Peter Wrinch

Making the job the interview: hiring great people

Late last year we decided to hire a new staff lawyer. This is a big deal for Pivot - it is exciting and terrifying. We are an intentionally small shop that puts a real emphasis on our internal culture and our ability to deliver on our mission. Tight timelines and tighter budgets increase the stakes. In my experience the financial cost of a bad hire is immediately $20,000 (at least!) and this doesn’t even factor in the cultural and emotional costs to the organization.

In the past Pivot had stuck to the traditional cover letter, resume, interview, references routine. People who had the right experience got to the top of the resume pile and received an interview. We took the interviews very seriously. We set up an interview team, brainstormed the desired skill set, drafted up questions, ran the questions by 3rd party HR professionals, prepared score sheets, etc., etc., etc.

Despite a good track record, over the years we began to question whether any of this work actually impacted our hiring. The interviews remained highly scripted; people were on their best behavior (both the person being interviewed and the person doing the interview); and most importantly, elements/skills of the job we were hiring for remained abstract in the hiring process.

More often than not, the process seemed too subjective. The interview team would begin leaning towards one candidate and begin to seek out reasons to hire that person. In their new book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip and Dan Heath refer to this phenomenon as “confirmation bias.” They write, “our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief (11)…take the tradition of calling people's references when you want to hire them. It's an exercise in self-justification: We believe someone is worth hiring, and as a 'final check' on ourselves, we decide to gather more information about them from past colleagues...and we dutifully interview those people, who say glowing things about the candidate, and then, absurdly, we feel more confident in our decision...(102)”

When we sat down to discuss hiring a new staff lawyer, we decided to make sure that the skills required to do the job well were integrated into the hiring process. We wanted to create a process that would replicate the experience of being a staff lawyer at Pivot, so that we could properly judge the ability of our candidates to perform the job well. In doing so we found a great new lawyer and reinvented the way our organization hires.

Step 1: Resume and Cover Letter as filter for experience

To begin, our hiring team (senior leadership in the organization) defined the new role, outlined the skills, and talked about the type of experience a person would need to join the Pivot team as a staff lawyer. We then wrote up a job description and sent it out through our social media channels. We also identified key people that we knew working across the North American social justice movement and asked them to post it. We received over forty applications from across the world. We used the cover letters and resumes to as a filter to vet candidates based on their past experience. We selected eleven applicants to move through to the next step of the process.

Step 2: Lights, Camera, Action

Lawyers at Pivot are legal campaigners. They spend a lot of time in the media, they are public speakers, they write persuasively in press releases, blog posts, and op-eds – and they do it all in a fast-paced environment with very tight timelines. We wanted our hiring process to test these skills. We asked our eleven candidates to send in a one-minute video defining their vision for the position. Included with the video, we asked them to write a press release based on fictional legal action, and a blog post based on a new piece of legislation. We gave them one week to complete these tasks.

Of the eleven people we sent this assignment to, nine responded and the results were amazing. People really put their heart into the work. Most people had clearly gone to our website and reviewed our style for writing press releases and blog posts. The videos allowed us to get a feeling for the people, their ability in front of a camera, their public speaking skills, and their sense of presentation. It also raised a few difficult questions – the key one being: what do we do with people who went way over the one minute allotted in the video. We debated this question heavily, but in the end decided to cut anyone who went over 1:05. Our rationale was that these instructions were the most important piece of the assignment (the time limit on the video was the only part of the assignment that was in bold). If people could not follow instructions at this level, how could they handle our team-based structure built on ideas, accountability, and execution?

Step 3: Meet the staff

In the end, we moved three amazing candidates through to the next round. The three had aced the video, the press release, and the blog. In judging the work, we watched the videos first and then blind tested the press release and blog. We removed the names and each member of the hiring team rated the written work.

I called them all personally and thanked them for their incredible work thus far. I went on to tell them about the next round of the process. I invited them to come down to Pivot for a forty-five minute interview with our hiring team (senior leadership of the organization). The interview would be followed by a twenty-minute presentation to our entire staff on their vision for using the law as a tool for social change. After the presentation, we would all sit around and eat lunch together and chat. Again, we gave them a week to prepare.

After the first interview, we knew we were on to something. The three interviews were the best we had ever conducted at Pivot. Answers were articulate, deep, and nuanced. The knowledge of our work was unprecedented. Despite the success of the interviews, nothing could have prepared me for the brilliance of the presentations. I sent the candidate sample presentations in the lead-up to their own presentations and each of them answered the call. The presentations were personal, narrative, persuasive, and engaging. Any one of these people could capture a room on behalf of Pivot.

Step 4: The Decision

Unfortunately, the brilliance of the candidates made the decision very difficult. The hiring committee was responsible for the decision, but we solicited staff input. After each session with the applicants, I personally touched base with each staff member to get a sense of their impressions. I also asked them to provide me with written impressions by the end of the week, if they wanted. Most of the staff took the opportunity to share some of their impressions and their feedback informed the decision we made.

In the end we made our decision. It was the hardest decisions our group had made in a long time. There was debate, late nights, and lots more debate. The reason it was so difficult was because we had seen three amazing candidates in action. We used their resume and cover letter to determine their experience, but then asked them to live the job right in front of us. It was an experiment that changed the way we do hiring at Pivot.

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