We’re all getting recruitment wrong, but what can we do about it?
Updated: Feb 12
We all know what it feels like to be applying for jobs. Writing a job application can take hours, a 3 or 4 stage application process can take up a full day’s worth of hours and can last for weeks. Applying for work is exhausting - it’s demotivating, relentless and thankless right up until the point at which you eventually (hopefully) succeed. Too often, we’re doing all that alongside a job that we desperately want to leave or we’ve already been made redundant. Being on the jobs market is high-pressure. And, at a time like this, all that is amplified even further.
At CIA, we’ve often felt deeply uncomfortable about many of the accepted practices around recruitment. So much of it can be deeply dehumanising. As we recently prepared to recruit a new team member, we wanted to push ourselves to challenge these practices and norms, to try to recruit in a way that put people and relationships at the centre - because that’s the whole point of CIA. Some things we got right, some we got wrong, but here are some reflections on what we learnt and what we believe.
Job descriptions need to be about people, not simply lists of essential and desirable skills.
As a small start-up, so much of our work is ambiguous and nebulous, we really wanted to reflect this in the job description. We recognised that many different skills and experiences would be beneficial to our work, and we wanted to give people the space and the chance to tell us how they thought their experience could help our collective endeavour. We tried to describe ‘the sort of person’ who we thought would fit in with our work and our approach. While people uniformly told us that our job description just felt different and in a really exciting way, they also told us they felt there was a lack of clarity over what the person in the role would be doing or trying to achieve. We’re not sure we would change anything here though as we would rather capture the excitement than what feels like a false clarity.
Let people know what to expect from the process at the outset.
In the job description, we set out a clear process, with stages and dates clarified at the outset. We think setting clear expectations at the start about what will happen and when is an essential, but something so few companies seem to do. We told people what stages to expect, and when they would hear back from us about whether they had gotten into the next stage – and then we met our commitments.
Give people the chance to meet you before they apply.
We held open Q&A sessions on Zoom to give people the chance to get a sense of who we are, and to ask us any questions. Given so much of our work is about close partnership with other organisations (we are the Collective Impact Agency after all), we invited partners to join us so candidates could hear from others about what working with us was like, rather than just hear our perspective. These sessions felt like interesting and unusual spaces, and they helped people get a feel for what working with us would be like. One candidate told us they would have liked there to have been more time to answer candidates’ questions, which we interpret to be a strong validation of the spaces themselves.
People will follow recruitment conventions unless you go out of your way to assure them you’re looking for something else.
We didn’t ask for a cover letter. We asked for “a couple of pages letting us know what’s led you to apply, what excites you about working with us, and what experience you bring.” Because we are all so deeply trained in the dark arts of writing of a formal cover letter, what we got from 90% of candidates was a formal cover letter – “I have excellent communication skills as demonstrated by the fact that…”. Looking at recruitment with fresh eyes, it was a little shocking how much everyone’s written application resembled everyone else’s. Next time, we will be far more explicit: “Please do not write a standard cover letter. We don’t want you to tell us about your excellent communication skills (which we’re sure you have). Instead, let us know about you as a person – What do you care about? What do you dream you could get out of a job?”
Give people an element of choice within the recruitment process.
We had a task stage as part of our recruitment, as we think it’s important for people to have the chance to show you what they can do, rather than simply tell you (the trap into which so many organisations fall – they’re actually testing for how well someone can interview, rather than how well they can do the job). We designed three separate tasks and we let candidates choose which of the three they preferred. (Why do we give candidates so little choice and agency throughout recruitment when we want them to have agency in the role itself?). While the task element worked fine, we didn’t think enough about the fact that people would be delivering the task over Zoom (thanks, COVID) and how uncomfortable this might be. Next time, we will give people twice as long and just chat for the first half
Give people the space and control to show who they are, not just what they can do.
For the ‘interview’ stage, we tried hard to frame it as much more of a chat than an interrogation. We gave each candidate 90 minutes – double the length of most interviews. We told them in advance “Here are the things we want to talk to you about,” providing a list of questions and topics – then we invited them to add the questions and topics they wanted to talk to us about so we could collectively co-create the framework of the conversation. In the sessions, we allowed the conversation to flow naturally across the framework, encouraging the candidate to ask us questions throughout rather than having an allotted 5 minutes at the end. This part was definitely something we got right as we were able to get a much deeper, more nuanced sense of who these people were rather than simply the skills they chose to show us in response to our formal questions.
Two final important points:
1) We sent an individual response to every single candidate. Somehow we have reached a point where it is all too normal to submit an application to a company and never to hear anything back. This is simply not acceptable. If people care enough to about your company to apply, they deserve the respect of a response.
2) After the process has concluded, we asked for feedback from every candidate about how they had found the process. Their feedback has helped inform the writing of this article. Among other things, they told us, “I think it’s really cool you’re collecting feedback” and “It’s practicing what you preach and viewing people as people, not just resources.”
Every job is about the person who holds it rather then the reductive ideas contained in a job description. We believe that recruitment should be much more about getting a sense of the person and less about who can demonstrate a prescribed set of skills best in an artificial environment. We suspect that many organisations stick to standard recruitment processes because they think it’s easier, when actually they’re inadvertently filtering great people out.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about recruitment and any ways you’ve been challenging recruitment conventions.