Talent & Leadership
A 5-Step Guide to Startup Recruiting and Hiring
With almost every early-stage company we meet with, the first and most common question we get is around recruiting: how do you attract and hire great talent?
And it’s an incredibly important question! Startups—no matter how good their ideas, and how innovative their products—are nothing without fantastic people to execute against those ideas and build those products.
But great recruiting is about so much more than filling roles with top talent. It’s about filling the right roles with the right people. And in a high-growth environment like we’re experiencing now, where there is far more demand than supply for world-class candidates, we’re going to show you how to level up your entire recruiting processes to make them more effective, more efficient, more collaborative, and more impactful.
Define the role
Before you start to fill a role, take a step back to look at your entire organization and assess the broader needs.
- What are the overall skills you are missing today?
- Will those be the most important problems to solve down the line?
- What is the right level for this hire?
Without asking these questions, startups tend to over-hire for critical roles, meaning they bring in the most experienced person they can find. But sometimes, especially early on, they’re better off bringing in a tactical leader who can build and grow, rather than a more strategic leader who needs a team under them to execute.
Want help defining the roles you need? Review our guide on organizational design.
Think like a scientist
Once you know what role you need to fill, it’s time to start designing your interview process. Again, this is where many startups (as well as mature companies) go very wrong—setting up an interview process that leads to biased or ineffective hiring decisions, a bad employer reputation, wasted time, or all of the above.
What differentiates excellent interview processes? First of all, it is the discipline to think like a scientist and create a structured interview process. Why are structure and standardization so important to interviewing? Because candidate selection is essentially the process of testing your hypothesis that Candidate X will be able to achieve result Y (i.e., great performance in this role at your company). Think about it like a clinical trial. For any useful data to emerge from your process, it must be empirical in the same way researchers test the hypothesis that drug X will cure ailment Y.
Imagine if we tested drugs the way most people interview candidates. What if all patients received different doses of different drugs, at different times, with different instructions? You’d never know which drug would be more effective—or if either of them worked at all. What makes a drug market-ready? Or, for that matter, what makes any finding scientific? A rigorously standardized testing process.
In the same way, when assessing candidates, we have to control for as many variables as possible or, at least, as practical. If you are truly looking for the elusive “top talent” for your role, you don’t want to end up hiring the placebo!
If everyone answers different questions in a different order or some candidates get a friendly interviewer while others sit there watching their interviewer check email, it is impossible to determine if differences between candidates are meaningful and what, if anything, they mean.
The bottom line: A standardized assessment process will mitigate the likelihood of interviewer bias, which leads interviewers to favor certain candidates (e.g., ones that share elements of their identity) and consciously or unconsciously view others in a more negative light.
Designing the candidate assessment process in 5 steps
So, what are the most important steps to standardize and build into your interview process? Based on our observations of hundreds of companies, and the interviewing skills training we offer at LifeLabs Learning, here are the five essential steps:
Step 1: Identify outcomes
Begin your interview process with the end in mind. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to look for customers before you know what product you are selling, it is a bad idea to look for a candidate before you know what you want them to do—not only today but also tomorrow (and beyond).
- What will they need to achieve?
- By when?
- How will you know in 3 months, 6 months, and 1 year that you’ve made a great hire?
Also consider the context of the work. For example:
- Will their daily routine be predictable or constantly changing?
- Will they be focused on tasks for long periods of time, or will they hop in and out of different projects and meetings?
- Will there be someone to answer all their questions, or will they have to make things up as they go along?
The more you clearly identify and articulate what success looks like, the easier it will be to find someone who is most likely to create that success.
Step 2: Extract the job criteria
Skills and knowledge
Now work backwards. What skills and knowledge are needed to achieve these goals?
Experience and education alone are lazy ways to test for effectiveness and exclude amazing candidates who don’t have the ideal background but have the necessary skills. Based on the goals you are looking to achieve and the context of the work:
- What should candidates know or know how to do?
- What will they need to know right away?
- What can they learn on the job?
If you’re not sure, ask people who are already great at this role at your company or elsewhere in similar environments. One important element to keep in mind here is the value of potential over experience.
What this means is that you’re not necessarily looking for someone who has done the job before—just the signals that they can do it well in the future. While it’s nice to find a candidate who has perfectly relevant experience, remember:
- It’s dangerous to assume that experience alone translates to skills and knowledge—someone might have spent 10 years “practicing” to do the work poorly.
- Many candidates don’t want to do the same job twice and are looking for new ways to grow.
Look for people who understand what “good” looks like, have the skills and knowledge they can’t learn fast enough on the job, and be open to candidates with limited experience who are eager for the challenge. These people will often bring new perspectives to the role along with a hunger to stretch and succeed.
Not over-indexing on experience is also a great way to expand your applicant pool and diversify your pipeline. On the other hand, don’t assume that someone with many years of experience can’t be just as passionate about the work. Make sure your role description is clear, that you know what skills and knowledge are truly needed, then let candidates decide for themselves if they feel the work is right for them. Assuming a candidate is “too seasoned” or won’t be excited by the work also limits your candidate pool and hinders diversity. Check out our guide on building diversity, equity, and inclusion into your startup for more ideas on hiring and recruiting.
Pro tip: When in doubt about the skills that matter most, add adaptivity, tolerance for ambiguity, and self-management to your hiring criteria. Remember that you are looking for someone who will be successful in the uncertain future, not just the past.
Scale & Experience:
Knowing how to do the core tasks embedded in a role , or at least demonstrating the potential to do the job is of course the most critical table stakes. But it’s worth keeping in mind that where the candidate is going to work is an equally important component of the assessment. Working in an early stage startup, with constantly changing priorities, ambiguities and a high pace of work is very different from doing a similar job at a large established company, even with the same title! You should also explore with the candidate how comfortable they are rolling up their sleeves and doing the work, rather than delegating. For most startups, especially in the beginning of their lifecycle, the former is the norm much more so than the latter. Hiring managers often get excited to see “brand name” company experience on the resume, but it’s critical that you assess how relevant that company is to what you’ll need for your team, both on industry experience and understanding; as well as stage of growth.
Now step back and look at your company and team values. For maximum adaptivity, innovation, and productivity, you’ll want as much visible and invisible diversity on your team as possible, with one exception. A few core values must be shared (see our guide on values for more on why they matter and how to get them right).
Last but not least, look for what the design firm IDEO refers to as “culture add.” What skills, knowledge, values, perspectives, characteristics, or experience would bring something new to your team? As Aaron Dignan, author of “Brave New Work” puts it, your teams should become increasingly more interesting with each new hire.
Important: Before you move onto the next step, check again!
- Are you sure the criteria you outlined are truly needed to achieve your goals?
- Can someone with totally different characteristics do just as well?
For example, just because your current sales team members are extraverted, it doesn’t mean that someone with an introverted style can’t be just as successful in the role. Just because every manager you’ve worked with has had a college education, it doesn’t mean your next stellar manager will need one.
Step 3: Develop your assessment(s)
Now that you know what you’re looking for, determine how you can find out whether someone meets the criteria you need. Good assessment options include a combo of:
- Work samples or demos (e.g., past websites they’ve designed, design made on the spot)
- Skill or knowledge tests (e.g., coding test, product knowledge quiz)
- Role playing (e.g., giving a peer feedback, responding to a frustrated client)
- Behavioral interview prompts (e.g., “tell me about a time when you…”)
Whenever possible, look for evidence of the desired characteristics in practice. When that’s not possible, lean on behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing works well because it assesses how candidates acted in real, relevant situations. These questions/prompts are past-focused (“how did you handle when…”) versus theoretical (“what would you do if…”) because past performance is a good predictor of future performance.
Sample Behavioral Questions:
- Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you didn’t get along with—like a coworker or fellow student.
- Describe a time you were forced to change how you worked.
- What did you do the last time you faced competing priorities?
- What is a recent accomplishment you felt proud of? How did you achieve it?
- Tell me about a time when people didn’t see things your way.
- What was the last suggestion you made to improve your organization (whether at work or elsewhere)?
- Discuss an important decision you made. How did you do it?
Pro tip: There are two common behavioral interview pitfalls to keep in mind:
Giving away the answer: The first mistake to avoid is a behavioral interview prompt that gives away the “right answer.” For example, if you are looking for a candidate who has a track record of collaboration, it doesn’t pay to ask, “Tell me about a time you collaborated with someone.” Just about any answer you get will reinforce the idea that this person is collaborative.
Instead, think of a situation where you’d want collaboration to happen, but it would also be just as reasonable for someone to fly solo. For example, an interview prompt like “Discuss an important decision you made” can reveal whether the candidate tends to involve others. For especially important criteria, ask for several examples to see if a pattern of past behavior emerges.
Exclusive prompts: The second mistake is to create interview prompts that exclude terrific candidates with limited workplace experience to draw from. To avoid this problem, clarify that candidates can base their answers on experience at work, in school, or any other groups or organizations.
Pro tip: If you plan to use “back-door reference checks” as one of your assessment tools (i.e., conversations about the candidate with people the candidate did not list as a reference), be sure to alert your candidates about your plan beforehand to reduce the likelihood of a breach in trust.
Step 4: Create your scoring system
Going through the process of developing standardized assessment prompts is essential, but you can’t stop there. The next step is to determine how you’ll actually access responses. If you’re requesting a work demo, how will you decide if the work was good? If you’re using an interview question, what constitutes a good answer? Some helpful assessment options include:
- Minimum passing score on skill and knowledge tests
- Checklist of necessary criteria in a demo or interview prompt response
- “Look for” and “red flag” cues for interview prompt responses (see examples below)
Test your assessment method by having several existing employees go through a mock version of the interview process. This approach can help you determine if the process is clear, fair, and actually predictive of high performance. It’ll also give your interview team a chance to calibrate.
Bonus! To create a greater sense of certainty and transparency with candidates, consider letting them know how they will be assessed. For example, at LifeLabs Learning, we’ve found that our hiring effectiveness and candidate experience improved when we started sending our assessment checklist to candidates in advance of a teaching demo (as well as some of our interview prompts).
Ultimately, we don’t need candidates to guess what we want to see (since this would never happen on the job). Instead, we want to see if they will be able to demonstrate the skills we need once we’ve set clear expectations.
Pro tip: Teams can get bogged down creating a “perfect” scoring system. This is generally a qualitative exercise, not a quantitative one. The purpose of standardized ratings is to create calibration among interviewers and differentiation across candidates—the score is simply meant to point you in the right direction.
Sample Candidate Assessment Grid
Below are two examples of role-relevant outcomes (i.e., beginning with the end in mind), followed by the job criteria, assessment type, the assessment itself, and how it will be scored. We highly recommend creating an assessment grid like this for every new role you want to fill at your company.
Outcome: Increase event attendance by 20% by end of Q4
Outcome: Practices our “Get Curious” value
Step 5: Calibrate with your interview team
Phew! Okay, once you’ve articulated the outcomes you need, the job criteria that will help achieve those outcomes, your assessment, and the scoring system, it’s time to decide how you’ll make the final decision on who to hire.
To reduce bias, use at least some degree of distributed decision-making. You might require that at least two people have to agree (e.g., the hiring manager and one other person) or decide by panel vote. Either way, when you have more than one person making the decision, it’s important to do a calibration session.
An example of a calibration format includes:
- Every interview team member scores independently and records their recommendation (e.g., strong yes, yes, no, strong no).
- Every interviewer goes around and gets two minutes to share what they see as the candidate’s strengths and contributions.
- Next, every team member gets two minutes to share their concerns about the candidate.
- Last, everyone reveals their overall recommendation.
Throughout this process, ask that interviewers hold one another accountable for sticking to the explicit role criteria and describing candidates in terms of objective observations. An important skill we teach our workshop participants at LifeLabs Learning is something we call “deblurring.” Blur words are words that can mean different things to different people and have a way of masking unconscious bias.
Deblurring is the act of noticing blur words and asking clarifying questions. For example, if an interviewer describes a candidate as “unprofessional,” other members of the interview team can ask questions like:
- “What’s a specific example of what they did?”
- “How do you think that might impact their ability to do this work successfully?”
Even when it seems “clear” how a candidate did, we still recommend doing live calibration sessions. This step helps everyone remain aligned on success metrics and allows for inquiry into what worked/didn’t work in the screening process that brought candidates to this stage.
A healthy discussion often uncover biases and shows where there might be less agreement than the team initially assumed. Those early reps on candidate review will make the interview team and your recruiters that much better and more efficient in future sessions and for future roles.
Pro tip: Aside from engineering a strong interview process, be sure to also train your team on the skills and knowledge they’ll need to execute on the process well. A good training package includes an interview guide or playbook (see sample here) and a live learning experience like a workshop—with opportunities to practice, ask questions, and get 1:1 feedback.
Find the right people
For most early-stage startups, the default way to source and find talent is through referrals. And it makes sense—the company does not have enough of a brand for people to actively seek out jobs or answer recruiter outreach (if you’re lucky enough to have a recruiter).
The benefits of the referral approach? You’ve seen them work (remember work samples are usually more predictive than interviews), and they’re likely to align better on values if you have a good pre-existing relationship. But be careful! Too many referrals means there is a much higher likelihood of homogeneity across the organization, and then you will miss out on the many benefits of having diversity in your team early.
Ideally, an equal mix of referrals, active sourcing (reaching out to passive candidates), and inbound applications should be the goal of any healthy recruiting function.
When you do look for candidates, we encourage you to create compelling job descriptions that cover key basic facts:
- What is the company? Why should candidates want to work for you?
- What is the role? What are key success outcomes?
- What will the person be doing? What are the typical and most important tasks?
- What attributes should the candidate ideally have? Here is where we recommend using the skills, experience, and culture-add matrix we described earlier.
Pro tip: When creating the job description, be mindful of using biased language or phrases. (Please retire terms like “rockstar” and “ninja”!) Tools like Textio can help with this.
Engineer the candidate experience
The final essential aspect of your hiring process to engineer is your overall candidate experience—from the very first interaction a candidate has with your company all the way through to the job offer (or lack thereof). The best recruiting and interview processes are also marketing campaigns for the organization. Ideally, your candidates have such a great experience interviewing for your company that they accept the job you offer them and/or share positive gossip about your organization, even if they didn’t get a job offer.
So, what are the components of an effective candidate experience design? There are three factors that matter most:
- Showcase your internal and external brand
Audit your entire interview process (e.g., careers page, job postings, interview questions, offer letter) through the lens of your internal and external brand. Ask:
- What do we want candidates to think and feel about our products/services, culture, and employee experience?
- What are our opportunities to catalyze these insights about our company?
- Where can we showcase our Unique Employment Proposition (what makes us special as an employer)?
- Create clarity
Reducing the mysteries involved in your interview process can help minimize negative experiences for candidates. For example:
- Time: Set (and keep) expectations about how long candidates will wait to hear back from you and when the start date will be.
- Process: Articulate the different phases of the interview process.
- Criteria: Spell out the success criteria for the role and even the interview.
- Contact: Communicate who the candidate’s primary point of contact will be and how to get in touch.
- Compensation: Share what monetary and non-monetary compensation and benefits you offer.
- Questions and answers: Provide a document with answers to frequently asked questions or other information that might impact the candidate’s decision. Build in time in the interview process to answer your candidates’ questions.
- Balance warmth and consistency
While it is essential to make the interview process as standardized as possible (minimizing bias-inducing actions like starting interviews with unscripted small talk), it’s also important that candidates feel like they are seen as individuals rather than data points. Bake in small gestures of care like thanking people for their time, offering options, providing water/coffee/tea (if on-site), and asking for feedback.
Takeaways & next steps
Getting hiring right is among the most important things you’ll need to do for your company to succeed. First and foremost, think like a scientist about your interview process. Make it as standardized as possible for meaningful differences between candidates to emerge, to reduce bias, and to make many high-quality hires at scale.
The 5 steps of developing an efficient, fair, and scalable interview process:
- Identify the objectives of the role. Begin with the end in mind. Ask what the person in this role will need to accomplish and by when.
- Extract the job criteria. Work backwards to identify the job requirements that will likely lead to the outcomes you listed, including skills (technical and interpersonal), knowledge, values-fit, and culture-add. Check to make sure you aren’t creating unnecessary barriers to entry.
- Develop your assessment(s). Figure out what would show you whether or not a candidate meets the criteria you listed (e.g., demos, mocks, tests, behavioral interview prompts).
- Create your scoring system. Articulate how your interviewers will be able to tell whether someone aced or flunked the assessment.
- Calibrate with your interviewers. Establish a standardized decision-making process (e.g., post-interview scoring and discussion followed by two decision-makers and a third tie breaker making the final call).
Recruiting: Write job descriptions that are clear and unbiased, and create a mix of recruiting channels including referrals, passive outreach, and inbound applicants. Be careful not to over-index on referrals to avoid homogeneity.
Candidate experience: Throughout your entire hiring process, be sure to also keep an eye out for the candidate experience. Look for ways to showcase your internal and external brand while creating a sense of clarity and interpersonal warmth.
Think like a scientist: We started this guide by talking about the importance of “thinking like a scientist” to create an effective, fair, and scalable interview process. We’ll wrap up with a reminder to keep on thinking like a scientist. This means continuing to assess and iterate your interview process as your organizational needs and realities evolve and as you gather more data about the quality of your hiring decisions. With each new hire and departure (or at least on an annual basis), ask:
- Have our success criteria changed?
- Have the hiring decisions we’ve made using this process been successful?
- What did we miss?
- What can we make 10% better?
What to do first:
Start by selecting just one role—ideally one that you will need to fill several times. Gather a team of two to four people, and go through the step-by-step guide we’ve shared here. If you do nothing else, get hiring decision makers to articulate success criteria for each role.