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September 14, 2016

Communication in Tech Hiring Part 2

Previously, I explored the benefits of a vacancy brief vs. a bullet point job specification as a mechanism for grabbing the attention of tough-to-hire tech talent. Adopting these briefs during the hiring process – with their easy-read, story-based approach, tailored to a well-defined target hire – is a quick win not yet commonplace due to the somewhat outdated idea that “if someone is interested in working for us, they should make the effort to know why we are a great business”.

This is a great sentiment – and in a perfect world would probably be true. But with competition for talent so intense that the average job seeker is faced with 20 different aggressively marketed opportunities in just one day of their search, organisations are going the extra mile to make job seeking easier for them to secure an instant advantage. This article will address how to commit to a Recruitment Process in tech hiring.

Show vs Tell

Telling an applicant about a role in the context of your business is one thing. Regardless of what is said, a job seeker’s real impression is formed by what is done. Everything in your tirelessly worked brief claims will mean very little if the hiring process that follows is a chaotic mess that de-prioritises recruitment as an inconvenience.

It’s perhaps the most widely accepted business mantra that an organisation’s employees are its biggest asset. Yet how many firms have considered the idea that somewhere in the multitude of CVs and interviews that make up its current hiring process, future employees are:

  • Not receiving feedback
  • Picking up mixed messages
  • Re-arranging their lives to attend interviews they weren’t told about initially or having existing ones constantly rescheduled
  • Confused as to what the next step in the process is
  • Unable to reconcile selection decisions with the job spec
  • Or generally just feeling like an afterthought
  • Bowing out to work for businesses with a swift, polished process that runs like clockwork

Hiring communication is about so much more than what applicants are told – behaviour as a mechanism for communication is far more important. The way to take ownership of this lies in outlining and controlling a recruitment process that accurately reflects your organisation’s culture and values.

Identify Target Applicants Early

When hiring from competitive employment markets it is absolutely essential that recruitment remain both personal and informed. The reason recruitment processes become impersonal lies in a lack of impetus to spot target applicants swiftly and prioritise them. With time-poor hiring managers engaged in CV reviews and interviews for applicants that will never be hired, the result is an average experience for all, rather a memorable one for the few who really warrant it.

How can the right applicants be identified sooner? Equip those performing initial selection with the same criteria as those interviewing. Blocking all contact between front-line recruitment agencies and Hiring Managers may seem like a time-saving device but is in fact the first step towards a generic hiring process that sees future employees buried in a huge, anonymous pile of CVs.

For every vacancy, identify four clear criteria that applicants absolutely must meet in order to be interviewed. Keep these broad and tied to a company-based example.

Must have five years experience in Python  ❌

is an incredibly narrow requirement that will likely exclude the best hires. Instead:

Must have acted in a senior engineering capacity on at least one commercial Python project ✓

coupled with

Tell us what the software was designed to do, how the stack and team were structured, what the challenges were and about your personal role ✓

allows room for the personalisation and judgement that are key to great hiring. Again:

Must have three years experience with Agile  ❌

ignores the subtleties that Hiring Managers who are themselves capable of interpreting user stories and prioritising sprints will pick up on. Instead, try:

You’ll need to be familiar with Scrum in a commercial environment and have an understanding of what BDD means for development. Tell us about the last Sprint you completed. What was the user story, how did the sprint progress, what challenges were faced?  ✓

Using this type of questioning allows the elimination of buzz-word filtering, which is more about what’s on a CV than the reality of what an applicant is capable of. Using this will eliminate a large number of unsuitable hires and prioritise the applicants you really want to engage.

Vet, Restrict and Incentivise Recruiters

To facilitate it, though, you’ll need some recruiters. Recruiters are not known for their skill in competency-based assessment or understanding the finer points of Scala development. Or are they? In many cases, rather than a recruiter being unable to perform a helpful role in a hiring process, they are simply not encouraged to do so. Most organisations inadvertently institute a process of high-volume, low quality selection that – to earn a fee – recruiters have no choice but to comply with. Where they argue the toss, it’s common to see them ejected from a supplier list for being “difficult”.

Getting the most from recruiters is easy. First, vet them. Meet each recruiter for half an hour with a hiring manager and check whether they can both ask competency-based questions and understand the answers. If they can’t, they cannot perform the sort of vetting needed to prioritise target applicants. If they can, challenge them to push back on your Vacancy Brief. If they suggest no changes, how engaged are they? Those able to advise on removing certain peripheral tech, or shifting something from a desirable skill to an incentive to join, are the sort of proactive, interested minds you want on your side. Finally, ask them to describe the business of their best customer. Do you understand it? They should be giving this description to 5+ applicants daily so it needs to be convincing. Do you feel comfortable with this recruiter as the first line of contact for future hires? Once you have three recruiters you are happy with, stop.

Now incentivise recruiters to do a good job by giving them a clear submission deadline for a maximum number of applicants. Set up your hiring process in increments of two applicants per-recruiter, with a week to complete sourcing, a clear date for feedback on CVs and another for initial interviews. If the role remains unfilled, move to a second increment and another six applicants. With a limit on numbers, recruiters will always submit their two best applicants rather than any old ten.

Finally, to prevent duplicate submissions, insist that all CVs must be accompanied by an email from the applicant, confirming they have read the Vacancy Brief and wish this particular recruiter to represent them. On top of ensuring best practise by your suppliers, this is a quality check that all applicants are engaged enough to be worth a hiring manager’s time.

Minimise Touch Points

To personalise a hiring process for target applicants, communication must flow accurately between all technical parties, and hiring managers must be held to account on meeting agreed deadlines. One way to achieve this is to position your People Team as a gateway to Hiring Managers, acting as a blocker for requests for feedback or updates that Hiring Managers don’t have time to give. Unfortunately this tends to ignore the real issue of a disengaged hiring manager, creating a poor hiring experience for applicants.

The more non-technical touch points that exist in a hiring process, the more chance there is of applicants we want to hire becoming anonymous CVs. If your People Team:

  1. Cannot explain what a Scrum is
  2. Don’t grasp the difference between Front and Back End Development
  3. Or are unclear on how to relate the likelihood of someone having built APIs to what a business does for its customers

You should either give them this knowledge, or trust your recruiters to observe the performance criteria they have been given.

Having said this, a People Team is invaluable in guiding the structure of interviews and keeping an overall, reporting-based check on whether a hiring process is running smoothly. Rather than becoming bogged down in circulating CVs and giving feedback that doesn’t reach applicants in a way they accurately understand, People Teams can add most value as the cultural force behind an enlightened hiring process.

Prioritise Hiring Culturally

Have you ever met anyone, whose job is not in recruitment, that actually enjoys recruiting? Tech staff given responsibility for managing a team have not trained as recruiters and tend to see hiring as a frustrating intrusion into their “actual” job. Of course, the reality is that focusing attention on building the best team will make that “actual” job a lot easier. By de-prioritising recruitment that is typically viewed as “a load of CVs and interviews” as opposed securing the absolute best talent, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs and, feeling neglected, the best talent goes elsewhere.

So here is the true role of a strong People Team. Culturally position hiring as the process of engaging the absolute best talent, as opposed to a huge chore that rarely yields positive results. Hold workshops and coaching sessions on interviewing. Cross-review Vacancy Briefs and assemble a guide to completing them. Have the CTO and CEO present on the importance of talent in achieving organisational objectives. Encourage blogs from hiring managers. Review recruiter performance. Consistently refine both KPIs and supplier base. Collate feedback from applicants on their interest and use to tweak interview performance. Stress the idea of “applicant experience” and how prioritising recruitment as an activity secures the best people. Establish a strong system for internal hiring via incentivised referrals, Linkedin and advertising.

Where an organisation prioritises hiring and views applicants as individuals that they will eventually employ, as opposed to anonymous CVs, communication will be personalised and the right hires will be made.

Commit and make it visible to everyone

Before releasing a vacancy to market, plan the screening and interview process backwards. Literally. Begin with start date. When do we absolutely need this person on board by? With that in mind, let’s accommodate notice and get a date by which an offer must be made and accepted. Now, based on that, when do we need to be free to do interviews and how many are we comfortable performing from the six CVs we’ll be receiving from our recruiters? These questions allow you to generate a “hiring timeline” and check all those involved can commit to their part in the process.

Once agreed, release this timeline to recruiters as part of a Vacancy Brief. Now stick to the stated timeframe. Communicating the interview process upfront with applicants shows a thorough, professional organisation, that outlines what it will do and makes good on what it claims. It is an incredibly powerful way to stand out among the best applicants.

Minimise off-site activity and testing

Organisations able to target the best applicants at early stage are also able to minimise the time spent screening and engaging them. If you meet an applicant at interview and already know they are more than technically capable, is there really any benefit to sending them to perform a test the next day? Yes, you have a process, but what is it achieving? Likely, it will cause the applicant to think you were unimpressed over the four other interviews they’ve attended where – in response to such an obviously competent applicant – offers were immediately made.

Technical screening is of course vital – particularly from the perspective of setting quality standards within your department that will appeal to the best technical hires. But even more important is how it’s done, and for that nothing beats the personal nature of a paired programming exercise performed onsite at interview. Tests performed off-site rely on applicants prioritising your firm over their current work or social life which, while perhaps a measure of interest, also seems a rather big ask when they have 10 other opportunities to consider. While paired programming will gauge knowledge it also helps build a relationship and shows your organisation as motivated to share resources rather than demand them.

In the same vein as bringing technical testing onsite, never have more than a two-stage interview process. You will be out of step with your competition and lose a considerable number of applicants.

The Results

While a Vacancy Brief tells, a Hiring Process shows. By implementing the above you will spot talent sooner and, without a big blob of random CVs to review it against, be able to prioritise and engage over your competition. As a result, your future staff will feel valued, your recruiters will be measured on skill not volume and your hiring managers will engage in meaningful recruitment activity they can clearly see the benefit in.

Post produced in partnership with Talent Point.

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