Candidates evaluate your team as much as you evaluate them, and dysfunction in your organization’s communications can introduce needless tension. Here are 5 ways to mitigate some of the typical breakdowns.
I’ve built design teams from the ground up 3 times. I’ve hired dozens of designers across the country over the last 7 years, with a 90% retention rate.
It’s been a distinct pleasure to follow along as those I’ve hired have gone on to leadership roles and done generally kickass stuff over the years. It’s true that a top task for any leader is to find great people and then get the hell out of their way.
Retention is driven by a whole recipe of factors, but I believe the relationship starts right from the very first touch point with a candidate. You might think that means the first conversation with you, the hiring manager, but it normally means anything from reading a job description online and hurling personal info into the typically awful UX of your company’s Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to a cold ping via LinkedIn.
While you are no doubt a captivating and inspiring leader, all too often, the process for a candidate often starts off something like this:
Internal recruiter: Hi, generic compliment. Read our incredibly lengthy yet vague job description. Send me your contact information so we can chat!
Designer Jane: OK, I’d love to learn more about the team. You can reach me at [email] and [phone]. I’m free Tuesdays and Thursdays after 2 PM.
IR: Great! Please send me your contact information!
DJ: Uh, sure, here it is again.
IR: Wonderful! I’ve scheduled you to talk to the VP of Making It Pop at 9 AM on Wednesday.
Even very senior candidates are not immune from chaotic communication. I once had someone email me with a fully arranged interview roster, without even consulting me about my availability. As part of this roster, I was also supposed to head across the street to a pork-themed restaurant and “have drinks” with my potential team members. How about first finding out whether someone is a vegetarian, a drinker, or, I don’t know, free on Tuesday at all? I declined to attend that interview. If I’d felt better about the team, I might have worked with it, but lack of consideration for my schedule didn’t make me want to find out more.
It can be just as hard exiting a process as starting one
One accomplished leader I know recently received an automated exit survey without anyone bothering to first mention that the company had decided not to proceed. When the rejection email finally came, it included patronizing language along the lines of “I know this must be a bummer, try to keep your head up.” Even worse, this came from an organization that prides itself on supporting designers and the design community, so if they can’t get it right, who will?
I once interviewed for a VP role with an agency that sprung an agenda-less round table on me, and when I followed up by sending each interviewer a quick thank you note and a link to my work, I was met with either no response or defensiveness: “I can’t comment on the process, you’ll have to talk to the Head Vampire.” “Great, we enjoyed meeting you! Thanks for sending along your link,” would have worked fine.
Now, the Head Vampire never emailed me back at all, so I’ve always wondered what I did to warrant a ghosting. By a vampire.
If no1curr, why should you?
In other words, how you do one thing is how you do everything.
But you’re busy whispering sweet nothings to the C-level and sitting at the table, so surely it will get straightened out eventually, and you’ll end up chatting with Designer Jane. Maybe she’ll even be perfect for your team. But does she want to sign up to play out Conway’s Law based on whatever she’s seen so far?
Anyone who has ever interviewed enterprise software users (or lived with a partner) knows that the source of strife over time is all the pebble-in-the-shoe moments. The digital equivalent of the way the socks always end up next to the hamper instead of in it is the kiss of death in the relationship with long term users who are forced to use your system. All the schedule flubs and intrusive surveys and ATS glitches that erase entire pages due to a single validation error are pebbles. These little annoyances create doubt. Doubt is the opposite of the psychological safety that you strive to create to retain your awesome team.
Basic humane, efficient communication should be table stakes, and yet it is not. Much digital ink has been spilled about conducting effective skills screening (for example, do take home design exercises suck monkey balls?), but what about the glue that holds the whole process together? Everything I’m saying should sound crashingly obvious. Yet it’s hard to operationalize without some effort. Commit to understanding the rock bottom basics around getting someone into (and out of) your pipeline unscathed.
What you can do about this mess:
1. Survey the automated process.
Heed the sentiment of this quote from Sabrina Majeed, discussing how Buzzfeed redesigned their hiring experience: “We wanted to be the kind of a company that even a candidate we turned down would still strongly recommend their friends apply to. We strove to design a hiring process that is respectful and appreciative of people’s time and energy.”
Remember the peak-end rule, and see if you can identify all the highs and lows in the largely automated handling your prospects will endure. People will remember the most intense thing (either positive or negative) and the last thing. If most of the process is a string of mediocre interactions or annoyances, you have to work awfully hard to offset that somehow.
Warn your talent team you’re going to apply to your own posted role as a test. Force an error message while you enter your data. Is there a spot to upload a portfolio document or URL? Does the upload actually work? Where are the cracks in the practical business of just sharing information?
Make note of the confirmation screen and any system-generated email language. Take any automated surveys. Reject yourself. How did that feel? What will you remember about this process?
If you have walls of Post-Its covering things like the occasional specialty coffee purchaser’s consideration journey, you can take 15 minutes and run this maze. It’s also a great project for a junior to tackle.
2. Hack your ATS.
If possible, customize the templates for your candidates to reflect the language that your team uses to externalize its values. I’ve had success doing this within Jobvite. Even the best job description can’t do all the work as the public face of your team before deep relationships are built.
It’s true that not everyone has a flexible ATS or even direct access to work within your ATS. But do your best, and hold your talent organization accountable by pushing on things that are likely universally off-putting to all candidates. Send them screenshots. Buy them chocolates and let them know how much you appreciate them. Whatever it takes. As a career rule, you should always be friends with HR, admins, IT, and facilities. These professionals run the world.
3. Block out the time for personal outreach.
I was once asked for access to my LinkedIn profile so internal recruiters could send messages that appeared to come directly from me. I passed, but I agree that people are more likely to respond to a personal appeal. I do a lot of my own outreach, which I am told is not the norm.
In a cold outreach, I typically clarify up front that I’m the hiring manager, and I’m hand picking people for my team. I comment on something specific about their portfolio or profile that proves I’ve read everything, and I tie it into my team’s mission and what we can learn or create together.
Most of the people I’ve hired have come onboard as a direct result of personal outreach. One benefit of becoming a LinkedIn searching machine is that I’ve likely seen the portfolios of half of Boston, LA, and several other metro areas, and I make a point to develop relationships. Even if someone is not a perfect match, I follow promising careers over time and check in just to see how someone is doing. I once hired someone almost 2 years after our first phone call. I am also able to connect people with other hiring managers if they wish, and then those managers may send me great designers from their network. Quid pro quo, Clarice.
But I have all these resumes from our job site to screen, you say? This is a great time to enlist some of the emerging leaders on your team to help you work through that stack. Your job is looking for the great people out there who don’t even know your team is the missing piece in their career puzzle, then approach them respectfully. You are categorically the best person to sell your vision for the team.
Commit to doing 1–2 hours of focused, systematic personal outreach every week. Grab a coffee and get ‘er done. Save your receipts for the future.
4. Keep your calendar up to date, and encourage your team to do the same.
If you aren’t doing your own scheduling, help your talent team help you by not creating additional noise with candidates as they struggle to find times that work for intro calls or in-person rounds. As a candidate, it’s frustrating to do the dance and arrive at a time, only to hear back “Actually, so and so has another meeting then.” It tells you immediately how you rate in the grand scheme of that person’s day.
If you’re doing your own scheduling, I highly recommend using Calendly. It’s an easy way to expose your open calendar slots to candidates. They supply a phone number, and the meeting gets booked for both of you simultaneously.
5. Keep the feedback loop open with your internal talent team.
I’m lucky to work with a very involved, highly capable and empathetic talent team. This team is a huge part of the externalization of our company values and communication norms.
We have weekly stand ups and keep communication open at all times. If you have a less involved team, you may need to lead this, but it’s important to communicate your preferences and also avoid duplicating efforts.
Even doing my part to support our talent team by adding my passive candidates to our ATS requires careful attention to not trigger system emails. Your mapping process should help you be aware of when these are likely to happen and how you can disable them. For example, it’s intrusive to receive a form rejection letter just because you were in a conversation and then decided not to proceed. Your talent team can help you identify opportunities and best practices for navigating a system if you are expected to be hands-on.
About those receipts I mentioned — maintain a spreadsheet over time to track who you’ve reached out to, as well as the outcome. It’s a valuable asset when you move on to your next role, as the task of hiring never goes away. If you have internal recruiters also reaching out about your open role, they will appreciate having a set of gold standard candidates to “train” on, as they learn your preferences for a portfolio.
Stay on top of asking what candidates are saying in feedback surveys if your system sends those out. I find those results rarely make it back to hiring managers, and what’s in there may surprise you.
Go forth and do unto others as you would have them do unto you
I’d love to hear from you on how you keep candidates feeling engaged and respected throughout the nitty gritty parts of the hiring process so I can flagrantly steal your ideas. Some will say that they don’t want candidates who would self-select out over “trivial” things like scheduling blips, but I’d argue that you want people who are scrupulous and detail oriented as the designers helping you unlock major business value. Hoping to have one’s time respected is not a sign of someone unable to collaborate. Don’t allow carelessness to dictate the attrition in your process.