Part 2 of a 2-part post on what I’ve learned as a hiring manager. It’s worth spending time on your process.
Part 2: Interviews
Near as I can tell, interviews are mandatory. Even the most highly recommended candidate or previous employee must be interviewed in the same manner as every other candidate. In truth, I used to dread interviewing - both as a manager and a candidate. I struggled to answer trivia questions, I failed to make a connection, I forgot that the real interview is the first 90 to 180 days. As good as we like to think we are at hiring, there’s just no way you can get a good feel for how someone operates day-to-day in just a few hours. So then, why bother interviewing at all? What can you accomplish and how can you, the manager, accurately evaluate someone for an open position in that time?
Spoiler alert: you can’t.
Still, that’s okay. Interviews aren’t about you. They’re about your team and your candidate. No two candidates are alike, and not everyone interviews well. Imagine you had a solid recommendation from someone you trust, but they struggle with your interview process. Would you question the recommendation, the process, or the candidate? Perhaps it’s any of the three, but the only part you can control is the process. I think the best you can do is represent your team and your company in the most honest & straightforward way possible. Just like writing a job listing, the best candidates will respond to a thoughtful interview process.
Even with a well-planned process & good execution, hiring doesn’t always go right. You might make the wrong hire, or let the perfect employee slip past. Mistakes are inevitable learning opportunities you can use to improve your process and as a reminder that evaluation doesn’t stop once the offer letter is signed.
Lastly, I’m an engineering & operations manager. My process is built around hiring for technical & engineering positions, though I think the approach can be broken down to basics and used for almost any position.
Now, how’s your calendar looking? Do you have some time to chat? Good, let’s get started!
Communicating with your candidates
In my current position at a mid-market corporation, much of my initial communication is handled through an Enterprise Recruitment Platform. Candidates apply or are funneled in via external sources like Linkedin, indeed, or other job aggregators. Their contact information and application materials are made available to me, which allows me to review & screen candidates in the platform and have our internal recruiter reach out to schedule an initial interview. At smaller companies, I was usually the only point of contact with candidates. Their applications would reach my inbox directly, and I would handle the scheduling.
Candidates I don’t feel are a good fit will usually not receive a reply, which is fine so long as that’s made clear in the application process. The most basic rule I have is that any candidate you reach out to or talk with but who isn’t selected to move on must receive a timely response. Even if you miss out on a good candidate, it’s the responsible thing to do. It’s not fair to keep people on the hook. If you really wanted them to move on, you would have selected them…and really, what’s wrong with reaching out after the fact if you change your mind? Just be open and honest in your discussion.
Unless your organization requires all communication to happen through the recruiter or hiring platform, I suggest reaching out directly via email, call, or even chat. Anything official should happen through official channels - job offers must always be in writing using your organization’s required format, for instance. Things like scheduling, follow-ups, and questions are usually fine to handle through other methods, and provide a more comfortable and personal experience. Don’t be afraid to answer questions openly and honestly outside of interviews. It can be hard to come up with questions on the spot, so take the time to respond completely, or offer time to chat outside of regular interviews. Goodness knows, I don’t always have a good answer right away. I’ve found that if you come up with a better answer later and can’t shake that feeling, it’s best to just reach out and correct yourself. Your candidates will appreciate the transparency!
In all cases, I strongly recommend being open and honest with your candidate. In one example, my organization decided to outsource the entire engineering division. This was a huge portion of the people we (in reliability engineering & operations) worked with on a daily basis, which significantly changed our mission & outlook. This also happened right as we were starting to interview for an open position. Events like this are important to share with your candidate! Unless it’s trade secrets or something you can’t disclose for legal reasons, be as open, honest, and transparent as possible throughout the entire process. Like I’ve said, you aren’t just filling a position - you’re building your team.
Always be professional and consistent in your communications. Let people know what they can expect, when they can expect to hear from you, and provide some kind of deadline for when they should reach out to you if they don’t hear back. Being busy isn’t an excuse to waste someone’s time!
Documentation, and sharing it
I dedicated a section to this in Part 1, but I want to hammer it in. As a quick recap, you should document your hiring process in a format suitable for general consumption by:
- Your team (so everyone understands & can contribute to the process)
- Your company (for auditing, compliance, and cross-team collaboration)
- Your candidate (as to set expectations from the outset)
Feel free to use my hiring documentation as a starting point!
I generally encourage people to apply for a job even if they think they aren’t qualified. We craft job listings to the best of our ability, but impostor syndrome is real and not everyone who is qualified will apply. On the flip side, you might need a good method of handling underqualified candidates or those who aren’t exactly interested in what you’re looking for. This is where pre-screening comes in. It can take a few forms. You might use one or more of these, but they should happen early on in the hiring process. For example, my company requires a recruiter call first, then after my 1:1 with the candidate, I send along a short questionnaire before scheduling the technical/team interview. Some pre-screening methods follow:
- A short discussion with the candidate. This often takes the form of a recruiter call or a 1:1 between the hiring manager and the candidate. If your team communicates primarily via text/chat, or for accessibility reasons, consider using a text-based platform for better representation on both sides.
- Questionnaires. These may or may not be technical, but like your hiring process overall, you should have a goal in mind. With this, I’m looking for effective written communication skills and how they approach novel problems. There are some opinionated questions as well. Can my candidate disagree respectfully? These (like the entire interview process) are an awful place for trivia questions, but can be kinda fun with questions like “What’s the best Linux distribution?” Obviously there’s no right answer (cough Debian cough) but it lets a candidate express their opinion or make a case for something.
- Take-home exercises. These are usually things like programming activities or contrived scenarios where the candidate can showcase their skills as they relate to the actual day-to-day work. I once interviewed at Slack for a developer support manager position, where they wanted to know if I could do the job. They provided 5 real-world prompts from customer support issues and enough context to get started, and expected responses as though I’d be replying to a customer. I really liked that exercise, as it put me in the seat of a developer support engineer.
- Reference checks. These usually happen at the end of interviews, but in some situations you might ask for references upfront. There’s no hard and fast rule saying you can’t reach out to a candidate’s references prior to interviewing them, but do be considerate.
As mentioned, my employer requires a pre-screening call between the recruiter & the candidate. They’re usually looking for the basics, like if they’ve read the description, meet the minimum requirements, explain the benefits, and confirm salary requirements. This takes a small burden off my shoulders, though I usually end up asking some of the same questions. Salary is one of the more important aspects of job negotiation, so I like to ensure the candidate received the right information and can accept the salary range offered.
I’ve had some cases where I wanted to talk with a pre-screened candidate who was rejected (or self-rejected) after the initial recruiter screen. The recruiter had no problem with this. It’s important to understand why the candidate didn’t move on, so talk with your recruiter if they didn’t advance the candidate before reaching out to the candidate directly.
Other than the recruiter call, I’m not subject to any other employer-required interviews. My engineering organization did have a panel interview made up of other employees from around the company. It was not formally required outside of the engineering org, but it was such a great process that most hiring managers wanted to participate. Of course, your organization might be different. Since you’ve already planned your interview process, you should have a good understanding of any employer-required interviews.
Advancing, or not
By nature, interviewing is a highly selective process. Even if you’re lucky(?) enough to be hiring more than one candidate, you’ll have to decide who advances and who doesn’t. This is one of those management things which doesn’t get easier over time, though your intuition will improve with each interview. Every situation will be different, and this is absolutely a skill you’ll have to develop. I’ll offer what advice I can.
- Don’t be a fence-sitter. If you’re hemming and hawing between advance or don’t, you probably shouldn’t advance the candidate. You will make mistakes. You’ll miss out on good candidates, but don’t worry - if they’re good, they’ll find a position. Being decisive is what’s best for everyone. It allows you and your candidate to move on with obvious focus.
- Don’t dwell. This goes hand-in-hand with fence-sitting. It’s rather unfair to leave a pretty good candidate on the hook because you want to see who else comes along. Advance them, or don’t.
- Consult with your interview team. If you’ve advanced a candidate through the initial screening, ask your team to evaluate the information you’ve gathered so far. If they reject a candidate you liked, consider whether it makes sense to advance. You’ll have to use good judgement here; rejections from your team prior to meeting the candidate shouldn’t happen for frivolous reasons, and you’re well within your right as hiring manager to advance a candidate regardless. As always, make your reasoning known when you exercise that right.
- Communicate often! Provide regular updates (once or twice a week) to your candidate.
- Hire or no hire. Joel says it well. “Never say “Maybe, I can’t tell.” If you can’t tell, that means No Hire. It’s really easier than you’d think. Can’t tell? Just say no! If you are on the fence, that means No Hire.” Reading his guide to interviewing helped me a ton back when I was just starting out. You can probably see his influence in my process even now! It’s aimed at software engineering managers and it’s very good. Open it in a new tab and go read it. Or read it now, and come back here later. I’ll wait…
Maybe you see a pattern in my advice…that’s because interviewing is time-consuming, costly, and can drain focus on other initiatives. It’s in the best interests of your candidates and your team to act decisively.
The 3 interviews I use, and why
I explained these a little bit in Part 1, but only a smidge. Using 3 interviews and a team of about 5 people (including myself) feels Goldilocks to me. Who makes up your interview team is more important than how many interviews, though I think it’s important to space interviews out a little bit. Some considerations on who to include in your interview team:
- Direct co-workers. The people who will be responsible for training your new hire, answering their questions, and working with them day-to-day.
- Indirect co-workers. People your new hire might work with on a semi-regular basis when cross-team collaboration is necessary.
- Office mates. People your new hire might see at the water cooler, but are unlikely to work with directly. These folks can be great for values & non-technical interviews.
- Other hiring managers. I love when other managers interview my candidates, and I love when I get the chance to do the same. Managers have a different perspective on candidates & team dynamics, as we’re usually “outsiders” on the team.
Don’t forget to take notes! It doesn’t matter if you write ‘em down or type ‘em up, but keep them someplace safe. In some cases, your employer might require you to submit any notes you take to the People department, but more often they’ll just ask you to hang on to your notes.
Getting to know you 1 on 1
This is just me and the candidate. I like to reach out and schedule these directly. I’ll set expectations and let the candidate know, this is a short (15-30 minute) video call just to get to know them. When scheduling, I might share some of the questions they can expect to answer, which are usually things like:
- Why are you interested in this org/position?
- What did you like in the job listing?
- What do you want to do in your next position?
- Is there anything you dis/liked in your previous position?
I generally avoid asking about job history, as their resume usually speaks to that, though if there’s a particular project or position you’d like to know more about, this is a great time to do it. Make sure to leave time for your candidate to ask questions as well. It’s fine if they don’t have questions too! I like these calls a lot, it’s a great way to make a friendly introduction and helps establish you as the central point of contact for the process.
After the 1:1
By the time I’m finishing up the call, I have a pretty good idea if I’m going to advance someone or not. Unless they totally bomb out of the call, I’ll send them the full hiring process documentation and my pre-technical questionnaire at this time. After the candidate completes the questionnaire, I’ll submit all this information to my team, along with my notes. I’ll ask the team to evaluate the responses and any application materials to help inform my decision to advance, or not.
I’ve had interviews where I really enjoyed talking with a candidate, but their written responses showed they weren’t qualified for the position. That’s fine! Let them know and move on. The reverse of this is also true; it’s possible a candidate provides exactly what you’re looking for in the written responses but doesn’t interview as well. That’s worth considering if your team communicates mostly through written form.
For me, team interviews double as a technical interview. The team are best qualified to represent the day-to-day technical challenges and evaluate the same. Still, there are a variety of approaches, and nothing requires you to combine technical & team interviews. I prefer this method primarily because I’m hiring for a technical role, and the team interview provides a good amount of time for both technical discussion and getting to know each other.
Other examples I’ve seen (usually for software engineering roles) will have a candidate complete a take-home activity, where the output is then reviewed in the team/technical interview. Also, not all team interviews have to happen simultaneously! There’s plenty of merit in meeting with team members or direct colleagues 1-on-1 over a few hours. These tend to take a bit longer and are a bit more logistically challenging, but they can be more comfortable and allow for a different depth of interaction. Consider these interviews if your candidate will be working with other teams.
If your team is new to interviewing or are trying out a new process, consider enlisting a colleague to sit in as a mock candidate for evaluation purposes. Pick someone to act as the interview lead, and resist the urge to jump in at any silence. Ask the team what they might change for an actual interview, and have your mock candidate provide feedback on what they liked or disliked about the process. You aren’t going for the perfect process, but for engagement and partcipation from your candidate and everyone on the team. Don’t let your interview leader dominate the discussion; make sure everyone asks questions and gets involved.
When scheduling your team interview, include an agenda & roster. Even if your candidate doesn’t go stalking them on Linkedin or whatver, it’s a nice way to see who they’ll be talking with and what role they have in relation to the open position. In short, it allows candidates to be their most prepared.
When it’s time to team interview your candidate for-realsies, focus first on comfort! Ask about their day, introduce everyone, ask them to introduce themselves. Sitting in a room (or video call) with a bunch of strangers can be intimidating, so do your best to break down that barrier. If you’re using a 1:1 interview style, you (the hiring manager) should be the first and last person they talk with as a reference point and for checking in. These don’t have to be long as you’re just facilitating.
If you are interviewing in a group setting, take a back seat and facilitate as you would with almost any other meeting. Be mindful of the time, make sure the candidate has time to ask questions, and put a hard stop on a technical activity if one exists. Don’t hesitate to call on people to ask questions, and teach them how to ask follow-up questions in case the conversation starts to lag. If there’s too much silence, ask your candidate about something they enjoy, or point to an accomplishment on their resume and ask for more details. Everyone is passionate about something, try and find out what it is!
After the interview
As soon as possible, get the interview team together to discuss their thoughts. Bring up any observations you might have, but listen to your team first and foremost. If they have valid concerns, it’s probably better to not advance the candidate and continue your search. As always, let the candidate know how things went as soon as possible and without ambiguity. Simply saying “We’ll be in touch” is not sufficient - consider “I’ll contact you to schedule your next interview soon” if you’re advancing them.
Get a second opinion
The goal of a second opinion (or gut check) interview is to get an outside (non-team) perspective on your candidate. You might think they’re great, but someone on a team you work closely with could be sounding the alarm. Second opinions are a way to measure how your candidate interacts with & treats people who aren’t in their immediate sphere.
My favorite example of this was the final interview at ReadyTalk. We liked the process so much, we kept it around for the engineering organization post-acquisition. It went like this:
- The company maintained a pool of trained interviewers from across the organization, not just the Engineering department.
- Each interviewer would pull from a premade set of questions related to real-world examples of the core values (e.g., for Integrity, asking “Have you ever experienced a loss for doing what is right?”)
- An interview was scheduled with 5 interviewers (one for each core value) and the hiring manager was usually not involved, although their manager might be.
- The interview team met and compared notes afterwards. They had a lot of leeway in advancing or rejecting a candidate.
This kind of interview requires a strong culture and strong individuals. It’s easy to get caught up in the group dynamic and have the loudest opinion crowd out the others, be it hire or no hire. For the most part, I thought this process worked well at ReadyTalk, but lost effectiveness over time as the original culture & people were lost years into the acquisition.
Even if you don’t have a companywide secondary interview process, you can still request time from others you trust. Don’t prime them with too much information or opinion ahead of time; let them meet the candidate on their terms. For example, one engineer we worked closely with wrote up some hypothetical scenarios to ask our candidates to better understand their thought process and how they might interact with other departments in a fairly real-world situation. I liked this as it was a great representation of working at the company and with the engineer in question.
Gut checks are a great chance for your candidate to get a view of your team from the outside as well. Encourage them to ask lots of hard questions and things they might not want to ask you or your team directly.
Take the external feedback to heart. If someone you trust gives you valid feedback, you’d do well to listen!
Making the decision
There is no perfect candidate, because there are no perfect people. It should follow that your hiring process is also imperfect. Still, you deserve to be picky-choosy, as does your team - within reason. Rejections should be valid and based in reality. It should go without saying, never reject a candidate based on a protected status or other immutable characteristic. Not only is it illegal, it’s just wrong.
There are times where I’ve had to choose between multiple candidates, and times where I’ve had a standout candidate, which made The Decision very easy. Much of the same criteria from Advance Or Don’t applies here, but if a candidate has made it this far, it’s not quite as easy. I have heard stories of managers coming up with multiple well-qualified candidates for a single position and hiring more than one anyway - finding great people is tough work, why not bring them on and help find something for them to do? Like Joel suggests in his article, you can’t really go wrong if you hire smart people who get things done. My hat goes off to greedy managers!
More realistically, you’ll have to pick just one candidate. By this point you should have everything you need to make that decision. But then, is it your decision to make? I would suggest that yes, the decision on who to hire (or not) rests fully with you, the hiring manager. You would do well to listen to your team, certainly, but the final call is yours alone. It might not always align with what the team wants.
As an example, teams can grow homogenous over time, and may not be willing to consider candidates who don’t follow their ideology. Part of managing is to build & grow your team, which might mean introducing some discomfort. If you’re going to make a hiring decision which goes against the recommendation of your team, you absolutely need to explain your reasoning and set expectations upfront. I make it very clear at the start, hiring is my job. Just as my team members are subject matter experts in technology, I am the subject matter expert in management. I will take all available input and make the best possible decision at the time, and I expect my team will understand that my decision was made earnestly. All that said, I’ve never made a hiring decision that wasn’t in alignment with the team’s vision as well. It should be the exception, not the rule - much like all top-down decisions.
If you’re really struggling to choose between multiple candidates, remember that you’re not filling a position, you’re building your team. Consider what you’ll need six months from now, and pick that person. Alternately, consider the candidate who is least like your current team. Perhaps you have a candidate with more of an operations background on a team of developers. Think of the valuable insights they could bring from the Ops side of things. If your team are mostly senior, bring on someone junior to provide mentorship opportunities.
One more thing - you won’t get instant feedback on your decision. It’ll be six months until it all shakes out, so plan to set expectations for your new hire and your team for the first few months in case it doesn’t work out and you have to go back to the hiring board. Ideally it’s a rarity, but keep it in mind.
Rejections & feedback
Rejection sucks. It sucks to be rejected, and it sucks to turn someone down. The good news is, you can make it suck less! Perhaps you’ve been rejected for a position that you liked. Your resume was perfect, your cover letter brilliant, and you crushed the interview, only to be rejected with “No thanks” or some seemingly arbitrary reason. It leaves you wanting, wondering what exactly they didn’t like, or what you could improve upon. Some companies (like GitLab) have taken to providing more directed feedback to help a candidate improve. I’ve taken to doing the same.
As a manager, you are tasked with providing your professional opinion on the performance of the people you manage. Though a rejected candidate isn’t someone you manage, you did ask them to spend time with you and you did evaluate their performance throughout the process. It’s my professional opinion that the least you can do is provide detailed feedback on their application. The way I handle it is like this:
- Contact the candidate through whatever means you used to schedule interviews. For me, this is always a direct email. Consider a neutral subject, like “Update from [company] on [position].”
- Express your thanks for their time, and let them know they weren’t selected for the position.
- ASK if they would like your feedback on their application.
- Thank them again and wait to hear back.
Don’t worry about coming off all “who the heck is this person, evaluating me when they didn’t even hire me!” to your candidate. You’re operating in a professional capacity here, you have their best interests in mind, and you want them to succeed. In every case where I offered feedback, the candidate was interested to hear it. In one case, I rejected two candidates not because they were unqualified, but because the team & company weren’t in the right place to take on a mentorship role. Reasons for rejections will vary, but if you’re rejecting qualified candidates, the reasoning should be sound and obvious - to you anyway. Why not make it obvious to your candidate as well? In some cases, you should suggest they apply again or ask if you can reach out in the future should things change. You’ve already gone through the work and they made it to the end, right?
There’s no requirement for sharing feedback. If it doesn’t feel comfortable or doesn’t seem right, don’t force it. I think it’s almost always worth offering, though.
One last thing before we move on to welcoming your new hire - you might wait for your candidate to accept your job offer before sending out rejection notices. Approaches vary, but above all else make sure to communicate with your candidates and don’t keep them waiting. It usually takes time for someone to decide on a job offer, and I don’t personally have an issue with reaching out to a secondary candidate if our first offer falls through. Some managers are more comfortable with restarting the search, with the thinking that if you didn’t make an offer to the other candidates, they wouldn’t be the right hire.
Welcoming your new hire
Sending out job offers is right up there with handing out raises or seeing employees advance. It’s a happy moment, and should be treated as such! Outside of the official job offer, I like to send a congratulatory email right away, again making myself available for questions. I’ll usually send a follow-up “welcome” message a few days later, which contains things like:
- Confirmation of their start day. Best to make sure everyone is on the same page here!
- A heads-up on any official HR communications, and when they might arrive (if you know.)
- An agenda for the team, to set the stage for their new working week. For example, our first meeting starts at 10:00 every day. Sending this out a few weeks in advance hopefully provides the new hire with enough time to update their schedule.
- Any tools you use for communication or things you recommend. This is a great time to ask if they have a webcam/headset, if your company supplies or reimburses for them.
- Ask about any other hardware/environment. Chances are, you’ll have to provision or arrange for new hardware. Ask what they want!
Once we get closer to their first day (usually the business day prior to their start date) I’ll print out (or send along) a first day agenda and some welcome documentation. I came across a tweet by @rothgar about what he wishes for when being onboarded remotely. Even for an in-office employee, this is a great list. The welcome email will contain things like account access and expectations within the first month or two.
This might all seem like a lot of communication, but that weird liminal space between jobs can feel kind of scary. I think it’s better to reach out regularly to help keep your new hire excited and engaged, and to show how you communicate as their new manager. Why not start building rapport with your new hire right away?
If there’s just one thing I hope you take away from this, it’s that hiring is never just filling an open position. Along with thoughtful planning, a well-executed interview process can help you find the people you want as your team grows and changes.
- Plan it all out first! Check out Part 1 for more information on how I plan for hiring.
- Understand that hiring isn’t an exact science. Do your best to represent your team, company, and open position, and recognize that mistakes are certainly possible.
- Act decisively. Don’t fence-sit or dwell on whether or not to advance or hire someone. After each stage, ask yourself - hire or no hire?
- Who makes up your interview team is more important than how many people or interviews you schedule. Get a mix of people, from team members to colleagues to office-mates.
- Always get a second opinion from a trusted source.
- Make your decision, send an offer, & provide feedback to candidates you’ve turned down (but only if they’d find it useful.)
- Help get your new hire excited to join the team!
What do you think?
Thanks for reading! Whether you’re a new manager or headed for the C-suite, I hope you found this informative. Along with buying breakfast burritos and cracking wise during all-hands meetings, hiring is one of the most important things you do as a manager. It’s probably a misnomer to say this is “my” process as it’s woven from so many threads provided by others. Would you like to add yours? Leave a comment or send me a message on Linkedin.