What are the criteria you use when hiring for your team? Have you written them down?

Lots of people think they have clear criteria for hiring but have never taken the time to write them down. Written criteria are an important component of an effective hiring process. In this post I'll share some guidance on establishing clear criteria, how to use them to design an efficient interview process, and the role they play in developing diversity on your team.

Defining Your Hiring Criteria

There are a number strategies you can use to get to your criteria. If you haven't already you could probably just write them down right now and have something to work with. That's a fine start. Sharing them with your team for review and revision is likely to make them even better.

Another approach is to actively engage your team in developing your criteria. You can get pretty far with this short exercise.

  • Gather your team in a quiet room
  • Hand out stickies and sharpies
  • Give the team 3 minutes to write down the desirable attributes of members of your team, one attribute per sticky
  • Have each person put their stickies on a wall and form clusters of related items
  • Give every member of the team 4 votes to dot vote their top attributes

Do the items with the most votes look like your criteria? You hopefully have a mix of different criteria that cover technical skills, working style, personality traits, domain expertise and more.

We did this exercise last year at Good Eggs as part of an effort to improve the hiring process on our engineering team. It had the additional benefit of helping the team better understand the characteristics that we feel define us and our work. It was also the raw input for the development of our Software Development Manifesto.

Examples of criteria that came out of that process and that we use today are:

  • Is aligned with our mission to grow and sustain local food systems worldwide
  • Has strong opinions, weakly held
  • Has full stack web development experience

Even with this short list of criteria you'll notice that there are differences. The first two can be more easily answered with yes/no while the third really needs to be evaluated on a scale. For us, the first two are also must-haves, while the third is desired but not required.

This is fine. Just be clear on which criteria are must-haves versus which ones you have as criteria because insight into how well a candidate meets that criteria will be important in your hiring decision.

Disqualifying Criteria

If a candidate meets any of your disqualifying criteria it means that you will definitely not hire them. Many of your must-have criteria can simply be inverted to create a disqualifier. The useful disqualifiers are the ones that can be easily evaluated and therefore used early in your process. Be sure to call them out in your written criteria and use them in the initial screening of candidates.

At Good Eggs, we consider it a disqualifier if a candidate does not value our mission to grow and sustain local food systems. So we are sure to get an understanding of a candidate's relation to food and their desire to work on a social cause. If you're solely interested in Good Eggs because you're stoked to work with Node.js, it's not going to work out.

Hiring Criteria and Your Interview Process

The goal of your interview process should be to determine how well a candidate meets your criteria and therefore if you want to invite them to join your team. By the time your interviews are done you should be able to discuss the candidate in relation to each of the criteria.

Before a candidate interviews with our team at Good Eggs, the people who are going to participate in the interview have a short meeting to review our criteria, identify those criteria for which we already have insight and those for which we specifically want to get more. Our existing insights may come from work history, phone conversations, Github...

We've designed our different interview sessions to give us coverage across all of our criteria. Different interviewers are responsible for getting insight into different criteria. When we pass the candidate from one interview to the next, we tell the next interviewer(s) if we have outstanding questions that we would like them to try to answer.

When we gather to make a decision on how to move forward we use our criteria to have a focused conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. Do they meet the criteria for which we require a "yes" and for the others how well did they perform? If we find that we disagree on our evaluation or have failed to gain insight into one or more of our criteria then we may design next steps to get more insight into those specifics.

Occasionally the situation comes up when a candidate appears to meet our criteria yet we are not inclined to make a decision to hire. This is a clear indication that we are using implicit criteria in addition to our explicit written criteria. If you find yourself in this situation, take the time to articulate the reason why you do not want to hire and modify your criteria to include it.

Hiring Criteria and Diversity

The first important step in supporting diversity in hiring is to be sure that you are using explicit rather than implicit criteria. Implicit criteria are too easily subject to personal biases and inconsistent application across candidates. Explicit written criteria can be used consistently for all candidates and are easier to evaluate and revise for inclusiveness.

In February I attended an orientation for Code 2040 hosted at the offices of Andreesen Horowitz. Code 2040 is an organization that creates internship opportunities in Silicon Valley for black and latino engineering students from across the country. We are thrilled to have a Code 2040 alum, Estefanía Ortiz, joining us an intern for summer 2014.

Ben Horowitz is a supporter and board member of Code 2040. When asked for his thoughts on general strategies for improving diversity on teams he talked about hiring criteria in a way that helped to expand my thinking and appreciate the value of the criteria we already had in place. He said that a common approach to increasing diversity on a team is to effectively lower the standards for hiring. Hiring managers think that in order to make positions available to more people they need to lower their bar. This approach is a poor one because neither a new hire nor the existing team is happy knowing that the bar has been lowered.

A much better approach is to change your criteria so as to be more inclusive without lowering your high standards.

Our requirement that candidates are aligned with our mission to grow and sustain local food systems is interesting to evaluate in this light. In many communities in this country access to basic groceries is hard enough, let alone the amazing local and organic produce we enjoy in California. Some immigrants come from communities that have existing strong food cultures so have less experience with the ills of industrial food in this country.

We used to require that team members demonstrate passion for fixing food in this country and a personal commitment to our mission. We've been able to grow an amazing team with that focus but we strive to be more inclusive as we continue to grow. We've realized that what really matters is that members of our team want their work to be toward making positive change in the world and see aligning themselves with Good Eggs as a way to meet that need. It's a subtle change but opens the door to many more amazing people who want to help us achieve our mission.

How To Apply This To Your Own Team

It's pretty easy to put these suggestions into practice.

  1. Write down your criteria
  2. Revise with feedback from your team
  3. Ensure that you get insight into your criteria through your interview process
  4. Evaluate your candidates against your criteria when making hiring decisions
  5. Revise your criteria when you find yourself using implicit criteria in your decisions
  6. Periodically reevaluate your criteria for inclusiveness and hidden biases