If you follow this blog with any regularity, you probably know my take on the job interview. One of my more popular posts asserts that hiring, as we know it, isn’t worth fixing. And, my book, Developer Hegemony, contains an excoriating treatment of job interviews. The practice started as a silly whim about 100 years ago, and we’ve just kept doing it, uncritically, ever since. I’m going to talk today about partnership, and how I think we can leverage it to help.
But let me set the scene a bit, first. In Developer Hegemony, I talk in more detail about the world without job interviews. On the blog, however, I’ve just advised developers to interview with companies that minimize the stupidity of the process. On the company side, the only advice I’ve offered is to picture a world where you weren’t allowed to interview. Using this creative constraint, come up with alternatives.
Because of this less than detailed treatment, I’ve received reader questions like the following. And, understandably so.
I love these articles, but I wish you would write one about what I should be doing to make good hires, instead of reinforcing how bad all the possible options I can think of would be.
So I’ve decided to address this. In today’s post, I’ll offer an idea for an alternative. I may turn this into a series, with different ideas, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
First, a quick disclaimer. What you’re about to read contains absolutely zero long-contemplated, research-backed academic work. I haven’t even asked anyone for an opinion on this.
Instead, you can think of this more as something I dreamed up in the shower a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve idly contemplated it while waiting to board a plane or going for a walk in nice weather. In this post, I will actually flesh it out in a bit more detail for my own clarification.
I won’t belabor the point further, but I do want you to understand that holes will exist. I’m not writing this post to give you a ready-made playbook, but to give you the seed of an idea that you might incorporate as you make hires. And, plus, it feels good to write something optimistic instead of frustrated and cynical every now and then.
Hiring Partnership, as It Exists Today
If you’ve worked for a few companies or for a large enterprise, you’ve probably encountered the employee referral bonus. Basically, your employer rewards you with money for helping them make a hire. When they need to fill a position, you can refer people from your network. If this results in a successful hire, they pay you, say, $1,000.
I respect this policy, particularly when wearing my management consulting hat. It aligns the organization’s best interests with its staff’s best interests instead of relying on patronizing idealist fodder like, “you should want to help for the good of the company.”
On top of that, it moves companies slightly away from what I call the 'stranger interview.' Stranger interviews comprise the overwhelming majority of hiring, and if you described them honestly, this is how you’d do it.
We need to grow headcount, so here’s what we’ll do. We’ll invite people that nobody here knows to come in for a few hours. We’ll decide on who to hire subconsciously, as soon as we see them, based largely on physical appearance, demeanor, and other low information signals. Then we’ll ask them a bunch of rather silly questions for a few hours so that we can apply revisionist history to candidates’ answers and justify our initial, low information decisions. Then we’ll justify the whole farce with a canard like, “A players hire A players and B players hire C players.”
So in my estimation, anything that moves us toward partnership and away from…. that… deserves applause.
A decent number of hires, I believe, happen due to these referral programs. And, as I’ve said, these have an immediate advantage over stranger hiring. But I can think of two important shortcomings of this approach.
First, employees may be responding to the cash incentive. But they may also be responding to an idealist culture and wanting to justify their own decision to work there. Or, they may simply want to work with their friends. Assuming these motivations suffice, the cash reward sort of constitutes waste (though no doubt these folks appreciate it).
Secondly, the cash incentive seems like a nice kick. But elapsed time and a relatively low probability of hire detract somewhat from the effect. Anecdotally, I’ve never really considered $500 or $1,000 after six months of a successful hire worth chasing. All of the things that can go wrong reduce the expected value of my efforts to a fraction of the actual reward. And this also presents risks. What if the interview goes poorly or what if the candidate hires on and then flames out? This could damage both my relationship with my employer and with my contact.
So, while I like these policies, they offer somewhat muted effectiveness. They fail to account for the nuance of employee motivations, and they offer a fairly convoluted feedback loop.
Putting the Partnership Angle on Steroids
Let’s then take the employee referral program and soup it up considerably. What I’m envisioning tightens the feedback loop and aligns everyone’s interests even more tightly. Oh, and it eliminates the job interview altogether.
First, forget the cash rewards. Let’s instead reward the referring employee with 2% (picked arbitrarily) of that employee’s salary for the duration of her stay with the company (employee gets her full salary, and you get 2% on top). That pretty much ensures intense interest in the referral program. Instead of a potential lump of found money, successful referrers now get raises. If you refer 5 or more employees, you can up your pay in an amount equivalent to receiving a promotion. Referral hires now constitute a true partnership.
As for the interview portion, that just goes away in favor of referrals. When you make a referral, the referred person simply shows up next Monday and starts working.
Now to address a glaring flaw in the program. If an incentive existed before to spam the top of the funnel for rewards, you’re now inviting a veritable Ponzi scheme. The referral program needs to reward good matches rather than any matches. Toward this end, I propose that the referrer pays a $1,000 sponsorship fee. This means that, for a new hire making $104K per year, the referrer needs him to last 25 weeks before breaking even. A true partnership means putting your money where your mouth is.
Why I Like This (at Least, at First Blush)
As I contemplated this, a number of wins came to mind. First and most obviously, it eliminates the job interview. That was, after all, the main premise of the post.
But, on a deeper level, this encourages a meaningful partnership for employees with the company as it grows. In a sense, the company rewards its employees for increased headcount the way it would give them stock options. They care deeply about helping the company grow in a sustainable fashion. In fact, helping the company grow becomes a bonafide career path in and of itself. Without ever moving into management, a well-connected software developer could eventually earn an executive-like salary by helping the company land a lot of developers over the years.
I also see significant potential for helping with general morale and cohesiveness. If I refer you and put up a sponsorship fee, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you feel happy and that you get training and support. The better you do and the longer you stay, the better I do. I want you to earn promotions because that earns me money. And I want to do everything I can to prevent attrition since that means money out of my pocket. Someone has real skin in the game for every employee.
You Take It From Here
As I said before, I’ve laid out the foundation of an idea here. I cannot call this a fully baked plan. You would need to take elements of it, tweak it, adjust the numbers, and make it make sense.
And you would probably encounter some fairly significant obstacles. Radical departures from anything as deeply entrenched as the job interview will make everyone nervous and skeptical. This holds doubly true when you attempt something that (as far as I know) no one has tried before.
But still, I think it’s worth ruminating on a bit and perhaps conceiving of a way to experiment with it to see how it works. It may not prove perfect or even tenable. And I could certainly have overlooked some “law of unintended consequences” possibilities. But still, it’s hard to imagine doing much worse at hiring than our current process, the stranger interview, which gives us pretty much the conceptual opposite of partnership in every way.