When Hiring, Look for a Reason to Say No

The Humanist Methodology is a holistic leadership philosophy that aims to maximize the output of innovation teams by combining proven best practices with a dedication to work-life balance.

For more information on this project, please refer to The Humanist Manifesto or the links at the bottom of this post.


I've spilled plenty of ink on why hiring is important. Now, I'd like to share with you some high-level best practices and details-level processes that I've found very helpful in hiring teams of highly performant individuals.

In this section I'll go over a few guiding principles. In the next section, I'll take a look at a step-by-step hiring process informed by these guidelines. 

A quick note: These sections are neither brief nor stylized. They are a detailed discussion of a hiring process I've refined over the past 10 years. A process I think produces great results, but requires a good deal of time, discipline, and trust in the process itself. 

The Golden Rule of Hiring

Look for a reason to say no.

Why? Because you can always keep looking. Once you commit to bringing an individual into your family of creative collaborators, they are inevitably going to make a significant impact - for better or worse - on your product, your team and your organization's ability to execute on its mission.

Repeated for emphasis: Look for a reason to say no.

If you're a good person, which most of us are, you probably have a tendency to look for the best in people; their redeeming qualities, the things that you admire in them. However, it's important to compartmentalize these positive attributes and insulate them from aspects of an individual's personality that might not be a fit for your organization. This way you can objectively consider a candidate. 

In my experience, bad hires and bad fits often come from hiring someone who is exceptional in one or more areas (frequently in their given area of expertise), but deficient in others (personality, culture fit, etc.). Often the hire is justified despite those deficiencies by identifying them as areas of improvement.; other times management regards the hire as a savant - and works to accommodate or minimize the individual's deficient traits.

Unfortunately, when hiring for creative work, most often these deficient aspects will never change; it's simply how someone is built. People can change to a certain degree - acquiring new skills, honing their personality, refining their creative sensibilities - but people will rarely, if ever, change on a fundamental level. Your job is to find out what type of person a candidate is and assess whether or not they're a good fit for your organization.

Bottom line: Take the time to look for the perfect person. You'll find them.

Why So Harsh?

Some of you might be thinking "Humanist methodology? More like Huge Jerk Methodology!" 

I'll admit that my opinions on hiring are pretty severe. Further, my implementation of them is fairly rigid. It's a combination that can be frustrating for everyone involved, but I believe strongly in it.

Why?

Think of it as interviewing a spouse for your all-grown-up-but-still-your-baby child. Think about how picky you would be during that process. That's how selective you should be when adding new team members to your work family.

Your team - the people whose lives and livelihoods you are directly responsible for - are relying on you to build a team that can execute on a high level for a long time. That requires a very delicate mixing of skills, personalities and expertise. One bad hire can turn dozens of families upside down. 

Being a creative leader is an extremely serious responsibility and hiring is your most important obligation. 

How to Say No

As we'll detail in the next section, the key to this process is a Hiring Committee. That Committee must unanimously approve candidates at key points throughout the process. 

After you finish a round of assessment, whether interviews or portfolio reviews, get the team together digitally or in-person. First, have each member of the committee provide a simple Yes or No assessment. That's all. No qualifiers. There will be time for discussion later, but the only allowed words in this first moment of conversation are "Yes" or "No." Period.

The reason I recommend doing this is to avoid unintentional bias from reviewers who may change vital votes based on how others in the group vote or explanation given in conversation. That gut reaction is a very valuable piece of information to capture. 

Once you've completed the Yes/No round, those who voted Yes should explain what made them think the candidate is truly exceptional. Likewise, those who voted No should break down what they would need to see in order to move that individual to the next round of the interview process. From here, the committee should discuss various perspectives, consider alternatives, and present arguments in order to get to unanimously approval for a candidate or to confidently say no.

Fist to Five

Tobi Saulnier, CEO of First Playable Productions, brought a great decision-making process to the International Game Developers Board of Directors during our tenure. It was called Fist-to-Five. Originally developed by the Free Child Project, it helps decision making teams come to consensus on topics that may have a wide divergence of opinions.

For our purposes it follows this cadence:

  1. The hiring manager or facilitator poses the decision to the group (e.g. "We will extend an offer of employment to Gabe Newell for the position of Senior Rocket Surgeon, starting April 1st."
  2. The committee is given time to think about that statement. When everyone has signaled that they are ready, the group takes a simultaneous vote, with each person holding up a fist, or 1-5 fingers, according to how they feel about the statement:
    • Fist: A hard "No" vote. I cannot approve this candidate for this role without changing the role or uncovering new information.
    • 1 Finger: A "No" vote. I need to discuss this candidate more, but I have suggestions I would like to propose.
    • 2 Fingers: A "No" vote. I am more comfortable with this candidate but I have minor issues.
    • 3 Fingers: A soft "Yes" vote. I am not in total agreement but I will approve this candidate to move forward in the process.
    • 4 Fingers: A "Yes" vote. I think this is a good hire.
    • 5 Fingers: A hard "Yes" vote. This is a slam dunk hire and I am willing to champion this individual.

After each step in the process, your hiring committee should ideally be able to approve the candidate in question with all 5-Finger Votes. At the very least, there must be a unanimous Yes vote from the committee for an individual to move forward in the hiring process.

What Would You Do If You Lost Them?

A great clarifying question to ask yourself of current or prospective collaborators to gauge your true feelings of them - devoid of personal feelings or emotional bias - is this: "What would I do if this individual went to work somewhere else?" 

A slightly different take: "How would I feel if this individual went to work somewhere else?"

If the answer is that you'd be crushed, disappointed or concerned about your ability to fill the position, you probably have a great candidate at hand. If the answer is feelings of relief, indifference, or simple acceptance, consider why you have advanced this candidate to this point - it may be a great personality or social debt carrying them this far, not high-end talent.

This is a commonly-asked question, used by many different types of organizations. During the hiring process, I like to mentally take stock of individual candidates that I feel strongly about by asking that question. Often, I'll realize that the reason I was high on them was simply that I like their personality or they had a story that I fell in love with. 

Mary Lou Kownacki puts it well: "There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story."

Hiring managers can be empathetic people. It's easy to want a candidate to work out. This is a dangerous habit that can lead to bad hires. Asking the above question can help to take objective stock on how you view a candidate's role within your organization.

Hiring Takes Time

The flip side to being ultra-selective about who you hire is that hiring great people takes time. For most positions, you should turn down many applicants on your way to finding the right person. The applicants you turn down can go a long way to help you clarify what exactly you are looking for in a candidate.

In my experience, I usually look at around 100-200 resumes, interview 10-20 people over the phone, and follow up with 1-3 finalists for each position I hire for. This number can be higher (and it frequently is), but it is rarely lower. Finding people who are a perfect fit for your organization is hard. It is time-consuming. And it should be.

There are two ways to mitigate for this. One is to budget lots of lead time for each hire - three to nine months per position is reasonable and can certainly take longer. The other takes more work over time, but pays off in spades:

Maintain Your Bench

The ideal situation in every hiring instance is that you have the perfect person in mind before you identify a need. It's the hole-in-one, walk-off home run, kickoff return touchdown, and ace serve of the hiring world, all rolled into one. However, this is rarely an occurrence that happens by accident.

The best hiring managers I've worked with know what kinds of positions they're going to be hiring for, often as far as 12-18 months in advance. This is critical, as it allows you start building a bench of qualified applicants that you can call upon when headcount opens up. 

It's unfortunate, but finding great people is often happenstance. Chance meetings at networking events, unsolicited resumes, or out-of-the-blue references from colleagues can introduce you to a great candidate, often when you aren't hiring.

Whether you're hiring or not at that moment, it's important to capture their information via a trusted, accessible resource that you use frequently. It's important when this happens to capture their information into a trusted source that you frequently refer to. A Google Doc spreadsheet works fine.

If you're like me, you definitely will not remember their name and/or qualifications 12-18 months later beyond "...that engineer from the IGDA meeting who had a ton of back-end architecture experience...what was their name?"

To develop your best bench, it's important to take a systemic, detail-rich approach to recruiting and networking.

Work Every Angle

Like many hiring managers, I've hired great people from a truly weird and wonderful array of sources. Random encounters on the train, direct messages on Facebook, the Dungeon Master from my bi-weekly D&D campaign, and tons of personal references. 

The key is to constantly and aggressively seek out great candidates using every vector available to you. That doesn't mean spamming everyone you know non-stop, nor does it mean approaching new creative individuals with a cold, calculating approach. It means building real relationships with the types of people you may need to call upon in a hiring capacity. 

This doesn't have to be a facetious relationship-building endeavor. You can absolutely be up-front with people that you want to meet more engineers, more designers, etc., and learn more about what they do. They'll love to make a contact who could bring them gainful employment and most often enjoy talking at length about their craft.

Additionally, forging relationships with future creative collaborators can be a great way to discover who might be a fit for your team up-front and allows new team members to feel like they've been part of the team for years, right from day one.

Seek out Experience and Aptitude in Equal Measure

Every candidate you consider is going to have a different mix of natural aptitude and learned experience. Both are critical.

Without latent talent to harness, no amount of experience will make an individual highly performant. Similarly, experience provides invaluable insight into what works and what doesn't.

Many hiring managers write off junior talent or individuals who don't have experience in a specific area. This is a huge mistake.

While experience is a massive virtue to every candidate, you can still find great people at every experience level. Never overlook a candidate who has elite talent and aptitude just because they don't know the specific technology you're using or have familiarity with the type of product you're working on.

Interfaces can be learned. Languages can be mastered. Product nuance can be understood. Innate talent and aptitude cannot be taught. You either have it or you don't. In the long-run, a more talented, less experienced individual will outpace a more experienced, less talented individual.

All that being said, the safest route to a best hire is an experienced individual with deep familiarity of your product and process. Creative collaborators with years of experience in your craft have seen success and - more importantly - failure in such quantity that it informs future decision making in a way that no amount of talent can. Further, having senior people at the top of your organization allows those individuals to impart that wisdom upon junior resources who don't have the same measure of real-world experience.

While there is a somewhat negative connotation with the word safe, remember that we are talking about constructing the very fabric of your organization. This is not a task you want to roll the dice on.

The key is identifying what the position, the team, and the culture of your organization need. Do they need someone with great experience to guide the team? Do they need an elite talent who can master a bleeding edge technology? 

Just as most highly performance collaborators combine experience with talent, it takes some talent for hiring and enough experience in the hiring process in order to determine which candidates provide the best combination of talent and experience; youthful ambition and battle-tested wisdom. While it can seem like a daunting if not impossible task at first, with time and practice it is a skill that can be honed and refined like any other.

Compensation

If you're planning on staffing your organization with highly performant individuals, you better be able to pay them on the upper end of market value, in addition to a suite of great benefits (we'll talk about these in their own section). The thought process here is that truly exceptional hires will outperform average hires by far more than a 2:1 ratio when it comes to creative work, justifying a higher salary via sheer output.

Netflix does a superb job of enumerating the value proposition of hiring exceptional people and paying them well in their presentation entitled "Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility." The entire presentation is sensational and I recommend reading it end-to-end.

On this topic, these slides are especially pertinent:

Compensating at the top end of the market is so important to Netflix that they made it one of their core tenants. They go to detail how you set the compensation level for an individual:

This compensation process does a nice job of scaling salary to the individual at hand, instead of lumping large groups of individuals with differing skill sets and specific experience that may or may not be at equal compensation levels.

Finally, Netflix details out a few great points (among many) about how to structure compensation. It's simple, elegant and effective, just like a lot of what Netflix does (seriously, go check out the entire presentation):

Never Close the Door on a Candidate

One thing to keep in mind with everything we've talked about is that you are viewing a candidate in a singular temporal instance. You are seeing them as they exist today. Tomorrow, they may be a fundamentally different person. A year from now? Ten years? They may be the slam dunk hire that you think they can be. 

Never, ever close the door on a candidate. Always leave the conversation open. Always keep your door open to future communication. 

A few tactics I've found helpful:

  1. Ask Them to Keep In Touch - and Mean It! - I see a lot of candidates who are great in certain areas but missing key experience or expertise that may be able to be acquired over time. For these candidates, I always ask them to keep in touch, usually with a specific timeframe (e.g. "If you're looking in the next 12-18 months, please reach out to me directly and we can see if there are any roles that would be great for you."). The caveat: you must be genuine and have a conversation with that individual when the time comes, or you will risk your relationship with them and your broader reputation as a hiring manager.
  2. Offer to Connect Them - If you have a role that a person isn't right for but you know of a colleague or nearby company that is hiring for a role they'd be great for, make the connection! You'll build goodwill with the candidate individually and it can help develop a reputation for yourself and your organization. Likewise, by partnering with other organizations in your community or industry, you can establish a pipeline for future talent to come to your organization.
  3. Connect Via Social Media - Following particularly promising candidates on social media allows you keep track of their career progress. While you want to be careful not to be overaggressive with social media interaction, following a candidate on LinkedIn can be a great way to provide an open communication vector in the future. Further, making social media connections with strong candidates can bring you into contact with more strong candidates.

This case more than others in the hiring process requires a gentle touch. Do what you feel works best for the relationship and do be aware of the fact that some candidates might not be open to communication at the end of an unsuccessful interview process. Be sensitive to their perspective and handle this step of the process in the manner you see fit.


In Conclusion: Get Your Game Face On

If there's one thing I hope you take away from this section, it's that you have to be pretty ruthless and uncaring during the hiring process. That doesn't mean that you can't hire wonderful people who you care about deeply. It means that you have to be comfortable saying no to wonderful people who you care about deeply.

It can be a difficult process; both tactically and emotionally. 

During the hiring process, you'll encounter people you want to hire. People who you love talking to. People who are fundamentally good people who really need this job. People who could be great if they just fixed that one thing. The key is to remember that you are not just responsible for the person you are hiring but for the well being of your entire team. 

Always remember to look for a reason to say no. Find the imperfections in candidates and move on to the next until you find that perfect candidate. Everyone - your team, your successful candidates, your unsuccessful candidates - will be better off by this hire going to someone who is the perfect fit.

An early reader asked a great question: "How do you reconcile caring for the individual with the ruthless, cold hard hiring process you've described here?"

The vast majority of The Humanist Methodology is focused on caring for and investing in the individuals on your team. However, it is not your responsibility to care for and invest in every individual out there. The line is drawn at the hiring moment.

After that moment, once an individual joins your team, you are responsible for their long-term well being, career growth, and realized potential. That is when you should focus on being a caring, compassionate, humanist leader.

Before that moment is the time to be cold, ruthless, and uncaring. Your team is depending on it.

Up Next: The Step-by-Step Humanist Hiring Process 


Coray Seifert is a writer and producer at Krakensoft Games. We make awesome indie games and help awesome companies make their games more awesome. It's pretty awesome.