This year, amidst a turbulent economic climate, it’s possible that your company’s hiring has slowed down, or paused altogether. So it may not feel like the right timing to put the microscope on your hiring and interviewing process. But we’d argue that it’s actually the perfect time — there’s more space to take a step back and get thoughtful about each step in your interview loop, as you’re likely not hiring at a break-neck pace.
And as later-stage companies put the freeze on hiring (or even contend with layoffs), early-stage startups with runway can seize the chance to hone their message and stand out to top candidates. Whether your hiring is slowing down or keeping pace, there’s a real opportunity to get intentional in refining your entire hiring process, from job description to offer — approaching each step with the same careful planning you give your GTM efforts and product roadmap.
In startup circles, there’s a premium on ingenuity and forging a new path forward. After all, founders started a company to bring something different to the table. But this inventive mindset isn’t always top of mind when it comes to certain functions. “Tech companies are trying to be innovative and push the envelope — but when it comes to anything HR-related, folks tend to just look around and see what other companies are doing, and that’s good enough,” says Amber Madison, co-founder of Peoplism, a full-service DEI consulting firm.
That said, these widespread “good enough” hiring processes aren’t always mindful of the candidate experience — and most importantly, may not lead you to extend an offer to the best person for the role. Think marathon interview days with back-to-back meetings where candidates are repeatedly asked the same questions. Or a lack of clarity around what traits the ideal candidate possesses, so interviewers are forced to just “know it when they see it.” Then, of course, there’s the all-too-common practice of ghosting candidates who aren’t moving on to the next round, which leaves people with a foul taste in their mouths at best and maligning a company to their network at worst.
It’s surprising, especially in the world of tech and disruption, that so much of the interviewing and hiring process hasn’t changed in a long time.
The advice that follows from Peoplism is not to add more interview cycles to your current loop. Instead, the ethos is to intentionally examine the pieces of your hiring cycle that are already in place (and perhaps even be able to trim down some steps in your current process). “Reducing interview time is key for startups. When you have limited people on your team, you don’t want all their working time to be spent sitting in interviews,” says Liz Kofman-Burns, co-founder of Peoplism.
Their counsel also calls for some fresh thinking and unconventional tactics rather than just defaulting to the way things have always been done. They make a compelling argument to use a three-question survey to screen candidates rather than a resume receptacle, share your interview questions with candidates in advance, and ditch the committee-based hiring decisions.
In this exclusive interview with the Peoplism co-founders, the duo covers some of the most common missteps they see from companies of all sizes that result in bad-fit hires and disadvantage underrepresented folks. They outline their exact hiring playbook, from crafting the job description to the application process and a practical exercise. Along the way, they share creative solutions that will have you rethinking the way hiring has always been done. “We’re in the business of helping companies create more equitable HR systems,” says Madison. “So we’re very aware that if we can’t create and implement a standout inclusive and equitable hiring process ourselves, then we have no business being in this line of work.” Let’s dive in.
STEP 1: START WITH THE JOB DESCRIPTION — DON’T JUST COPY AND PASTE.
When it comes to all of the different steps in the hiring process, folks tend to spend the least amount of time crafting the job description. If it’s a role you’ve opened up before, you probably just end up copying over one of your old job descriptions. Or if it’s a net-new role for your company, you might poke around on LinkedIn for some inspiration from similar roles.
That’s the exact wrong approach, says Madison. “The job description is what sets up a good hiring process. However, 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.
But that work pays dividends later on. “Once you have a really clear job description, the rest of the hiring process becomes a lot easier. For example, when you think about your interview questions or who should be included in the interview loop, the job description makes those decisions much clearer,” says Madison.
The job description is the foundation for the rest of your hiring process — don’t rush this step and create a shaky foundation.
While FAANG-type companies can coast on mediocre job descriptions — after all, hundreds of folks will apply to a role at Amazon, even if the job description lacks luster — startups can’t overlook this opportunity to stand out. “You have one shot to make a first impression. Many candidates have told us that they wanted to apply for a job at Peoplism because of how thoughtful the job description was,” says Madison.
Even if you’re a very early-stage company, it’s critical to work on your hiring hygiene from the beginning, rather than try to course-correct later as the company scales. “You need to build the habit to constantly ask, ‘What are we looking for, and how does this part of the interview relate to what we want to evaluate people on?’ If you don’t do this early, people get really stuck in their bad habits,” says Kofman-Burns.
If you start with bad hiring habits, those will get multiplied as you get bigger. It’s like trying to steer the Titanic in a different direction.
When writing a job description, Kofman-Burns advises you include these four pillars:
These are the skills you need to be great at this job and will be evaluated on.
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 kick things off, the Peoplism team starts by brainstorming 10-12 things that would make someone shine in that particular role — like analytical skills, relationship-building stakeholder management skills and proactivity. Next, they narrow that list down to five competencies, which will be included in the job description and will serve as the basis of their hiring process. “While it might be tempting to include a huge wishlist, this can really narrow the pool of qualified folks who apply to your company. We know, for example, that men tend to overestimate their abilities while women tend to underestimate them. Stick to the five must-haves,” says Kofman-Burns.
Thinking down the line, Madison notes, those must-have competencies you hire for should tie into how you are evaluating performance later on. “The criteria we use to evaluate people’s performance on the job should be very closely related to the criteria we use when hiring them for the job,” she says. In fact, if you have a well-developed performance review rubric, you can usually use those exact competencies for your job description.
Very often we think about hiring and performance management as two separate things, but you want to think about them as different pieces of one integrated system.
Here are the five traits Peoplism includes in their senior consultant job descriptions:
Action-oriented analytical skills
High-touch consulting skills
Proactive, organized, and deadline sensitive
Excellent emotional intelligence
Deep knowledge about systems of inequality
Use the job description to start making your pitch to candidates.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that hiring is a two-way street. “So often you read a job description and it’s all about what a candidate can do for the company. But candidates are looking for clues about whether they will thrive at your company. ‘Do my values align with the company’s values? What kind of impact will I be able to have? Will I be able to meet expectations?’ Those are the questions that quality candidates want answers to before they apply,” says Kofman-Burns.
Sketch out how this particular role helps advance your broader company mission and lay out your expectations for the role clearly. For example, Peoplism job descriptions share what success looks like in the first month, in three months, and in six months.
And the salary range for the role is always included upfront in Peoplism’s job description. “Companies still seem very hesitant to be candid about the salary — but new laws continue to crop up that mandate employer transparency. Even if you don’t live in a state like New York where this is mandated, publishing the salary from the start makes sure you’re setting the right expectations with your candidates and lays the groundwork for pay equity,” says Kofman-Burns.
STEP 2: STOP RELYING ON RESUMES AND USE THIS ALTERNATIVE APPLICATION INSTEAD.
Overwhelmingly, the way most companies start their hiring process is with candidates submitting a resume — but this causes a few headaches. “For one, it’s so easy to apply for a role online these days, and then you hear hiring managers and recruiters understandably complain that they can’t possibly get through the enormous pile of resumes. For another, resume reviews are inherently biased — you’re making a judgment within seconds based on the shiny things that appear on a resume, like where the applicant went to school or the companies they worked at before. But those aren’t necessarily strong predictors of skills or job success. In reality, it’s often a proxy for parental socioeconomic status,” says Kofman-Burns.
Here’s the alternative approach the Peoplism team came up with: “We have folks fill out a Google Form with three questions specifically tailored to gauge their interest in the role and whether they align with certain competencies. Resumes are completely optional to include and we don’t ask for a cover letter,” says Kofman-Burns.
To get specific, here are the three questions Peoplism currently uses for their consultant application, asking folks to submit 200-300 word answers:
What is your formal/informal education and/or experience around systems of inequality?
Tell us about your analysis and consulting experience. What has prepared you to be a great consultant?
Describe a time you’ve had to meet someone where they are at in terms of DEI.
Rather than outlining a 10-question application, the Peoplism team decided on just three questions by centering on the candidate's experience. “How much time do we think is reasonable to ask the candidate to invest upfront, knowing that it’s very early in the process? The applicant doesn’t even know if people are reading these answers — so many companies ask for cover letters but don’t actually read them. Three is enough for us to gather some information about whether to move them forward to the next round, without overly burdening the candidate this early in the process,” says Kofman-Burns.
Once these written responses are submitted by the candidate, the hiring manager and/or the recruiter review and score each screener survey. An important callout here — reviewers aren’t able to see any names or identifying details about the applicant, just their answers to the three questions. “There may be companies out there who don’t feel comfortable completely getting rid of resumes — that’s okay,” says Madison. “You can still have candidates submit resumes in their application. Just make sure you’re scoring the candidate’s answers first before you bias yourself by looking at their resume.”
With quantitative scores for each applicant from the hiring manager and recruiter, a clearer picture emerges of who to invite into the next round. “There are often a couple of borderline cases or applicants where the hiring manager and recruiter scored differently — at this stage, it’s fine to move forward a few more folks that are on the bubble,” says Kofman-Burns. On the flip side, applicants who scored on the lower range always get an email letting them know they won’t be moving forward, along with a list of some other companies in the field that are currently hiring — no candidate ghosting allowed.
STEP 3: PLAN YOUR QUESTIONS AND SHARE A THOROUGH INTERVIEW PREP GUIDE TO MORE ACCURATELY ASSESS CANDIDATES.
Particularly at early-stage companies, without a well-established hiring process and interview rubric, folks don’t always put a ton of planning into the questions they’re going to ask candidates. So interviewers default to the unstructured, ‘tell me about yourself’ kinds of questions that rarely scratch below the surface.
“People aren’t idiots, they can tell if a bunch of your interviewers didn’t prepare, and it doesn’t reflect well on your company,” says Kofman-Burns. Your employer brand matters a lot, even from day one, and looking like a messy and disorganized startup isn’t appealing — especially in this kind of shaky market where candidates are looking for stability. So invest some extra time here to craft your list of interview questions to put your best foot forward with candidates. (As you prep your list, try Peoplism’s free Slack app that helps you select quality interview questions based on role and level in less than 2 minutes.)
The case for sharing the interview questions with candidates in advance.
Before candidates join for the interview round, Peoplism sends a thorough prep guide to sketch out expectations. Again, Peoplism zigs where others zag here. “We tell the candidate most of the interview questions in advance. While it is a unique approach, I don’t understand why it’s that controversial and why other companies don’t do the same,” says Kofman-Burns.
There are plenty of behind-the-scenes factors that contribute to someone being a great on-the-spot interview that don’t actually have much bearing on whether they can do the job well. “Being great in an interview setting can be the product of going to elite schools, knowing people in the same profession, or even having access to someone who is already working at the company to prep beforehand. On-the-spot interviews evaluate a certain set of criteria — but is that the criteria that you’re really looking for in the role?” she says.
If you really want to evaluate candidates for clear competencies, you want to give them the best shot of actually showing you whether or not they have those skills. If you don’t give candidates a sense of what you’re going to be probing, you end up hiring folks who are just the best at interviewing.
Giving folks time to prep for the questions in advance also taps into what it’s actually like operating in most startup roles. “When we think about what our Peoplism consultants do day-to-day, they’re not showing up to a client engagement with no preparation. The way we set up this interview mirrors the real world, where you’re able to actually prepare for what you’re expected to accomplish. When you give folks the opportunity to review the interview questions in advance, it raises your expectations of the quality of the answers you get back,” says Madison.
The Peoplism team does include one case interview question to test how folks are able to think on their feet — a skill useful in consulting — and this is the only interview question that isn’t shared in advance. “We read through a real-life dilemma that a consultant might encounter in the role and ask them to talk us through how they would approach the problem,” says Madison. “It’s important to us to evaluate whether folks can think on their feet — but we don’t want it to be the only thing we’re evaluating. It’s just one of the five skills we’re sussing out during the interview.”
STEP 4: TAKE A LESS IS MORE APPROACH WITH YOUR INTERVIEWS.
Companies may not start out intending to host a full 9-5 interview marathon, but things can quickly spiral. “I completely understand the instinct to want to make people on your team feel involved, so what’s the harm in adding on some extra interviewers?” says Kofman-Burns. “But oftentimes there’s not much thought into why that person should be interviewing the candidate. Google has done research that indicates that after four interviews there’s almost no improvement in predicting job success."
But there are a few problems with this approach: “One, that’s a ton of time to take out of your team's workday to interview candidates. Two, ultimately some of the folks conducting interviewers might not have much valuable input or authority to make a hiring decision. Then you wasted their time and created a worse candidate experience, without even solving the problem of making folks feel included in the hiring process,” she says. “Do not include people on an interview loop if they don’t actually have the authority to influence a hiring decision.”
When you’re trying to balance the hiring opinions of so many different interviewers, you don’t always wind up with the best candidate. You end up hiring the candidate that skates through by getting a more neutral opinion from most interviewers.
So rather than stack folks on your interview loops, try gathering their feedback in the earlier stages. “Ask them for input on what to include in the job description and the core competencies for the role. That will make people feel involved and improve your hiring process,” she says. Find the two or three people who are best able to evaluate the competencies you identified and have them — and only them — interview candidates.
Here’s Peoplism’s interview flow:
Each candidate has one interview total, with two Peoplism folks sitting in together.
Each interviewer scores the candidate separately on the rubric, which contains each competency the interviewers are evaluating, the pre-set questions evaluating each competency and guidelines on what a strong answer looks like.
Each interviewer’s scores are combined and the candidates with the highest total score move on to the next round.
Use the full range of the rubric — that’s what it’s there for.
Peoplism’s founders suggest using a 1-5 rating scale for scoring rubrics (interestingly, a 1-10 score has been shown to be more biasing), but they admit it takes some practice to get folks to use the full extent of the scale.
“When I’ve gone back and looked at my past scores, I realized that someone would basically have to be a no-show for me to use less than a three — I tend to score within a range of 3-4.5. You want to see the best in people and you feel like a judgmental jerk if you give someone a 1 or 2, but you really need to use the full extent of the scale to see an accurate picture of your candidate pool,” says Madison.
So she started giving the panelists (and herself) a pep talk before each presentation. “You’re not doing anyone any favors by passing them through to the next round and taking up more of their time when we don’t actually think they’re a good fit and probably won’t hire them,” she says.
Leaning on clearly articulated frameworks can also soften some of those rougher edges. “When your rubric sketches out very specific criteria, it makes it easier because you’re not judging the person — you’re judging that particular skill,” says Kofman-Burns.
STEP 5: ENABLE CANDIDATES TO SHOW, NOT TELL WITH A PRACTICAL EXERCISE.
These days, including a take home exercise is fairly common — but there are quite a few mistakes companies tend to make during this phase of the interview cycle. The Peoplism folks point out a few of the most common tripwires, and how to avoid them:
Mistake #1: Giving candidates busy work.
When designing a practical exercise, start by carefully considering the type of work folks will be taking on in their day-to-day. “Don’t just give people hand-wavy busy work like 'redesign a product' — give them a project that they would actually do,” says Kofman-Burns.
For Peoplism consultants, that includes doing client DEI assessments, which means combing through quantitative data, qualitative data and process documentation. To most closely mimic a real assessment, candidates are sent a simplified set of qualitative and quantitative data from a real Peoplism client, with any identifying information removed. Then they are asked to complete a few small deliverables that nearly mirror Peoplism’s assessment process.
The practical exercise is rooted in the must-have skillset for Peoplism candidates. “There are a lot of things we can teach once folks are on board — from presentation skills to dealing with stakeholders. But we have to be realistic about skills we want a hire to walk in with — for example, we don’t have the capacity to train someone on analytical thinking from scratch,” says Kofman-Burns. “The non-negotiable skills for a role need to be constant for everybody — otherwise you’re getting into a biased situation where you’re willing to teach analytical skills to one candidate, but not another. Be very clear about what you have the capacity to teach and hold that constant.”
Consider this framing for designing a practical exercise: What type of skill do you not want to teach to a person you hire for this job?
And make sure you have someone (if not a few different people) on your team go through the practical exercise before sending it out to candidates to iron out any kinks.
Mistake #2: Assigning projects without a clear idea of what good looks like.
Admittedly in the early days, all Peoplism candidates didn’t receive the same practical exercise. “We initially left it very open and let candidates choose from three projects that we were currently working on. This meant that folks were working on very different things and showing different skills. But we quickly realized that we couldn’t compare apples-to-apples with this approach,” says Kofman-Burns. “The other problem with assigning candidates in-flight projects we were currently working on is that we didn’t always know what the ‘right answer’ was.”
Pivoting to the same anonymized assessment project for each candidate addressed both challenges. “With our assessment, it’s work that our team has done many times and we have a clear sense of what the end result should look like, so we’re able to judge all candidates on the same scale,” says Madison.
And with clear expectations, you can define a crisp rubric to assess each project. Peoplism’s candidate work samples are scored with a set number of points for each deliverable — and just like the job application questions at the very beginning, the projects are judged completely anonymously. To cut down on bias, the folks assessing each sample have no idea which candidate submitted it.
If you cannot write out a rubric for assessing a practical exercise, it’s not the right exercise.
Mistake #3: Keeping the expectations vague.
Once you know what good looks like, tell the candidates. “In a real-life scenario, an employee should have a sense of what you are looking for in a completed project. So there’s no reason to make candidates guess in the hiring process — unless what you are trying to evaluate with the project is how good someone is at guessing what you want,” says Madison.
When assigning folks the practical exercise Peoplism clearly lays out what they are hoping to see on a macro (general competencies) and micro (how to complete each section) level. Below are some excerpts from the introduction to the project that they send candidates:
We are looking for critical thinking and analysis skills. We want you to share high-level insights with us, and be able to support those high level insights with the supporting details that lead you to your conclusions.
Using your memo as a guide, use the presentation template and fill in your insights in a bullet point format. You may want to refer to some survey results, but you do not have to generate the charts of these results for this presentation. Note that this deck IS the assessment report, so be sure that all relevant details are documented on the slides rather than having the information live in your head.
Mistake #4: Not paying candidates to complete longer projects.
“I’ve seen a lot of practical exercises that are meant to take 6-10 hours for a candidate to complete without paying the candidate at all — and I find that really unfair. It’s especially burdensome to underrepresented folks, who often have to apply to a lot more roles in order to get a job offer,” says Kofman-Burns. Her rule of thumb: If you’re not going to pay candidates to complete a take-home exercise, keep it under two hours.
The Peoplism practical exercise is on the upper end, taking most candidates around 10 hours to complete. But all candidates are paid an hourly rate that matches what their salary would be if they were doing the job full time. “For startups, it’s extremely important to get your hiring right. It’s worth it for us to invest here so we can get a fuller picture of someone’s quality of work. Spending money to pay candidates for their work is nominal compared to the expense of hiring a candidate who isn’t a great fit,” says Kofman-Burns.
Mistake #5: Overly-weighting presentation presence and not defining what that means to you.
Along with completing assessments, Peoplism consultants spend plenty of time delivering workshops. So the final stage of Peoplism’s hiring process is getting candidates to present their assessment, including a few scripted slides to evaluate their presentation skills. “We treat the presentation as if you are presenting an assessment to one of our clients, and our hiring panel responds with questions as if we were the company’s executives,” says Madison. (A quick caveat here — if presentations weren’t a necessary part of the role, Peoplism wouldn’t include a presentation in its interview loop).
Admittedly, the presentation is one of the areas where bias is most likely to creep in — it’s easy to be wowed by someone with excellent stage presence and charisma, even if the actual content on their slides isn’t all that special. “We are very clear that the anonymous work sample review is meant to score the actual content of the presentation, and the presentation is about scoring the style with which they present. Because we know that presentation style can have undo influence on how good you think the actual material is, we have purposely separated these out into two different steps,” says Madison.
“We want people to be ‘engaging’ presenters, but we know that is certainly subjective, and anything subjective is especially prone to bias. So we are careful to define what we want to see,” says Kofman-Burns. “In our rubric, we articulate that we want candidates to ‘make a connection with the audience,’ ‘weave a narrative,’ ‘speak concisely,’ and ‘back up their point of view’ when challenged.”
STEP 6: DITCH YOUR TEAM SYNCS AND MAKE A DATA-BACKED HIRING DECISION.
In the early days, Peoplism brought all the interviewers and presentation panelists back together for an interview debrief — which is a pretty common next step for most companies. But they’ve since removed this from the hiring process. “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 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.”
Instead, the Peoplism team returns to the rubrics. “It’s often clear who the top performer is,” says Kofman-Burns. “When two candidates score really closely together, we might go back to the interviewers and ask for additional feedback, rather than convening the entire group. But it’s ultimately up to the hiring manager to make the final decision based on the data they receive.”
Alternatively, the candidate group as a whole might not be as strong — made clear by the scores compared to past candidate pools. “That tells us — do we need to slow down? Do we need to continue looking? Sometimes you feel like you’ve gone through this whole hiring loop, so let’s just pick somebody. But this is such an important decision and it’s penny wise and pound foolish to rush it,” says Madison.
STEP 7: DON’T FORGET TO CLOSE THE LOOP.
Taking stock here, the entire Peoplism hiring loop includes a brief written Q&A, an interview, a take-home exercise and a presentation. But there’s one final step of the hiring process that many companies skip, which is to calibrate and close the loop with your performance data. “At this point, we’ve done many interview rounds and we can look and see how our hires performed in their hiring rubrics, and how they’re performing now. We want to see if their performance is matching the competency strengths we saw in the interview and adjust as needed,” says Kofman-Burns.
She sketches out an example. “We had a hire who ended up being one of our top performers — particularly with her analytical skills. But she actually did pretty poorly in the early version of our practical exercise. We realized it was because we weren’t being explicit with what we were looking for in the written part of the exercise, and so the candidate’s written analysis was sparse. Once she presented in person, we realized she had all that knowledge in her head. We just hadn’t clarified the level of detail we expected to see written out. So we improved our directions for future rounds,” says Kofman-Burns.
A lot of companies just don’t look at any metrics, so they can't harness any real data to improve their hiring process. They have no way of knowing if the people they thought would be good actually turned out to be high-performers.
For Madison and Kofman-Burns, often the biggest endorsements of the Peoplism hiring process come from folks they didn’t even end up hiring. “When we are sourcing for a new position, we will have people we turned down in the hiring process who are sharing our LinkedIn posts and talking about how much they enjoyed the interview experience, even though we never hired them. When you have your exes, so to speak, endorsing your company — that’s the best you could ask for,” says Madison.
Cover image by Getty Images / marchmeena29