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Three things to never, ever overlook when hiring

The literature on hiring is vast. Most of what the newest research says is that we aren't very good at it. This is partly because our typical practices, like interviews and screening CVs, aren't very effective. Confirmation bias and more sinister biases like racism, sexism, ableism and classism get in the way.

Google has been developing and sharing a better methodology for hiring, which emphasizes much greater structure and rigour, with job-related exercises and standardized interviews with a clear rubric for scoring. I've been involved in hiring about 50 people, and through using this approach I've had a remarkably low rate of hiring failure. Only 2 people I've ever hired have lasted less than a year, and in one of those cases I let the direct manager make a decision I disagreed with -- a story I'll tell in another post.

But I don't attribute this entirely to Google's methodology. It's a necessary but not sufficient part of an effective approach to hiring, because it's more about the how of hiring, but not so much about what, exactly (beyond technical expertise) you should be looking for. There are three simple things that organizations should never compromise on when bringing in someone new - no matter how perfectly their CV matches the job description:

1. Kindness

This should be a no-brainer, but the trait of being kind is far too easily overlooked by most non-profit organizations. I don't mean being nice - my former colleague had a joke that nice meant Not Intellectually Competent but Enthusiastic. In contrast to niceness, kindness can come with a hard-nosedness about getting the job done. Being kind means that the candidate defaults to genuine compassion when someone needs it. As Shakil Choudhury defines it in his great book Deep Diversity, compassion is the mental state of wishing that others may be free from suffering. This is crucial for the psychological safety that Google found essential to effective teams. If you're not familiar with this research, you'll want to acquaint yourself with this Tool to Foster Psychological Safety ASAP.

Things to look for in assessing kindness: are there any discrepancies between the way that this candidate treats the person in charge and the other people in the room? Major red flag. If you have administrative staff that they've dealt with during the process, how did they treat these people? Always include a question about how they've responded in the past when someone they worked with was struggling or made a mistake. Watch out for barbed jokes or self-aggrandizing at the expense of others in the interview, and look for evidence of humility and compassion - you want to build these into the rubric for how you score answers to your standardized questions.

Finally, reference checks aren't effective (only 7% predictive of job performance) in part because the person cherry-picks the names they provide. But tapping your networks to find people who have worked with them and asking for their perspective is worthwhile when you can do it - especially given the next thing to prioritize, which is:

2. Authenticity

This is a tough one to evaluate, but your hiring committee's perception of their authenticity is largely what counts. People who strike us as authentic are more likely to gain our trust, something else that is necessary for the psychological safety of great teams. They are more likely to raise issues directly and less likely to engage in the back-biting that creates a toxic work culture.

This is something to inquire about with other people who know the person and have worked with them before. Do they keep their word? Do they maintain the integrity of their own views and values with different audiences and people? I once had a candidate who wrote about wanting to work in a progressive workplace, but when I searched for him online I found he had written a misogynist article about dating culture. Deal breaker. Particularly for important hires (anything permanent or senior), you want to do this kind of vetting -- again, being cognizant of race, class, ableist and gender biases that will affect the way that you interpret whatever you find (if you haven't done any kind of diversity or anti-oppression training, you need to. You can contact me for recommendations). People are entitled to have distinct public and private selves; someone's party photos on Facebook aren't a good enough reason not to hire them. But anything that they have done that contradicts who they represent themselves to be in the hiring process is a red flag -- one that is at least worth asking the candidate about.

After all, if they aren't being authentic with you, how can you trust anything else you might be basing your assessment on?

3. Informed enthusiasm for the organization's mission.

Like Google advises, I always include a written round with job-related tasks. One additional benefit of doing this written work sample test – besides being able to get a sense of the candidate's aptitude for the tasks associated with the role – is that you can quickly guess who is enthusiastic about the role based on the effort they put into completing the test. Send this out to all qualified candidates first, before meeting in person. Inevitably there are people who won't complete it, and people who phone it in so lazily they can be screened out. This helps narrow the hiring field to a manageable number to interview – I only like to interview 3 people max. Be mindful of people's time and never send out a test that takes more than an hour unless the role is very well paid. Also, unless written language skills are essential to job performance, you'll need to be very cognizant of not allowing bias towards additional language candidates to mar your judgement.

The second moment to assess this is during the interview when you ask the candidate if they have any questions for you. If they don't take this opportunity to demonstrate some knowledge of the organization and its specific challenges, you probably shouldn't hire them. It is astonishing how many people come to an interview knowing almost nothing about the organization. This is a serious red flag, both for their ability to transition quickly into the role and their commitment to sticking around.

The gist of all of this is that you want to prioritize the impact this person will have on their team and your broader organizational culture, not just how well they would perform job-related tasks in isolation. This is not just for the good of your organization but for the whole sector. We need to build healthy teams of motivated, kind, authentic people so that these folks stay committed to social change organizations for the long haul, instead of giving up and leaving the ecosystem – as so many great people currently do.

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