Hiring by trial

When I ran a web development agency in the early 2000s, we were innovative in lots of ways, but hiring our team was not necessarily one of them. We adopted a pretty traditional process: post job openings, conduct a few interviews, maybe have someone go through a short exercise while in our office, check a few references, and then make a hiring decision.

I now liken this version of hiring to getting married after the second date. Making a long term commitment based on a few highly orchestrated, well-prepared for encounters where everyone is behaving at their very best can be a recipe for disappointment or disaster.

(This is not to say that the people we ended up hiring at the agency were disappointing — on the whole we were fortunate to find some great colleagues over the years! — but I also now know that there were a few preventable disasters along the way.)

When I applied and was hired at Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com and many other great software tools and services, I learned firsthand about a whole other version of the hiring process, and it’s one I came to see as a huge improvement over what I’d been doing.

I’ve written about this previously:

I will never hire anyone ever again without having some kind of “trial” process similar to the one that my current employer, Automattic, engages in as a part of its hiring. There is simply no substitute for actually working alongside someone to accomplish goals similar to the ones you would tackle as coworkers. It is only in the day-to-day of real work that you can see how they communicate, how they organize themselves, what’s important to them, how they ask for help. It’s also essential for gathering other perspectives from your existing coworkers. Just as most people would not make a long-term commitment to a romantic partner without spending some quality time together (sometimes alone, sometimes in the presence of your friends/family/community), it now feels crazy to me to think of making a long-term commitment to an employee/employer relationship without at least several weeks of working together on a project. (And I did it that crazy way for a long time.) Whatever kind of work your organization does, set up a trial process, make your entire team a part of it, pay candidates well who take the time to engage in it, and trust what it tells you about their future performance.

So, here I am once again responsible for hiring people, this time to build out our media and publishing company’s team. And so far we’ve been doing that with a trial process at the center of our hiring decisions.

Here’s how it works:

  1. People find us through our “work with us” page online, and sometimes in other locations where we’ve advertised openings, and then submit an application.
  2. For applicants with the needed qualifications, we conduct an initial interview by phone to talk through their interest in the position, confirm and clarify requirements, and answer any questions. These are usually about 30 minutes long.
  3. If after an interview an applicant still seems like a potential fit for the role, we invite them to the trial process, noting that we’ll be paying them for their time to complete a series of projects over several weeks. We also let them know what factors we’ll be paying close attention to along the way, including communication, time management, inclusivity and feedback management.
  4. If they accept the trial invitation, we have them fill out some paperwork (a non-disclosure agreement and financial/tax forms), join our company Slack, and then we share the trial project information with them.
  5. The applicant works on the trial projects, sometimes independently and sometimes collaborating with other members of our team, getting feedback and suggestions from us along the way. For roles that are centered on tasks performed in our office or that require close in-person collaboration, part of the trial includes coming in to the office to complete projects.
  6. When the trial work concludes, we set up another conversation with the applicant to review how it went, what questions came up for them or for us during that process, and anything else that needs to be discussed.
  7. If the trial helped us see that the applicant would not be a good fit for the role and requirements, we make sure they are paid for their work, thank them for their time and wish them the best. If the trial showed that they are the right person for the role, we discuss final details and proceed with making an employment offer.

So far we’ve made three hires using this process, and we make slight improvements to it each time.

This is all much more time intensive than just interviewing someone a few times, and it requires a greater level of commitment from everyone involved to something that might not end up working out.

But even trials that don’t result in a hire are “successful” in my mind; they have the potential to save a great deal of time and energy invested in a hire that doesn’t work out once you see what it’s like to actually work with the candidate, or the candidate sees what it’s actually like to work with your organization.

I’m not sure if there are other news or media organizations doing hiring this way. I get the sense that most journalists are hired based on their portfolio of past work or their personal connections and schooling, and so I’m sure putting an experienced reporter “on trial” could be seen as unnecessary or even insulting by some.

But for now, I’m glad to have this way to deepen the conversations with potential coworkers, and to give everyone involved more information to help make good decisions.

Chris Hardie is a journalist, newspaper publisher, software developer and entrepreneur based in Indiana, USA. Read more from Chris on this site, learn more on his personal website, subscribe for updates or follow Chris on Mastodon.

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