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How We Hired Our Last Employee: Equitable Hiring Processes for Small (and Large) Organizations

by Karen Sandler on October 15, 2021

Like many small organization that are overloaded with work, it's hard to make the time to conduct a proper hiring process, and no one on staff is dedicated to making sure the process goes smoothly. Because it is very important to our organizational values to make sure that our hiring is fair and also that we wind up with the best person for the job, we were very careful in how we designed our search.

We finished our last hiring a few months ago. I'm proud of the way we handled the process, and I think it resulted in the best hire possible for the position. As I describe the process below, you can see how we worked to respect our applicants, interview while minimizing bias, and select for skills that were essential for the actual work to be covered by the open position. (There's a TL;DR summary at the end! Perhaps the most interesting part is that we paid people who made it to the final round to respect their time and to defray their costs of participating,)

A neutral and realistic job posting

We thought hard about our job posting, including a detailed description of the role. We were clear that we were open to hiring from a variety of backgrounds and were willing to train less experienced candidates. We worked to eliminate any gendered language or anything that we thought would create heightened requirements for the job, which can reinforce bias in the process. Finally, we were open to feedback, and when folks suggested that we include a narrow salary range to bring transparency and lower stress for our applicants, we added that too.

You can see the job posting we just put up for an Outreachy related position where we once again are following these principles.

Happily, for the position that we already hired for, we received around 40 really solid applications for the position - a really high number for an organization like ours, especially since we only advertised the position in limited ways.

Initial screen by volunteer directors

After a very quick review of resumes to weed out the few applications that were spammers or otherwise not really targeted to our organization, we scheduled 15 minute screening interviews with two of our volunteer directors. We wanted to make sure that we added a layer of independent review that would otherwise be impossible in a small org like ours.

In order to make sure that we were comparing apples to apples, and giving everyone the same chance at success, the directors were given a set list of questions to ask. Because the role was about advocacy and communications, most of the questions were connected to explaining what software freedom is, and how the applicant became interested in it. The directors were also given a rubric to grade the interviews, both question by question and overall. The directors put their grades and thoughts about each candidate (along with any red flags) in spreadsheets so that we'd be able to access the information easily later. Spelling out what questions will be asked and how the responses willl be graded helps to eliminate bias that can come from an an interviewer and interviewee that "click" in ways that might be related to their background or shared experiences.

Anonymous exercise

After the screening interviews, the bulk of the applicants were asked to participate in an anonymous exercise. The goal of having an anonymous exercise is to overcome any biases we might have for or against particular candidates. Each applicant was assigned a random string, and they were instructed not to put any personal identifying information in their answers.

We designed the exercise to reflect actual tasks we'd expect the new employee to take on, while providing some opportunities to brainstorm some big picture topics that could come up in the position. Writing emails to our organization's Supporters and member projects are key components of the job, so we created short hypothetical situations (that encompassed typical problems we need to address) and asked the applicants to write mock email responses. Because the role also has a public press and event organizing component, we asked applicants to write the beginning of a website news item and tell us a few things they thought were essential to run a successful in person event.

To respect our applicants time, we kept the exercise bounded. We expected it to take an hour or less, and asked the applicants send us their responses after an hour and a half, explicitly adding a little bit of extra time in case they were interrupted during the process. We also scheduled the exercises at the convenience of the applicant at any time during normal east coast business hours, since being able to coordinate with staff in the US was an important part of the role. We offered flexibility for applicants who could not make time during the workday during their existing role or had other obligations they needed to schedule around.

Conservancy staffers graded the responses on an anonymous basis, scoring each exercise. When this was completed, the graders met to compare their results. At this point, there were five applicants whose exercises stood out from the group. We de-anonymized them and cross referenced them to make sure that their screening interview scores were also strong and all of them moved to the next round.

At this point, I should note that I was surprised by the results. Long-time software freedom activists, whose work we know and respect, wound up not making it to our final group, whereas our final applicants included people who were new to software freedom, had never been in a communications role or who we simply hadn't met before. This final group consisted of people who showed the skill sets most likely to succeed in the position, not people who were already part of our network.

Because the exercise was anonymous, it was also easier to explain to the other applicants why we weren't advancing them to the next round, and I think (hope!) that it made it easier to preserve our relationships with the applicants who are truly excellent advocates for software freedom in a variety of other contexts.

Paying the finalists

Because we are a small organization, adding another employee is a big deal. We knew that to do this job right we were going to need to take some time talking to them to figure out if they were the right fit for the role. We also know that not everybody does their best when put on the spot in an interview, and wanted to make sure that we allowed people the chance to know what we'd be asking and to prepare if they wanted to. We didn't want to take our applicants' time for granted, even though we are a small publicly supported organization.

Because of this, we decided to pay each our five finalists $500 to proceed with the rest of the interview. While $500 is not a huge amount, we thought it was a nice amount for a charitable organization to give to an applicant who would dedicate some time and thought to our hiring process, which would cover strategic thinking about our organization's mission and operations in our communications and other related areas.

Again, we used the same questions with all candidates, and we provided them in advance of the interview, offering the applicants the option of providing written answers or just discussing them on the spot, whichever they were most comfortable with. We were trying to avoid a gamification of the interview process, while still getting insight into the thought process of the applicants. These questions included difficult ones about the software freedom community and also about Software Freedom Conservancy. Now that we knew these candidates were very strong in their ability to write quick emails and website copy, the idea was to bring some of the most strategic problems that we'd be looking to include the new employee in tackling.

Conducting final interviews

This step looked like a more traditional interview. Bradley and I scheduled video chats with the remaining candidates. We first had the applicants tell us their answers to the questions we had sent in advance and used those as a jumping off point for relevant conversation.

While all five candidates were strong in these interviews, three candidates had a mix of skill sets that seemed like the best fit for the role. For these three candidates, we scheduled an interview with Conservancy's staff in its entirety. Again, with a small organization, the addition of another person is a huge chance in organizational dynamics. Feedback from all employees was essential to making this decision.

Choosing the final candidate

In the end, going through the interview process and learning more about the job convinced one of the final three candidates that they were not really interested the role we were hiring for, which they understood much better through our hiring process. It was a tough choice between the two remaining candidates, but we were able to have confidence in Pono as our choice due to feedback from staff, the comparisons made possible by asking the candidates the same questions and the grading from the previous two rounds. If we'd had the budget, we would have hired all three of these final candidates.

Feedback on the process

Each of the finalists were surprised that we were willing to pay them for their time. For some of the applicants, being paid to participate gave them the flexibility to devote more time to their interview preparation. We were happy we were able to show our appreciation for the impressive applicants who were willing to give us so much of their time.

We also got positive feedback on the anonymized exercise. Because the exercise gave insight into how some of the every-day work in the position would look, it made it easier for some of the candidates to decide if they wanted to actually work in that role. In addition to the benefit I mentioned above about the anonymization making it easier to explain who would advance to the next round, some applicants indicated that making it to the final round via an anonymous exercise gave them confidence that they were qualified for the position.

TL;DR

For future hiring, we'll be looking to bring the same concepts to the process. Namely:

  • bring in an independent review of the candidates
  • ask all of the candidates the same questions
  • design an exercise that connects to the actual work the employee will be doing in the role
  • judge the exercise responses on an anonymous basis
  • keep the time required for applicants to invest in the interviewing process as minimal as possible
  • pay applicants who are required to invest more substantial time in the process

Many thanks to all of Conservancy's staff who helped us with this process (Rosanne Dimesio, Bradley Kuhn, Sage Sharp, Brett Smith), and to Deb Nicholson who helped bring some of these concepts to our previous hiring process.

Outreachy is hiring for a community manager position and using some of the strategies listed above. If you or someone you know if interested in applying for the community manager position, check out the post here.

Tags: conservancy

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