Hiring Top IT Talent: the Reverse Interview

Friday Jan 28th 2011 by Scott Alan Miller
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When a firm tries to hire top IT pros, it is often the company itself that is being interviewed -- yet most firms fumble the interview process.

Corporate interviewers often forget that interviews are a two way street. Yes, the company is interviewing the hopeful job candidate -- but that candidate is interviewing the company as well.

Unless you are a wildly well-known and highly desired company at which to work (e.g. Apple, Microsoft or Google) then you have probably little more than the interview process to impress a top candidate.

No matter how fashionable or well respected your tech firm, a job candidate will get one chance to peer into the inner workings of your company. They won’t judge you based on your cafeteria food nor on how friendly the staff is nor the lengthy (and probably completely inaccurate) job description. All that is a form of marketing.

A good candidate knows that and is exposed to it all of the time. No, they will judge you based on your processes. And the only process that you can't gloss over, hide or fake is the interviewing process.

A company's ability to interview effectively is the more revealing cradle-to-grave process that a candidate will see - very likely it will be the only one. And since this is a process that affects all others -- in that every person at the company was selected using it -- it is also the best way to indicate to the candidate what the overall company is likely to be like and how it functions.

A good hiring process reflects a healthy company using good processes and possessing good staff. A bad hiring process reflects a company with generally poor procedures and staff consisting mostly of those unable to find work someplace more attractive.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

The hiring process is so often either complete afterthought or, at best, based completely around weeding out bad candidates. There is little thought put into convincing good candidates to accept a position at the firm. The better the candidate the more likely that that candidate is already working and getting offers from more than one company.

So the interview process must often convince a candidate that the unknown of your company is better than their existing, known position, and that it is better than the unknowns of potentially many other firms. Overcoming the "devil you know" issue can be very difficult, especially if that candidate already has a great job.

Ask yourself, “If I had their job, why would I leave it to come work for me?”

Vetting a potential candidate is not something that interviewers and the hiring process creators are likely to forget or overlook. But focusing so heavily on ruling out bad candidates will often also tell good candidates that this isn't a place where they are interested in working. Good candidates don't want to work in a place lacking bad people -- they want to work in a place full of good people. The two aren’t the same thing.

Having a good, efficient and goal-oriented interviewing process can be difficult, especially if your firm is large and follows traditional interviewing practices in a codified manner. There is no simple equation to running a great interview process. There are simple rules, though, that must be followed.

Every potential candidate that you will ever interview is full of horror stories from their own job hunts. Some are nearly universal, such as stories about how the human resources department sabotaged an otherwise perfect-fit position, while others are unique and surprising. Most process issues can be resolved, or at least mitigated, simply by taking the time to empathize with the candidates and see the process from their perspective.

Take the Time to Be Prepared

Running a good interview process can start with the simplest of things, like making sure the team preparing to interview a candidate is on time, prepared for the interview, the appropriate people attend that interview, they’re aware of what they’re interviewing for, etc.

Too often candidates go to an interview just to find that they are being interviewed by random people in the office who just happened to be available. Those interviewers have not seen the resume ahead of time nor are aware of the qualifications that they are seeking.

You wouldn’t be impressed if the candidate being interviewed was late and unprepared -- why are we then surprised if top candidates are equally unimpressed when we are unprepared? We can hardly fault a candidate for not taking the interview seriously if we are not taking it seriously. But this is exactly how the average interview goes -- the candidate is far more prepared than the interviewing team.

Keep HR on a Leash

Human resources presents one of the most well understood failures in the interviewing process. HR is seldom prepared to speak to a potential candidate in any meaningful way in the information technology arena.

Rarely, if ever, is HR in a position to judge a candidate’s skill-set, skill level, ability to mesh with a team or appropriate compensation. HR could be involved for verifying resume data or supplying benefits details, of course, but only after a candidate is otherwise selected.

Every IT professional can spot a job description that HR has touched -- great candidates turn down your firm at this stage, long before they ever show up in any statistic. You are losing potential employees, the best potential employees, before you ever find out that they were giving you a moment of their time.

You may also accidentally turn away candidates who would happily have accepted a position with your firm but were misled into believing that they were not qualified for a position due to nothing more than an incorrect, often impossible, job description.

It is important, too, to have a generally well laid out and efficient process to move from one interviewing stage to another and to do so, from end to end, in a relatively short period of time. I myself have had poorly planned interviewing processes that stretched for longer than six months. In these cases the people involved will often change positions, or even companies, during the process. The same stages might get repeated over and over with the interviewing company not remembering the candidate or what had been said and determined in earlier interviews.

If an interviewing process spans more than about a week the process is too long and the stages are too disconnected. Decisions should also come in a timely manner, not weeks after an interview has taken place.

The interview process should be designed around the desired candidate traits. If you want to hire someone to just hit the ground running and have no long term viability, focus purely on tech skills. If you want someone to be a part of the team, focus on personality and just make sure that they can learn the tech skills.

Communications between interviewers and stages is important. An interviewee will not be impressed if asked the same question multiple time, especially not if asked by the same person. This is far more common than interviewers may realize.

Put yourself into the shoes of your candidates. Think about how they’ll see your company when they interview with you. Will they see an organization that treats them with respect and professionalism? Will they see you as prepared and highly skilled? Will they see processes that encourage the kind of people that they want to work with to join your firm? Or will they see that your company thinks that hiring good people is not a priority?

Interviewing processes do not need to be exceptionally formal or rigid. Alternative approaches can work wonders and can tell a candidate much about your company. But make sure that any process that you implement reflects positively on your firm and is not turning away the candidates that you might wish to hire.

No matter how much you imagine that candidates should be beating down your doors to come work for you -- those candidates don't know that. Until you convince them otherwise, you are just another unlikely job prospect to them in an endless sea of job listings -- unlikely that they’ll get an offer and unlikely that they’ll accept one if received.

Are you “Fishing”?

Job seekers are inundated with job listings and headhunters daily. Most companies that a candidate will decide to interview with will turn out to not even really be hiring but are just "fishing" - looking to see what the candidates and going compensation rates are like in the current market. A candidate is not going to get excited until they feel that you are a serious firm and that the job sounds exciting.

Interviewers generally approach candidates with the impression that the candidate is begging for the position and that they are charged with turning away all but the best option. But there is a very good chance that the person that you are interviewing was cajoled or begged (or even bribed) to sit across that table from you by a headhunter, consulting or staffing firm.

Often they've been lead there under false pretenses, such as being told that compensation is as much as double what is actually your realistic cap. Or that they will be in a far more senior position than you are interviewing for. In that person's eyes it is you, the interviewer, not they the interviewee, who is in the begging position.

Avoid Staffing Firms

If a candidate is brought in by a staffing firm then chances are that that candidate has been presented with a very different view of the situation than you expect. Likely they have been told great and unrealistic things about the position and they see that staffing firm as the direct and official representative of your firm - which if you have hired them, they are.

So you are effectively reaching out to candidates, pre-selecting them and asking them to come interview with you. To the candidate, they are doing you the favor, not the other way around. If they show up and you are not appreciative that they took the time out of their schedules to meet with you, they are going to be less than impressed. They assume that you have sifted through large numbers of candidates and selected them for a reason.

Using a staffing firm is never advised, in my opinion. They do not represent the interests of you as the hiring company nor of the candidates. They, at best, are a point of miscommunications and increased cost. At worst they play both parties against each other for their own gain.

Like an HR department, they have very little to add to a selection process but have the capacity to wreak nearly unlimited damage. The best companies, no matter what size they are, take the time to make their hiring process a purely internal one.

Hiring Determines Your Success

No matter what type of business you are in, the ability to attract, acquire and retain the best staff is the best competitive advantage possible. If you don’t take your hiring process seriously there is no way you can compete cost effectively. Your only option is to raise salaries to a point that enough candidates concerned about money over job quality are willing to come work for you. This can work but is very expensive, and not completely effective, compared to having great hiring practices.

The bottom line is that your hiring practices dictate what you are and will become as a company. If you don't acquire and develop good staff you won't have them to drive efficiency and innovation. Take your hiring process very seriously and consider how your company presents itself to a candidate.

Remember, weeding out bad people is easy. Attracting good ones is hard.

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