If you were to call Sherlock Holmes to help you discover why top tech talent who you’ve interviewed declined your reasonable offer, he might call your mystery common. But the killer is not — as you might believe — the mercurial nature of candidates, a failure of education, or anything outside the room where the interviews happen. It’s more likely that your process or team are inadvertently undermining your own efforts.
“People blame the candidates, but the interview process is the main reason people turn down jobs,” says Barbara Bruno, author of High-Tech High-Touch Recruiting: How to Attract and Retain the Best Talent by Improving the Candidate Experience.
It could be the questions you ask, the people asking the questions, or a host of other missteps that telegraph a subtle message to candidates to move along.
I asked hiring managers, recruiters, and directors of talent what — specifically — hiring teams are doing to cost them those key hires they so desperately want.
You’re fishing with the wrong bait
Candidates end up in your interview room because they responded to your job description. That’s your bait. As with actual fishing, the bait you use has a lot to do with what you catch. You might want to check that you are targeting the right people and expectations.
“There seems to be a huge disconnect right now between traditional job requisitions — that are a laundry list of skills — and how candidates will be evaluated on the job,” Bruno says.
Bruno suggests ditching the laundry list and instead taking a hard look at what your team needs in this role. “I always ask employers, ‘Can you give me five performance objectives?’ or ‘How will the candidate be evaluated in six months?’” Bruno says.
Once they are forced to answer those questions, she finds hiring teams discover that much of their “must have” list won’t be needed in the position. Even worse? There are many more skills — like the ability to prioritize, problem solve, communicate, and ask for help — that aren’t in the job description but that anyone who hopes to succeed in the role will need to possess.
Step back from your shopping list and think instead about what success in the role would look like. Then come up with skills and experiences that would genuinely help.
Your expectations are unrealistic
Are you looking for someone who doesn’t exist? Maybe your perfect employees have walked through your interview room and you didn’t recognize them. This is common. In fact, recruiters call this mindset the search for a “purple squirrel.”
“We were turning away people in our interview process,” admits Jamie Coakley, VP of people at IT support firm Electric. “I asked my talent acquisition team, ‘How have we interviewed so many people, yet this position is still open? It’s been months!’”
She discovered the hiring team was looking for someone who did not — who could not — exist.
“We started to dig in and realized we were looking for perfect,” she says. “In the technical interview, we asked candidates to do what they would be doing on the job, which is hard, and which — since they don’t work here — they have no familiarity with. When they couldn’t do it, we rejected them. Many of those candidates would have been a great fit.”
Once Electric identified the problem, the team reconsidered the priorities of the position, what a new hire could reasonably be expected to know, and what skills the team cared most about acquiring. Then they came up with a new list of skills that was much shorter and a lot less specific, technically: “Are you a creative problem-solver?” Coakley explains. “Do you have the ability to learn new things? Are you proactive and curious in the way that you solve that problem? Have you demonstrated these qualities in past rolls?”
They now do a group project to assess how well the candidates will work with the team.
Instead of answers to technical problems — most of which can be learned — the team looks for qualities: “How do you interact with us while you’re solving it?” says Coakley. “Did you come up with a solution that was creative?”
You’re making it all about you
“IT people don’t want to keep doing the identical thing they’re doing right now in their next job,” explains Bruno. “Not even for more money. They want to enhance their skill sets and become more marketable.”
So, if your interview process focuses entirely on skills your candidates already possess, you will give the impression that there is no room for growth, that you are looking only for someone to do what they are already doing.
You might interview someone who has every skill you are looking for and make an offer. Don’t be surprised if that person isn’t thrilled. “The biggest mistake I see is that the whole interview is slanted toward the job and no one makes any effort to find out what’s most important to the candidate,” says Bruno.
You can fix this easily by including questions in your interview process that probe what candidates are looking for and taking the time to ask them. “You have to ask questions designed to uncover what’s important to them,” says Bruno. The classic, “Where do you see yourself in five years” question is a vague effort designed to do this. “But you’ve got to break that down into percentages,” says Bruno. “What percentage of the time are you doing what now? What percentage of the time do you want to do those things in the future?”
There’s a reason this candidate is interviewing with you. Find out what that reason is. Try asking, “‘If you could change five things about your current job, what would you change?’” says Bruno. “That reveals the absolute reason this person is talking to you.”
Your hiring team is less respectful than you think
“If a candidate is legit, they are also highly sought after,” says James Durago, recruiting manager for Google. “And most companies — the big players anyway — offer pretty much the same thing. So much of a candidate’s decision boils down to, ‘How is my experience in the interview process?’”
The interview is quite possibly the only look inside the company a candidate will get before they have to decide where to work. The team, the room they see in a Zoom call, the site visit, and the way the interviews unfold are a microcosm of your company culture and quite likely the only one this key hire will experience. Does it represent who you really are?
“Most of the time, the interview is your only opportunity to make an impression of your company culture and what your people are like to work with,” says Durago.
Is that interview process welcoming, respectful, and considerate of the candidates? Will it give the impression that your workplace is someplace they will want to show up to every day? This is important. And many interview processes get it wrong.
“A couple of years ago, we were able to get this candidate — a niche individual with a unique skill set,” says Durago. “He was talking to all the big players — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft — and he quite literally told me that the reason he came to Google was because the recruiters and hiring managers provided what I felt was basic etiquette.”
This is shockingly easy but often goes undone. They called him when they said they were going to, kept appointments, and responded to emails. They were respectful. “If I say I’m going to reach out to you in a couple of days,” says Durago, “I actually do that.”
Your hiring team doesn’t look like the people you are trying to hire
Diversity is a hot issue in IT. If you are trying to diversify your team and are frustrated that women and people of color who you want to hire are passing on your job offers, shine a mirror on the room. Does the room look anything like the team you are trying to build?
“We tried to develop systems for hiring early on that were reproducible and put a lot of the values we cared about in the engineering team we were hoping to create,” explains Charles Hearn, CTO of Alloy. “When you desperately need people, the easiest thing to do is bring on the people that are easiest to hire. And young white men are the easiest people to get for engineering jobs. When you are busy in a startup phase, it is tempting to say, ‘Hire! We will fix our diversity problem later.’”
But that means the people doing the hiring, later, will display to potential candidates a company that is made up of young white men. “That is really difficult to bounce back from,” says Hearn. “We have had times where the company became less diverse and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t have people of color and women in interviews, it is hard to attract those people to your company.”
You move too slow
As part of its mission to, as much as possible, get bias out of its hiring process, Alloy uses an outside company to perform some of its assessments. “To compensate for changing conditions that can lead to bias creeping in, we have our technical screens done by Byteboard,” says Hearn. This is important to the company because it helps keep bias out of this essential aspect of talent acquisition by making the assessment taker’s identity blind to the hiring team. “The questions are given to the applicant and graded without association to the rest of the application,” he explains.
And this, they have discovered, is losing candidates. “The problem is it takes a long time,” says Hearn “The candidate has to find time to do the assessment and then Byteboard takes two days to grade it.”
By the time that’s all done and an offer is prepared, key candidates have already taken another job.
This is common, according to Bruno. “Hiring does have to happen faster,” she says. “You can still be careful, though. You can do a very thorough interview.” But she recommends conducting a panel interview. “Candidates get frustrated when they’re interviewed by two, three, or four people and are asked the same questions over and over.”
Even more important? Keep candidates informed every step of the way.
“Timing is critical,” she says. “When they are delays or the interview process takes longer than anticipated, candidates interpret that as lack of interest. Share your target date to fill your job and — during each step of the interview process — inform candidates when they will hear back. This will keep your interview process moving and prevent you from losing talent.
You move too fast
Of course, it is also possible to move too fast. “Recruiters often pitch jobs too fast to candidates in high demand fields like IT or Engineering,” Bruno says.
“They just think you are talking to as many people as you have to in order to fill the job,” agrees Durago. Or that you are filling a quota to satisfy a decree from management that you talk to a certain number of people, as Durago calls it, “by filling seats, in a row. This makes them feel that the interview is not about them.”
So, you might want to think about how the people doing the hiring are rewarded. “One of the key performance indicators we have is: How many people are you talking to?” Durago says. “There is always tension between knowing I have to close these roles while also making sure that I’m showing leadership that I’m taking all the necessary steps.”
In other times, other job markets, and other fields, this might not matter. But when you are hiring for IT teams, it will probably backfire. Talented IT pros are in high demand. If your interviews are a series of you proving to yourself and your team this person meets every real and imagined need you have in a new hire and then goes right to an offer, don’t be surprised if they pass. “They may agree to an interview, but often end up turning down the job because it does not represent their next logical career move,” explains Bruno.
The solution is to bake all aspects of the interview into a clearly defined process, complete with questions that address the role and the needs of the candidate, and make sure you don’t rush your process or change it for some candidates or roles. “Everyone needs to be on the same page,” says Durago. “Interviewers, hiring managers and recruiters — everybody. On. The. Same. Page. And that page needs to be directly tied to how you interact with that candidate.”