by Sharon Florentine

How COVID-19 is changing the IT hiring process

May 08, 2020
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Technology companies and IT organizations are still hiring, but are relying on new technologies to screen and hire talent — with an added emphasis on soft skills.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how companies do business almost overnight, forcing a shift at most organizations to across-all-ranks remote and virtual work. But what hasn’t changed as substantially is the need to attract, recruit and hire top IT talent.

The pandemic’s full impact on IT hiring remains to be seen, but unemployment for IT occupations remains low, at 2.4 percent in March, and many companies continue to hire despite shutdown offices, as IT leaders tweak their hiring processes to overcome issues brought about by this unprecedented situation.

Sheryl Haislet, CIO at Vertiv, is one such IT leader rethinking hiring in the COVID-19 era. She’s still hiring IT support roles for critical customers, in addition to sales roles.

“The whole process changes, obviously,” she says. “You don’t meet people for lunch or dinner. We’ve moved to using video conferencing, like Zoom, for interviews.” Haislet also says she is using online screening tools to test technical acumen and to screen for leadership skills, personality insights and other soft skills.

The rise of the video interview

In this shift to remote and virtual recruiting and hiring methods, the pandemic may only be accelerating a trend that’s been on the rise for the past few years, says Andrew Hewitt, an analyst for infrastructure and operations professionals at Forrester Research.

“Companies already are leveraging technologies like AI and ML, video interviews, online skills screenings. This crisis has forced it from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must-have,’ and that means organizations that have already been ahead of the technology curve will have an advantage, while others will need to play catch-up,” he says.

JobVite client data backs this up, says Jared Adams, senior vice president of product engineering at the recruiting and applicant tracking software company.

“We see customers talking about how this has accelerated and removed the barriers to adoption of AI, chatbots, and other technology tools for hiring,” Adams says. “Now people have the ‘permission’ to go try these new tools and leverage video, leverage AI, leverage text and in ways they weren’t doing before.”

Matt Martin, CEO of smart calendar software company Clockwise, has also moved entirely to video calls and conferences for interviewing candidates, and he’s surprised at how seamless the change has been, despite some idiosyncrasies.

“The back and forth over a video conference is harder,” he says. Out of politeness, people can be reluctant to interrupt, so that can be awkward, but Martin and his hiring team set the tone right off the bat and that helps to smooth the way for candidates.

“We have reduced the number of people interviewing candidates to two, which takes some of the pressure off. And we make sure to say, look, we apologize for interrupting and we know there’s going to be some instances where we’re talking over each other, and that’s okay, it’s not going to be held against you,” he says.

Pre-recorded videos enable candidates to “meet” their interviewers beforehand, and allowing candidates the option to do interviews over two days reduces the fatigue and stress of a video interview. To deliver offers to candidates, Martin says Clockwise uses delivery services still active in the Bay Area and includes a customized “goodie bag” to personalize the experience.

Assessing soft skills — while social distancing

The pandemic is also shifting the mix of skills IT leaders are looking for, and the means by which they vet them.

“This hasn’t had a big impact on our hard skills/technical skills needs, but it has increased the need for candidates to have exceptional soft skills like being a self-starter, working independently, communication, collaboration,” Vertiv’s Haislet says. “And familiarity and being really comfortable with remote work tech, obviously, as well as the ability to prioritize, to juggle scheduling, work with distractions, and of course, flexibility.”

Brian Lancaster, CIO of Nebraska Health, says he’s also adapting to interviewing virtually, especially for a couple leadership roles in his IT organization. While technical skills are still easier to qualify and quantify by looking at code examples, portfolios, past work product and by assigning challenges, those leadership roles necessitate an emphasis on softer skills, which means a shift in strategy when assessing these qualities remotely.

“You can still tell if the candidate is going to fit, it just takes a heightened sense of attention and understanding how you have to change your approach,” Lancaster says. “You can ask more open-ended questions, and assess how they put those into a structured, logical answer to gauge their thought processes and how they get to the end result.”

For this, Lancaster suggests asking candidates about a bad decision they made, and how they handled the fallout. “Or about a time when they really dropped the ball and what the consequences were. Ask how they handled that,” he says.

Taking a more situational approach can help assess whether candidates are accountable to mistakes, possess the humility and curiosity needed to succeed and the ability to strategize and collaborate, Lancaster says. “What I’m trying to hire for are directors and executive directors, so it’s about strategy and process and how to leverage technology to move the business forward,” he says.

The downsides of hiring at a distance

The trickiest factor for hiring remotely is that of culture fit, says Jayne Mattson, career coach and founder of CareerEngage Boston. Because it’s much harder to judge personality and fit on the candidate side and how that matches up with your company’s culture, it’s possible we could see an uptick in “bad hires” during the pandemic response, she says.

“You have to balance the risk of someone not ending up as a good match with the necessity of filling these roles that are so critical,” Mattson says. “Many companies may increasingly rely on referral hires, which itself has pros and cons. Yes, you can better assure culture fit, but you are sacrificing diversity and difference of perspective, to some extent.”

People tend to gravitate toward those who are like themselves, so this could result in a decrease in diverse applicants and hiring, says Fran Berrick, career coach and founder of Spearmint Coaching. Technology and IT already are dominated by straight, white, cisgender male workers, who then refer other straight, white, cisgender men, exacerbating the lack of diversity.

“You have to make sure you’re paying extra attention as a company to make sure you’re looking outside the box, even with referral hires,” Berrick says.