In Opposition to the Convention of Hiring: New Principles for Hiring

Annie looked down at the table and softly said to her fiancee, “I’ve never been this nervous, or excited, about a job.” Sitting on the table was a package from the company she had been interviewing with. The interview process had been unlike anything she’d ever experienced; she felt fairly evaluated, trusting of the company mission and values, and she knew the company was a perfect fit for her. The day prior, the company informed Annie she would receive a package–the very package on her table–and would contain everything needed: the company’s hiring decision, feedback, and other insights from the hiring process.

Annie took a deep breath and opened the package.

At this point, you might be wondering, “did Annie get the job?” Rather sheepishly, I regret that I don’t have an answer. The introduction to this post is derived from a fictional story I wrote after a mentor challenged me while complaining about the “Convention of Hiring”: the accepted norm for impersonal, resume focused hiring driven by screening technology, job portals, and trivial interviews. “You sound angry,” she said. “How do you really want it to be?”

Thus, the “Annie Story” tells the narrative of a woman who looks for work after relocating. After months of tedious job applications, minimal feedback, and frustrating interviews, she is referred to a company through a meetup group. The resulting interview process focuses on values, highlights how she might contribute through activities (rather than monotonous questions and panel interviews), and includes a wealth of communication and feedback.

I’ll get right to the point: the Convention of Hiring for “professional work” (like software development) is broken and insufficient for today’s organizations. When you hear managers lament the “shortage of talent”, or job seekers commiserate with each other over frustrating recruiting practices, this status quo need not be accepted as normal. My fictional narrative isn’t meant to describe the practices and ways of interviewing I suggest companies use. Instead, it illustrates a set of principles which radically contradict the status-quo convention of hiring.

Why are principles so important in this particular case? Allow me to explain:

In 2014, I organized a learning community in San Diego for all-things-agile. As I continue to host this evolving community each month, I find myself with direct access to people participating in the convention of hiring – from hiring to job seeking. Over the course of two years, I interviewed willing participants with just a single question: “What are your goals for getting hired?” or “What are your goals for hiring?”, depending on which side of the system the individual represented. 

Beyond the obvious answers of “to get a paycheck” and “fill the requisition before I lose it”, what I discovered was a sense-making discovery of why no one seems satisfied with the accepted norms of hiring.

For folks hiring, the four most common answers to the question “What are your goals for hiring?” (with related variations in parenthesis) were as follows:

In no particular order…

  • “Increase resources (for a productivity increase).”
  • “Increase skills (or increase perceived talent/ability).”
  • “Increase cohesion/order (discipline, structure, governance).”
  • “Achieve (drive) stated organizational goals.”

Alternatively, when I interviewed folks looking for jobs and asked them, “What are your goals for getting hired?”, the answers were quite different:

  • “To grow my career (promotion/more responsibility).”
  • “To advance/develop my skills (or learn new skills).”
  • “To contribute (or have impact, purpose).”
  • “To love my job (be happy).”

When I boil these phrases down to a single word which describes their essence, it’s plain for anyone to see how radically misaligned we are at the foundation of our interview practices. In similar comparison to the misalignment of performance reviews, we’re so far off the path of shared understanding when we interview, it’s no surprise each party rarely feels satisfied with the outcome.

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With the magnitude of the gap coming into clarity, I consulted the agile manifesto values for insight. My goal was to understand where we might find leverage to work with existing practices and norms to create new experiences for folks. What I found in the Convention of Hiring was a total omission of alignment with agile values. Let’s start with the first value, “Individuals and Interactions, over Processes and Tools”.

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I suspect the vast majority of people who have either looked for work, or sought to hire a “professional” worker, are familiar with the experience of job portals, resume manipulation (for keyword gates), and other processes. I’ve heard of people with a masters degree being subject to middle school math exams for the purpose of satisfying candidate scoring heuristics. Such bias towards process and tools is common in the Convention of Hiring. As I thought deeply on how the convention prefers individuals and interactions, I could not think of anything meaningful which might be considered common or normal.

Continuing through the agile manifesto values left me feeling further disappointed. When I extract the essence of the second value, “working software”, I believe the heart of the value refers to the whole, tangible, completeness of a working increment. Thus, I argue the value in the lens of hiring highlights the whole person – the applicant or candidate.

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I struggle to see where the Convention of Hiring favors the needs of the applicant. Yet documentation runs rampant in multiple ways (have you looked at job description lately?).

What about the third value of collaboration – in this case with the applicant, akin to a “customer”?

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Is there nothing about the agile manifesto we might see in common hiring practices? Not even responding to change?

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Please understand I’m aware of, and celebrate, organizations which have transformed their hiring practices into something more human-friendly than the Convention of Hiring norms. However, I conclude the vast majority of peoples’ experiences align with a preference towards the items on the right, not the left.

While this need not necessarily signal a problem per-se (agile does not have to be something you value), I find it suspicious companies prioritizing “agile transformation” routinely ignore their hiring practices.

Therefore, I propose four simple principles for transforming the Convention of Hiring to a more human-friendly, team-centric place. These principles are not prescriptions or prescribed practices. Instead, they are a set of ideas inspired by the agile manifesto to re-shape the structure of hiring.

1. Attend to Needs

I don’t think many folks will disagree if I suggest the Convention of Hiring is focused entirely on ensuring a company’s needs are met. The need for determining if a person is a good hire is perfectly valid and reasonable. The issue, I argue, is the one-way relationship where those with the power benefit most (i.e., those doing the hiring).

Think back to the mindset-gap illustrated prior where those sitting at the interview table have radically different goals. The new hiring principle of “Attend to Needs” suggests both sides of the table participate in a process which attends to their needs.

A good friend and colleague, Jason Kerney, once shared with me the catalyzing moment for his team as they transformed hiring at Hunter Industries. He told me:

“As a software team, a huge leap forward happened when we asked ourselves, ‘Interviews suck… how do we make sure to meet the interviewee’s needs?’”

The team opted to change their goals to be threefold:

  1. Ensure the company feels the person is a good fit.
    (The standard goal of the Convention of Hiring)
  2. Ensure the person feels the company is a good fit.
  3. Ensure the person feels fairly assessed.

2. Build Up From Teams

I once worked with a software team who were labeled as “under-performing” by management. In spending time with them and sharing space, I learned much of what they struggled with was personal conflict, trust issues with management, and a lack of intimacy (knowing each other).

We put in the effort–through tears at times–to share our personal values, design a team alliance, and formulate the agreements for working together to create the culture we wanted. While trust was still low outside the team, we had taken a step towards trusting teammates and I felt a sense of energy for the first time.

The next day, I received an update from management: a new “team lead” had been hired to bring order and help me “turn the team around.” I was asked to inform the team. As you might imagine, all the work we put in together instantly crumbled and the team was caught completely off guard.

The principle of “Build Up From Teams” asks us to value and adhere to team-centric ways of working throughout the organization, including hiring. As the Convention of Hiring values management-driven decisions (which then trickle down), this new principle asks us how we might engage teams to participate from the bottom-up. If a new developer is to be hired for a software team, what stops us from asking the team what they want/need? How might we include them, even allow them to manage the hire themselves? 

Folks love to challenge this principle. I’m often asked, “So, if I’m hiring a new director, I’m supposed to let the teams do it?” Of course not. The principle doesn’t state “Let Teams Do Everything”. Instead, we might “build up from teams” by asking teams of people what impact the prior director had on them? What did they like? Dislike? What might they want in this new person?

Let this information be both a means to include teams in the process, as well as an important source of information to improve hiring conversations.

3. People Over Skills

Vervoe is a company headquartered in Melbourne, Australia with a mission to assist companies with making hiring “about merit, not background.” According to co-founder Omer Molad, his experiences with getting screened out based on college background motivated him to ensure great people aren’t excluded from the hiring process.

Part of that equation is about placing value of character over skills. When I discussed the topic with Omer, he said something interesting.

“Most hiring practices focus on technical skills. However, why do people tend to leave? Not technical skills.”

The Convention of Hiring values the “10x developer”, the candidate with alphabet soup after her name, or folks who can smoothly elaborate on their acts of heroism and test scores. None of these things ensure a person contributes to your culture, collaboration, and teams.

The principle of “People Over Skills” asks us to treat skills as the commodity item, favoring the ability of the person to contribute. In other words, how aligned is the person to our values and mission? What unique values does the person have we might benefit from? How will this person contribute outcomes beyond the job responsibilities?

Start here. Once both company and person are satisfied with fit, only then move on to testing or evaluating the commodity items (skills).

4. Mentor for the Future

What if your hiring process were your greatest recruiting tool? When people experience mentorship, rather than judgement or evaluation, they naturally form a relationship with you and your organization.

The Convention of Hiring is rooted in judgment and, typically, an absence of feedback. Further, the act of hiring itself evokes a use of human interaction which is so fleeting, it often causes harm.

Consider this: you interview 10 people for a position, ultimately selecting one. How do you know those other nine people feel heard, understood, and accepting? What if they feel unfairly judged, labeled, or had an experience which reflects poorly on your company?

You’ve potentially lost nine people from the (local) talent pool. Multiply that by how many years of ignoring the Convention of Hiring? And yet companies hide their incongruence by lamenting a shortage of talent.

The principle of “Mentor for the Future” asks us to treat the hiring process as a relationship building activity, rather than a tedious talent show. Take the time to create a two-way feedback loop with those interviewing. Share empathetic, impact feedback on what held them back and how they might prepare to interview with the company again. Use conversation and dialogue to discuss your decisions, rather than click a button to send a canned rejection email. And please stop deferring to HR folk (who did not participate in the interview) to break the bad news.

There is no shortage of talent; there are only companies who cannot identify talent or actively isolate themselves from talent.

“What About Hiring at Scale?”

As I’ve been giving conference talks on this subject for a few years, the most common complaint I hear afterwards is, “If I need to hire 50 people, how am I supposed to use these principles?”

The easy, simple place to start is: pick one which resonates with you and try the simplest thing which might help. Inspect and adapt. Continue to add principles and keep them working as you iterate.

However, the deeper, more systemic discussion starts with a comment Amitai Schleier made to me after discussing the topic. He said, “Your principles are like r/K selection theory.”

The r/K selection theory (1967) attempts to explain a living organism’s trade-off relationship between the number of offspring produced and the quality/care of parental investment. While the theory itself has taken a back-seat to more analytical frameworks, it still provides a useful foundation for modern biology.

A simple example of a r-selection species would be the Pacific salmon. After spawning upwards of thousands of eggs, the parent dies – leaving the eggs to a game of survival chance. The high volume of eggs covers the low probability of survival, resulting in the species’ continued existence. Most will die; some do not. Survivors are left to figure it out on their own.

The obvious example of a K-selection species would be a human being. After a long gestation period, humans typically produce one offspring. The resulting child then requires significant parental care and investment, ensuring a greater chance of reaching maturity. Without parental care, the K-selection species is less likely to survive, compared to a r-selection organism.

Comparing the two groups encompassed in the theory, K-selection species demonstrate traits like longer lifespan, increased intelligence, and a stable population (where r-selection species can often fluctuate rapidly).

Amitai’s comment makes perfect sense. The new principles for hiring described prior map most closely to a K-selection proposition: care for people, relationship building, and an avoidance of turnover.

Hiring at scale asks us to consider what category our behavior is encouraging. Yes, there are ways to hire large groups of people in a more human friendly way, though I have never seen a “r-selection” situation pan out as effectively as a more deliberate, intentional “K-selection” approach.

Regardless of hiring a few people or many, these new principles turn the Convention of Hiring upside-down. I argue this is not only good for the modern organization, but urgently required. Use one of these principles, or all of them if possible, to begin experimenting with a more human-friendly approach to your hiring.

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