From Applicants to Making a Hire

Sit back and relax because this is going to be a LONG post 🙂

Again I’ll pick up right where I left off at the end of Attracting Quality Job Applicants. At this point we had crafted our job application to act as a natural filter by making the application process take a little thought, and we had promoted the posting using our sites and social media accounts, the career center websites at local colleges, LinkedIn, and Craigslist.

Reviewing the Applications

Pretty quickly applicants started coming through. Not a gigantic wave, but we would get one or two a day. The goal was to evaluate these applicants enough to decide whether or not they made it to the next round, which consisted of three sample customer service questions (more on that below).

The first thing that we were looking for was whether or not the applicant followed directions. If they didn’t follow our instructions on the cover letter, or if they failed to put the correct subject line in the email, or any of the other built-in filters that I touched upon in that last post, they were eliminated from further contention.

If they followed the instructions, we’d review their cover letter to see how well they answered each of the questions. We’d review their resume to see if they had relevant experience. We’d also pay very close attention to grammar mistakes and sloppy formatting. This person – as well as probably anyone else we hire – had to have a strong attention to detail.

Shockingly, I’d say maybe a third of the people who applied were atrocious. Their inability to spend 30 minutes applying for a job, one that could provide for them and their families for many years to come, is sad to say the least. They were put into the “no” pile right away. Another third did a very solid job and were easy passes on to the next round. The final third were tough – they had an error here and there, but for the most part they were minor and potentially something that could be overlooked. People are human after all, you don’t want to eliminate a potential hire early on simply because of a typo or something along those lines.

We decided to make these decisions by consensus. There are three of us. There weren’t that many applicants. We thought it best that everyone saw every application. One person might miss something that another picks up upon. When an app came through, the first person to review it would email the others with their thoughts and then once everyone had chimed in we’d email back and forth as long as it took to come to a consensus. Generally this took less than half a day. Immediately I would then contact them. Speaking of contacting them…

Communicating with Applicants

Before we go any further I wanted to expound upon one of my reasons that most hiring processes suck:

It’s a very uncomfortable process for the applicants. They never know where they stand or what’s next. It’s not uncommon for someone to wait weeks before hearing a response from a company they apply to.

We’ve all been on the other side of the hiring fence, and we all hate this uncertainty. I’m sure you dislike it as much as I do. That’s why we contacted everyone as soon as we made a decision throughout the entire process. Generally within a day or two we would let the candidate know where they stood, whether they were moving forward or not. I feel like doing this is only fair. The least that you can do for someone is to let them know where they stand. It hopefully makes a stressful process a little less stressful. It is, after all, people’s livelihoods that we’re talking about here. It pisses me off how poor most companies are at this, and I’ve always vowed never to let my company treat people with such disregard.

The Next Round

If a candidate was a “yes” to continue forward, we sent them an email thanking them for their application and notifying them that “in the coming days” we would be contacting them with more information about the job as well as some sample customer service questions that we wanted answered within three business days.

This was one of those things we did by design. First, we wanted to see who took the time to write back and say “thank you.” Each email back and forth was another data point on how well they communicated. I think everyone except one person wrote back. Not writing back wouldn’t disqualify them, but it certainly wasn’t a positive.

We also wanted to forewarn them of the impending three-day limit on the responses because that was an absolute deal-breaker for us. If they couldn’t spend 30-45 minutes on writing samples over the course of three business days than they weren’t cut out for a job where there will be lots of writing quick email responses.

I generally waited a day or two and then sent them that next email. In it there were three sample customer service questions. This technique was taken directly from that 37signals job app that I mentioned in the first post. Each one was pretty easy to answer by spending a few minutes on Detailed Image. We asked them to “provide a concise yet thorough answer as if you were an employee helping out this customer via e-mail, using our website as a reference.” Here’s a sample:

“I just purchased my first BMW and I want to take really good care of it but I have no idea where to start. Can you help point me in the right direction so I can clean and protect this car inside and out?”

The good answers linked to our Detailing Guide, Ask a Pro Blog, and/or Starter Packages, as well as congratulating the customer on their purchase and also inviting them to contact us any time if they had any further questions.

For each of the three questions, we had a variety of possible answers that we’d accept, and for the most part everyone who answered the questions did a very good job.

Being Upfront With Candidates

One of the other things I mentioned that I hate about most hiring processes is that:

It’s not uncommon for a last-minute deal-breaking curveball (salary, hours, location, etc) to appear that wasn’t communicated early on that would have saved everyone a bunch of time.

We didn’t want this. We didn’t want to waste our time going through a long interviewing process just to find out that a candidate didn’t like something about us. Nor would they want to spend all of their free time interviewing for a job that they wouldn’t even want.

So while the job description contained a lot of information, we decided that we wanted to provide them with a thorough list of anything and everything that might sway their interest. We did this in the form of a two-page PDF that I attached when I sent over the sample questions.

We had bullets in there hyping us up a bit:

One of the best parts about a small, fast-growing organization like Pure Adapt is that we can and will adapt your job to your interests and skills. There is no ceiling at our company – if you work hard, do good work, and respect your peers, we will continue to advance you.

And:

Unlike some jobs, we will not require that you commute to work when the weather is bad. During this past winter, a particularly bad one, we closed five times due to snow storms. If we think that our employees cannot make it to work safely, we will shut the warehouse down for the day and ask you to work from home.

As well as bullets that we knew might talk some people out of the job:

We do our best to ensure that our warehouse is a safe and comfortable work environment. We provide bottled water to all of our employees, we have a kitchen area with a refrigerator and microwave, and everything is cleaned regularly. However, it is still a warehouse and it can get dusty at times, despite our best efforts. During the winter it does get cold. We generally wear sweatshirts, jeans, and winter hats most days during the winter. We replaced the heating system with a much better unit this year so we hope that it will be warmer in general, but it will still be a cool environment in the winter. Generally the Spring through Fall is great, but those extra hot summer days can be a bit warm.

We also included all of the salary and benefits information in this PDF. We debated it a little, but ultimately decided that it was best to include it upfront and get rid of people who thought the job might pay significantly more or have some benefit that we don’t offer. That said, I think we offered a great package. We did a lot of salary research on Salary.com and also used Inc.’s 2011 Compensation Guide. The total package that we offered was higher than similar jobs in our area and more comparable to this type of job in a bigger city.

In general, our thoughts are to pay someone market value for the job and then give them clearly outlined opportunities to “jump the curve” and increase their role to a position that requires more responsibilities but also has a higher market value. To me, cost of living raises are basically a given, but to get a gigantic raise there has to be a gigantic increase in value to the company. In our short history I can say that we’re more than willing to provide those raises when someone does an exceptional job. Actually, “more than willing” isn’t the right phrase. “Super pumped” is probably more like it, because that means that they’re helping our company succeed. Nothing makes me happier than rewarding someone for doing great work.

We did have a few good candidates drop out because of the information in this PDF. It sucks a little bit, but ultimately it’s for the best if we’re not a good fit for each other. Luckily we did have a nice solid group that had done great up to this point and we were ready to interview.

Interviews

Everyone we decided to interview had followed directions, been responsive and polite in their emails, and done a good job answering the sample questions. In short, we felt they all had the aptitude to do the job. What we wanted to accomplish with the interviews was to get to know them a bit personally, see if they’d be a good culture fit, and ask them a few questions. The goal was to keep the interviews short and sweet – roughly 30 minutes.

For each person the questions were different. We asked at least one behavioral based question, one question to test their problem solving skills on the spot (a good example is to play a game of twenty questions, although we used a different game in these interviews), and a few questions about their resume. The exact questions differed based upon what type of information we were looking to get from them. We wanted to address any concerns we had through those questions.

We decided to have all three of us do one single 30 minute interview. I know that it sucks for the applicant to be 1 vs 3, but again we wanted everyone to hear and see everything. Given that we’re not super experienced at hiring, we needed everyone’s full attention to detail to ensure we didn’t miss something important. We did our best to take turns asking a line of questions so that it was sort of like three 10 minute one-on-one interviews with two people watching and not three people firing questions from every direction.

To ensure that we were able to spend the full 30 minutes asking these questions, we emailed over a list of pre-interview questions for them to email back to us prior to the interview. It was both a way to save time in the interview and it also acted as one more test, one more email exchange. They were all yes/no questions like “Do you have a reliable source of transportation to our warehouse?” Stuff that you have to ask, but that isn’t worth wasting face-to-face time on.

For a location, we decided against using our warehouse for this initial interview. It’s a bit out of the way for most people in the Albany area, and it’s also difficult to find us once you enter the park. You have to get a permit from the gate and then follow pretty precise directions. We also didn’t want to interrupt the day-to-day operations by having interviewees coming in and out all day long.

Instead, we decided to rent a room at a local coffee shop, Professor Java’s Coffee Sanctuary. The location is central to almost everywhere in the Capital Region. It’s no more than a twenty minute drive from Troy, Schenectady, Albany, or any of the suburbs. It’s also a steal – $90 for three hours, and that includes food! Whatever food you order comes off the $90. We ordered dinner prior to the interviews, and offered drinks to our interviewees. The food total came to around $60 or $70, so the cost for the room was only ~$25 plus a tip. Can’t beat that! We go there semi-regularly as it is, but we’ll definitely be renting it out again anytime we need it.

Making a Final Choice

In theory, we had the best possible scenario. We had multiple candidates that we believed could do the job. After the interviews there was not an immediate consensus on who we wanted to offer the job. We had several great candidates, and they all had completely different backgrounds, which made it very difficult to compare. Ultimately we decided on the person that we felt did the best job from start to finish in the application process and also had the best long-term fit at the company. It wasn’t easy, and by no means were we 100% sure.

Once we made the decision to hire Reece, we emailed him letting him know that we’d like to offer him the job, and asked if he’d be able to come in to the warehouse for roughly an hour the following Monday. We wanted him to meet the entire team, see the warehouse environment, and then officially present him with the offer and decide upon a start date. He will be starting the first week of January and we couldn’t be more excited!

Afterword: The Risks in Hiring Like This

First and foremost, despite how logical this hiring process seems (to me anyway), it doesn’t guarantee anything. You’d need hundreds, if not thousands, of data points at all sorts of companies to determine whether or not this truly is the right way to hire someone for a position like this. I think it increased our chances of hiring the right person, but increased chances doesn’t guarantee anything other than that. It’s possible that we hired the perfect person. It’s possible that we hired the wrong person. Time will only tell. People like guarantees, but when it comes to hiring there are none. You do the best that you can and then go from there. I think it’s far more important how you handle the right or wrong person once you determine they’re the right or wrong person than it is that you pick the correct person each and every time, a goal that will prove impossible for even the best.

There is one other major risk that you have to be willing to accept when you hire like this: you might not find anyone. Sure that’s a risk with all hiring processes, but because we had a somewhat challenging application process we didn’t get hundreds and hundreds of applicants. And the applicants we did get were subject to all of the hurdles that I’ve outlined in these posts. At times we wondered if anyone would make it. Were we being too hard? Were we being unrealistic? Thoughts like that were constantly up for discussion. I’d encourage you to stick to your guns and shoot for the best of the best. Just realize that it might take longer to find the person that you’re looking for. If we didn’t like any of the applicants – a potential reality going right up to the interviews – we were fully prepared to wait until the Spring graduating class where we would have theoretically had much larger pool of candidates viewing the job boards. If you’re looking to hire someone fast, and the speed of hiring is as important as anything else (say, a seasonal hire), this process isn’t going to work.

With all of that said, I hope this series of posts was insightful and helpful. Merry Christmas all!

Read Part 1: Why Most Hiring Processes Suck
Read Part 2: Attracting Quality Job Applicants

7 comments on From Applicants to Making a Hire

  1. Dale says:

    Thanks Adam! Interesting series of posts, I will file away in my memory bank and hopefully will need it someday!

    As a side note, now that this is out, future applicants will have a cheat sheet right? But I guess if someone is savvy enough to research your company and find this guide, that’s the type of person you want anyway!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Dale. Exactly! And we probably won’t be hiring for customer service again in the near future either. The more likely hires are in other areas like programming and design where the hiring process would be quite a bit different – same basic idea but we’d test aptitude in different ways obviously.

  2. […] something that we have to do our best to vet in the hiring process. It’s one of the many reasons why we communicated with our applicants so much via email prior to even interviewing them. You can learn a surprising amount about someone by observing their […]

  3. Hi,

    I found it quite interesting, although you can only use this approach for a candidate rich environment, where there are enough qualified applications. In areas like special BPM tools, Developers, etc. you can be happy if you receive 5 CVs in weeks time. Even then most of these will not qualify.

    Also in many companies you need to do pro-active candidate sourcing, where you reach out to the candidates to make them interested and they dont apply to jobs. Of course also in this case it is important to have a good employer brand and to explain the whole process etc…

    Cheers,

    Noemi

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks for reading Noemi! There are definitely different concerns depending upon the position, the company, and the experience level you’re looking for in a candidate. We like the approach of hiring fresh out of college, at least for the positions we’ve filled thus far. If we decided to scale up fast we’d likely need applicants with more experience and expertise, and with that we’d face new challenges.

  4. Klaas Teschauer says:

    So how did Reece like the process?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      That’s a good question Klass. In talking with him since then I think he found it to be fair. He’s still with us almost 4 years later so overall I think it worked out well for both parties.

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