- Everything you need to know about... setting up an effective interview process | Courier - Mailchimp