What we’re talking about

There is an art to interviewing. While small businesses and startups often tend towards more informal hiring processes, giving thought and applying some structure to your interview process will mean it’s more effective and more inclusive.

The companies that do interviews best carefully consider the applicant’s journey through each stage and design a system that works as a two-way discovery process – one that helps both you and the candidate evaluate whether there’s a good fit. Plotting out how many rounds of interviews a candidate will go through, what kind of assessment they might be tasked with, and who’ll be involved in making decisions in advance makes it easier for you to compare candidates – and identify the ones that’ll perform best in the role you’re hiring for. It also makes for a better experience for the candidate so that if or when you do extend an offer, that person will be more likely to accept.

In smaller organisations without a dedicated people team or HR rep, it can be tough to know where to start when it comes to developing your hiring process. The key is in thinking very carefully about what work needs to be done by the new hire and then setting up interviews that focus on surfacing information that’s relevant to that role

Why it’s important

When it comes to building a successful business, it really does take a village. Your likelihood of success is almost entirely dependent on the team behind it, so it’s pretty important to spend the time to create a process that identifies – and attracts – the right people. It’s worth noting that, no matter the state of the economy, top talent will always have multiple options available to them. A well-run, respectful and enjoyable interview process doubles as a pitch for your company and its culture.

Things to note

A great interview process starts well before the interview. You need to have built up a pool of candidates to interview – that means a compelling job listing posted widely that attracts a breadth of qualified candidates. Then you need to screen applications in a thorough, unbiased way. We’ll cover these aspects of recruitment in a future guide, but it’s worth bearing in mind these prerequisites as you think about the interviews specifically.  

Interviews are a two-way process. Gone are the days when interviews were merely about weeding out bad candidates from the pool. Now, you’ll likely be making decisions between many great candidates – and they may be doing the same. As well as helping you get to know the person you’re interviewing, a well-run interview process should let them get to know your company and, ideally, leave them with a great impression.

Prioritising ‘culture fit’ creates bias. As a startup or small business, it’s important that your small team get along and can work together. However, while you think you’re screening hires based on whether they get on with you, you’re probably subconsciously screening for whether they’re similar to you – in terms of class, educational background and even race and gender. So, instead of prioritising how a person fits into your pre-existing culture, assume that your culture can change to accommodate great people who can do the work you need them to, no matter how similar they are to everyone else on the team.

Structured interviews are fairer and more effective. Many of the interviews we’re used to are unstructured – meaning the interviewers don’t have a list of predetermined questions and instead ask things based on the ‘flow’ of the conversation. However, structured interviews that ask the same questions in the same order to all candidates allow for clearer and fairer comparisons between candidates and are proven to be more effective.

Great questions should help predict success on the job. Behavioural questions, such as those asking people to explain how they responded to a specific situation in the past, provide a great indication of how they would respond in a similar situation in the future. Demonstration questions (think case studies, role plays or solving a problem) help you understand a candidate’s current capabilities. And hypothetical questions that get a candidate to walk through how they might approach a task or challenge will give good insight into how they might tackle the role. Prioritise a mix of these types of questions in the interview – and limit questions that focus more on the person (their hobbies, interests and experiences) than their capabilities.

How to set up an effective interview process

Write the job profile. The interview process should be based on a detailed and specific job description and profile. You probably have a version of this that you used for your job posting, but it may need further fleshing out before it can be used for interviews. Think about what the person you’re hiring will do, what their key goals will be, what they will have done in the past and what you’ll expect them to accomplish in their first three, six, nine or 12 months in the role. To ensure your hiring process is inclusive and acknowledges that people from many different backgrounds could be successful in the role, make sure this job profile focuses on work that needs to be done, rather than on the ‘ideal’ person you’re looking for.

Create an assessment rubric. Once you have your job profile, use it to define a list of key attributes necessary for the position, then outline specific criteria that would demonstrate that attribute. For example, Medium’s engineering interview process defines the ‘ability to build software’ as a key attribute needed, outlining ‘code fluency’, ‘basic computer science knowledge’ and ‘system design’ as key criteria for demonstrating that applicants have that attribute. Then create an assessment rubric that will help you grade a candidate's ability against each of the criteria on a predetermined scale.

Develop the interview process and panel. Decide how many interviews a candidate will go through, and who will be the interviewer in each case. The number of rounds and interviewers will vary depending on the size of your company, but the need for a clear process and plan for who will interview the candidate when is universal.

Include an assignment or test. Completed work is one of the best ways to predict future performance. So, consider including a written test or assignment that relates to the tasks the candidate will have to perform in their role. However, make sure the task is manageable and designed to be completed in a reasonable timeframe.

Run structured interviews. Make sure each interviewer prepares their questions in advance and asks every candidate the same set of questions. Interviewers should also listen for examples and look for observations that demonstrate ability against each of the criteria for the role that is in your assessment rubric – and write these down. They should also aim to fill out the assessment rubric immediately after each interview to make sure it’s the closest representation of what the interview was like.

Compile feedback and make a decision. Make sure everyone involved in the decision-making process has completed their feedback and written it down before you come together to discuss. This ensures that interviewers’ original reactions are the basis for the conversations and that one person’s views don’t affect everyone’s feedback. 

Communicate decisions. Don’t forget to communicate outcomes to everyone you interviewed, not just the successful candidate. It might sound obvious, but this is routinely forgotten and is one of the quickest ways to ruin an otherwise great process. Remember that the best interviewing processes leave even unsuccessful candidates with a great impression of your company.

Key takeaways

- Role profiles should be detailed and specific, but should focus on the work that needs to be done rather than the kind of person you expect will be good at doing that work.

- Structured interviews are more effective and less biased than informal, unstructured interviews.

- Performance on an assignment or task that reflects the kind of work that will be done in the role is one of the best indicators of whether a candidate will be successful in the role.

Learn more

- Learn more about the drawbacks of hiring for ‘culture fit’ with this opinion piece.

- Model your assessment criteria and rubric after a good example, like this one from Medium.

- Write a good job description using this guide from Workable.

- Get ideas for good interview questions with this roundup from First Round Capital.

- Develop a work sample or assessment question to include in the interview process using this webinar from Applied.

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