Tips for effective startup hiring and recruiting
I’m going to share some practices that I don’t see used very often. These practices help ensure you’ll find great candidates, offer a superior candidate experience, and be competitive against other companies that are looking.
I haven’t seen many of these topics listed anywhere else. To be comprehensive, I’m listing a lot of topics, with breakouts for anything you want to go deep on.
If you do even a few of the things in this post, it should dramatically improve your hiring outcomes, and help you stand out.
Why listen to me?
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years, and at times it was basically my full time job. As a consultant, I’ve also seen how a lot of organizations approach hiring, so I’ve seen both some depth, and some industry breadth in how people approach hiring and recruiting. And I’m very good at copying from the people around me!
Identify or create a hiring strategy
You should have a pithy description of why someone should work at your company (and your position) as opposed to elsewhere. You shouldn’t rely on hope as a strategy, but have a plan that identifies how you’ll appeal to the best applicants you can attract.
There are a lot of ways you can attract candidates: pay, technical area, perks, and work culture. I’ve written up a whole post on creating a hiring strategy — read it over and identify what your approach is.
Update your careers page to reflect why they should work there
Now you need to make sure you communicate this strategy to people who are evaluating your company.
The first way people evaluate your company is by your careers page, but most startups don’t spend much time on it. This is your “top of the funnel”, and even a modest investment in this area will make the difference.
Spend some time reviewing the careers part of your home page. How are you talking about the company? Is it compelling? Does it convey why someone should come work for you?
If you’re genuinely trying to make your company be a great place to work, this is a good place to highlight that. Think of it like a dating profile — you want the people who read it to get a good sense of whether they’ll be a good match or not, and you want to portray yourself accurately and in a positive light.
Write compelling (and unbiased) job descriptions
People vet a job based on the job description. If it’s well-written, they may be excited about the job, and give it precedence.
A few tips for writing a good job description:
- Test what you write with existing team members. Ask them if they would be excited by it.
- Don’t write the job posting as just a description of the job. A good job description markets the role. Tell them what will be interesting about the work and the team. What type of problems will they solve? Why is the company doing something valuable in the world? Characterize the role enough so they can get a concrete idea of what it’s like.
- Use anti-bias tools like textio (paid, very good), joblint (free), and gender decoder to make your job postings appeal to a wider audience. Even effective writers will find things to improve.
- Some locations require you to post salary ranges (I believe Colorado is one such state). Other states require you to tell the pay scale of the job if requested (California). Consider posting the salary in the job description.
- Include something like this phrase in your job posting: If you don’t think you meet all of the criteria below but still are interested in the job, please apply. Nobody checks every box—we’re looking for candidates that are particularly strong in a few areas, and have some interest and capabilities in others. Why? Otherwise you’re selecting for overconfident candidates, who may apply even if they are missing a requirement or two. This helps ensure you’ll get more diverse candidates applying. Women tend to not apply for a role unless they meet 100% of the requirements, while men will apply even if they only meet 60% of the qualifications.
Make your application process painless (for everyone)
- Make sure your application process allows people to specify the pronouns they use. Make it optional (as not everyone wants to be “outed”). Make sure your team uses those pronouns during the interview process.
- Don’t require gender as part of the application process. It can be an awful experience for applicants. If you have to require it for some reason, explain what to expect, apologetically.
- Apply for the job and see what the process looks like. Test it out! How long until you get a reply? What flow do you go through? Are there unnecessary steps? Most people don’t know what their own interview process is like!
Create an interview plan
A good interview plan allows you to have confidence you’ll vet and find the right candidate. A poor interview plan results in a terrible candidate experience. I have a whole post and example on how to create an interview plan.
One tip: pair people up in the interviews. People learn from seeing others interview, so this will make your interviews automatically improve themselves.
Be faster than anyone else
One of the biggest improvements you can make in your hiring process is the speed at which you hire. This is so important I’ve made this its own blog post. Three things you can do are:
- Implement an internal SLA for communication
- Present offers the day of the last interview, and
- Use a rolling approach (with some caveats) to hiring.
I go into a lot more detail in this post: How to speed up hiring.
Use a candidate packet
One practice that doesn’t seem to be very widespread is the use of candidate packets for interviews. A candidate packet is a package you send to applicants that explains the interview process, tells them about the company and the role they’re applying for, and helps them understand what to expect as a candidate.
You can think of it as an FAQ for candidates, but also as a way to sell the candidate on the company and position.
Give feedback to candidates
One way to stand out for candidates is to give them real, honest, but kindly worded feedback on how they did, even if they don’t get the job. Treating them like humans can pay off in the long term. I’ve had candidates refer their friends to me after they were turned down for a position, because they liked the hiring process so much. Think about what they’ll tell any friends about working at your company, if they feel like they missed out at working for a great place.
This is a good example of something that is both right for people, and can be in the self-interest of the company. You don’t have to take a lot of time with it — just send some kindly worded summary of the feedback to them.
For especially promising candidates, you can even refer them to other companies, or make little suggestions on how they might improve their interviewing.
Ask for feedback from candidates
Set up your application tracking system to ask candidates about their experience. And ask them yourself when you give feedback. Periodically go over the feedback and continually improve your interview process.
Keep in touch with promising candidates
One of the bigger problems with the way companies hire is that they treat it like a transaction. But humans are relationship-focused creatures. Keep in touch with candidates you wish you had been able to hire. If someone turns down your offer, set a calendar reminder and check in on them, and ask them how the new position is treating them. Be nice about it — hopefully they should be enjoying their new role and new position. But keeping in touch can bring people back in the door who had a good impression of your company and may have gone elsewhere for good reasons that could change.
Don’t rely on inbound candidates, use mining to find hidden candidates
Make a list of people you wish you could attract to work at your company, even if it’s far-fetched. They should be people that you believe would make a difference if they worked at your company. Then see if you could put together a way you could attract them to your company.
One of the best ways I’ve found of bringing in candidates is using the social connections of the people already in the company. You have to be careful because this biases towards people that are similar to the people already in the company. But when you reach out and they already know someone there, it can be a lot easier to attract them, and they won’t feel like you’re a complete stranger. These two articles describe an excellent process for “mining your networks”:
There is even a product that helps automate the process of finding candidates from the network of people your employees already know. (I came up with the idea for this product before it existed, so I’m so happy someone came up with the same idea and made it happen)
Work well with your recruiters
If you use recruiters, invest some time in making sure they understand what you’re looking for. Talk through how the whole process will work, and make sure you’re on the same page about expectations. You can make them much more effective by walking them through how to know if someone is a good fit or not. A strong partnership with your recruiters can streamline everything, get you higher quality candidates, and, if they’re organized, they might even be able to help manage parts of the process for you.
Have a review meeting when making a decision on a candidate
Review syncs at their worst can be everyone just summarizing the feedback they already put in the application tracking system. Shaun Yelle taught me an interview format that I now consider to be the best approach.
Instead of a meeting where people summarize their feedback, you as hiring manager go through all the written feedback ahead of time. Make a list of observations that seem to be common between people. And then, more importantly, make a list of observations that contradict each other. Did some people have feedback that doesn’t match up? Did people bring up concerns that didn’t get responded to?
During the meeting, quickly summarize the feedback on the candidate, and then move to the important part: go through the points people had disagreement about, and dig deeper on them, in a safe and curious way. For example: “Lisa, I noticed you were concerned about how the candidate communicated about their employer. But Josh said glowing things about how they talked about their team. Can you both share a little about that portion of the interview, what questions you asked and what you uncovered?”
What I’ve found is that a lot of observations and assumptions break down when people have these type of discussions. An observation like, “they’re not very good at receiving feedback”, will become way more nuanced when you have a discussion about how you asked the question and what they said, when a different person had the opposite feedback.
This format also leads to better introspection of the interview process, so you can improve the design of the interview panels.
Bundle up similar roles
One of the biggest areas of inefficiency in hiring is filling the initial queue of qualified candidates. If you have similar positions, use the same pool of candidates. For example, a “backend engineer” might work on several different teams, so list that as one position, with several possible placements. Then, whenever you list a new backend engineer position, you’ll find that you already have a pool of candidates you can immediately tap into.
Bundling up your hiring can have surprising benefits. At New Relic, we found we hired way more women in the bundled positions. We thought this was because we did a better job of running the process when it was shared between teams. But it was also because the pool had a larger number of women in it.
This can also be more candidate friendly. If you’re applying to work at a place, you are looking for a role that matches your skillset. You’re not necessarily looking for which of three positions on different teams is the right one for you, if they all are looking for your skillset. Of course you care, but it complicates the hiring process.
All of these things reinforce each other
The more you view your hiring process as a continually improving thing, the more these things will reinforce each other and combine to give you an advantage when looking for candidates. It can feel really good to see this in action. I often have received thank you emails from candidates (that I turned down), talking about what a great experience they had.
Did I miss anything? Please share your favorite ideas with me, I’d love to hear them!
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