No hiring manager sets out to make a subpar hire. Particularly at startups, where resources and headcount are often scarce, choosing the right person for an open seat is one of the most important choices a business can make.
And yet, poor hiring decisions abound — and can be quite costly. Whether it’s a mismatched company culture fit that brings conflict to a team dynamic, or someone without the necessary skillset to make a big impact, there are all sorts of different reasons why a hiring choice can go awry. Unwinding the clock can set a team back months on achieving their goals, plus the opportunity cost of time wasted interviewing, onboarding and training that employee, which you’ll now need to start over again.
“Your employees have good intentions,” says Anurag Gupta, a longtime Amazon leader and now a founder himself. “No one comes into work and says, ‘Today I’m going to push a change that’s going to break the site,’ or ‘I’m going to hire someone I know I’ll let go in six months.’ But these things happen. Good intentions don’t fill the gap between what your employees want to accomplish and all the mistakes that inevitably seem to occur. And exhorting them to do better or focus harder won’t make a difference to the number of mistakes in the long run. Your employees already want to do the right thing.”
But reality often has other plans — like pressure to meet headcount quotas or an ambitious new initiative that leaders are itching to get off the ground. So, if good intentions don’t always reduce talent acquisition mistakes, what does?
While startups are all about moving fast, when it comes to hiring, easing off the gas is paramount — especially if it means later on you can accelerate faster with the right hire rather than screech to a halt with the wrong one. But depending on the company size, there may not be robust interview training or processes in place for hiring managers, and instead folks are left crafting a makeshift process and learning how to hire someone on top of their already full to-do list. So how do you make sure you’re interviewing and hiring the right people?
To help, we combed the Review archives for advice on every stage of the hiring process to make sure you’re attracting, interviewing, and hiring the right candidates.
Craft a sharp and thorough job description
Even at a startup that aims to move quickly, the talent acquisition process can drag on. So to cut corners and get to a hiring decision faster, recruiters tend to rush the process of crafting the job description. If it’s a role you’ve published before, you might end up just copying over the old job description, with minimal tweaks. Or if it’s a new role for your company, you might poke around on LinkedIn or other job boards for some inspiration.
That’s the exact wrong approach, says Amber Madison, co-founder of Peoplism. “The job description is what sets up a good hiring process.” But it’s easier said than done — writing a really thoughtful job description takes work. “You have to figure out the competencies for the role, and what the person’s day-to-day will look like. It’s a lot of effort upfront before you even speak to a candidate, which is why folks tend to just go the simplest route,” she admits.
The job description lays the groundwork for the rest of your hiring process — don’t rush this step and create a shaky foundation.
So instead of just copying and pasting, make sure your job description includes these four parts:
- These are the skills you need to be great at the job and will be evaluated on during the interview.
- This is the impact that you will have with this role.
- This is what success looks like in the first 6+ months.
- This is what we value.
To get started, brainstorm the list of competencies that would make an applicant shine in that particular role — and make sure to bring in folks from across the team to weigh in here. But don’t publish that full list of a dozen or so hard and soft skills, pare this down to just the essentials. While it might be tempting to showcase a huge wishlist, this can set you up for a poor hire later on, warns Thumbtack founder Marco Zappacosta.
“Don’t describe the entire position in exquisite form, even though all those skills may be useful. That laundry list of requirements won’t exist in a human,” he says. “Invariably you end up with someone who’s mediocre at all of them, but not exceptional at the ones at which you truly need them to be exceptional. You hire for lack of weakness rather than for an explicit strength.”
Ask better interview questions
When you’re scaling quickly, moving at warp speed, and sitting on several hiring panels, interviewing can seem like a task that you just need to get through. So you resort to the same ho-hum interview questions that you’ve always leaned on in the past. But since you only get a narrow sliver of time with each candidate, you need to maximize what you can learn about candidates in those precious few minutes.
So ditch the basic job interview questions (like “What’s your biggest weakness?) that interviewees are expecting — and will be well prepared to answer. Try alternatives like these that dig deeper:
- Looking back on the last five years of your career, what’s the highlight? According to Michael Vaughan, the former COO of Venmo, this question is a powerful peek at what motivates the candidate. “For example, if they tell me about a personal accomplishment, then I know personal career development is a huge area of focus. If they tell me about the accomplishment of a direct report or the team, then I know they care about developing people,” says Vaughan. “If they tell me about a company feat, then I know that they tie their own success to the company's success — which is a great mentality for weathering the early stages of a startup.”
- What are you really good at, but never want to do anymore? You’d be surprised how often candidates answer that they never want to do the tasks that you’re hiring for the role, warns Bryan Mason, former Chief Business Officer of VSCO.
- When was the last time you changed your mind about something important? Working at startups is all about being nimble and open to change. This question, courtesy of Sarah Fetter, founder of 121 Ventures, enables you to dig into whether the candidate demonstrates that knack for open-mindedness.
- Tell me about a topic that you’ve taken it upon yourself to learn about. Cindy Smith, Upstart’s VP of Strategy and Partner Operations, is looking to see curiosity and tenacity — and that a potential hire is eager to tackle new challenges.
- Why shouldn’t we hire you? While perhaps an unexpected curveball, Romy Macasieb (Senior Product Manager at Google) finds this to be a much deeper prompt than the typical “What are your three areas of improvement” type of question. “I like that it allows interviewees to play both sides of the table. They could highlight the skills they’re missing or why they might not be what we’re looking for,’” Macasieb says. “But they can also turn the focus to why you might not be a fit for them.”
Another bit of advice? Try standardizing the set of questions with a structured interview approach across all candidates for a particular role, rather than winging it and asking each person a different set of questions. It will make it easier for you to look across the candidate pool and distinguish a good answer from a great one.
Assign candidates a (well-designed) take-home project
An applicant may wow the hiring panel during the interview loop, but even with a unanimous “yes” across the board, don’t send out that offer just yet. A practical take-home exercise can unearth more valuable data points about how the candidate will perform in real-world conditions.
The key to a well-designed exercise is to take into account the type of work the role will be doing in the day-to-day — don’t just give people hand-wavy busy work. To closely mimic a real project, you may consider sending anonymized (but accurate) data sets for analysis, or real bits of the code base that candidates can dive into. In addition to seeing the quality of the final work product, a practical exercise gives you a valuable peek at whether the candidate asks important clarifying questions and how they manage deadlines.
As you’re designing a take-home exercise, consider this framing: What are the skills or competencies that you do not want to teach the person you hire? What are your non-negotiables?
One final tip here — while a presentation is a common aspect of many take-home exercises, be mindful of whether presentation skills are critical for the role. If you’re hiring for a leadership position where executive presence is key, or a sales position that will be customer-facing, seeing how the candidate can command a room is likely essential. But for other roles, like designers or engineers, presentation skills might not be all that important. In this case, requiring a presentation can introduce bias, where you’re more likely to be wowed by a candidate’s charisma rather than the quality of their work.
Weed out bias with a fairer candidate evaluation process
After a round of interviews and reviewing the take-home assignments, typically the next step here is to bring together all of the folks on the interview panel for a candidate debrief. The Peoplism team originally included this common next step, too — but eventually removed it. Here’s why:
“Initially, we felt compelled to bring the team back together. You ask for their time spent interviewing and listening to presentations, and you want to make sure they all feel that they’ve been heard,” says co-founder Liz Kofman-Burns. “But there’s not any compelling evidence that you should have a debrief, and we found we were falling into the same bias traps that we were training people against. Once you’re in a group setting, you make personality judgments and hiring decisions that are not focused on competencies.”
When folks sit around a table and start to debrief on a candidate, the discussion can quickly go awry, with folks relying on “gut feelings” to make decisions rather than hard evidence. Instead, lean on clear scoring rubrics throughout each step of the interview process, from the phone screen to the interviews to the take-home assignment, to bring data into the hiring decision.
Returning to your job description, where you listed the essential skills and competencies for this particular role, create a rubric to structure your candidate feedback. Here’s a simple example from Dan Pupius: On the left, list all of the attributes and skills you’re looking for. Next, grade the candidate on each attribute from low, medium, high or did not observe (DNO). Finally, include a comment section where interviewers can jot down notes on the specific evidence that led to the grade. This nudges each interviewer and evaluator to stay laser-focused on what matters most.
Thoroughly check references (don’t just check a box)
By this point, you’ve parsed through piles of resumes, sat in on plenty of interviews, evaluated take-home assignments, and landed on a candidate or two who seems to have what it takes. You’re nearing the finish line in your recruitment process — and eager to bring the new hire on board. So as a final step, you ask the candidate for a few references and start making these phone calls.
But far too often, hiring managers just want the hiring process over with, and they’re just hoping that the reference doesn’t say anything to give them pause about their chosen candidate. So they likely ask surface-level questions and don’t dive in much deeper with follow-up questions.
To combat this approach, where there’s fear of the sunk cost fallacy and having to restart the interview process from square one with a fresh slate of candidates, Thumbtack founder Marco Zappacosta suggests starting the reference checks much earlier in the hiring process. And don’t talk to just two or three references — especially if you’re hiring a more senior leader.
“You want a holistic view, so you look to talk to peers, managers, and reports from the most important years in their career,” he says. I want to understand how this person spent their days. Where did they spike? How did they help create leverage for the business? As much as possible I’m looking to learn exactly what they uniquely contributed and how well they worked with others.”
Here are some deep-diving questions Zappacosta loves to ask during reference calls:
- How was this person perceived by others?
- If this person’s at a company that you’re thinking of joining, would that make you more or less excited?
- What haven’t I asked that if you were me you would want to know about this person?
How to set your new hire up for success
You made it through the gauntlet of recruitment and got an acceptance from a candidate whom your team is super jazzed about. But there’s a dangerous mentality that the goal is to simply get butts in seats, with little thought paid to the onboarding process or a new hire’s early experience. The work doesn’t stop with a signed offer letter — designing an intricate, impactful onboarding process will lay the foundation for your new hire to start making an impact, faster. To learn more about how to create an effective onboarding flow for new hires, check out our guide: Employee Onboarding at Startups is Broken — Here’s How to Fix It.