5 Criteria for Good Hiring

6 minute read

In my experience there are some general criteria that if made explicit are able to help hiring teams and individuals to make better decisions:

  1. Pipeline Criteria — where are you looking for people?
  2. Time Criteria — how to maximize the little time you have?
  3. Subjectivity Criteria — how to compensate for subjectivity?
  4. Rounded Skills Criteria — how to include soft skills?
  5. Diversity Criteria — how to include diversity?


1. Pipeline Criteria

Hiring starts with the job ads, not with the review of the candidates. Where the company looks for people has a huge impact on the kind of people it gets: if the funnel begins with a limited pool of people to start with, even the best process in the world can’t do much.

That lie is that there is some sort of pipeline problem preventing tech companies from hiring more black people. The reality is that tech companies shape the ethnic make up of their employees based on what schools & cities they choose to hire from and where they locate engineering offices.
— D. Obasanjo (2016)The Big Lie: Tech Companies and Diversity Hiring

Ask: where is the company advertising? What kind of people is the job ad reaching? Most of the companies use external recruitment agencies or standardized placement (LinkedIn, company website) but sometimes going and making effort in finding the best place for that specific role can be incredibly beneficial.


2. Time Criteria

Assessing someone in just a few hours is basically impossible. Don’t deceive yourself, ever, that you are safe in making any choice, as safe as it seems to be.

Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.
— L. Bock, SVP People Operations at Google (2013)

Assuming this, a good advice would be to have in the hiring process a way to surface red flags. Red flags issues are easier to spot than positive skills because they are harder to fake, even if we need to fight an implicit bias to ignore it. The problem is that you might be ruling out good candidates, but that’s overall unavoidable.


3. Subjectivity Criteria

Ruling out subjectivity is impossible. Humans are incredibly complex entities, and this complexity multiplies once we start having groups of humans that collaborate together.

Part of the challenge with leadership is that it’s very driven by gut instinct in most cases — and even worse, everyone thinks they’re really good at it. The reality is that very few people are.
— L. Bock, SVP People Operations at Google (2013)

Remarkably, perceiving one’s judgements as objective and free of bias predicted greater gender bias. Participants were, apparently, under an illusion of objectivity – discriminating against women while convinced that their judgements were objective.
— E. L. Uhlmann, G. L. Cohen (2005) Constructed Criteria: Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination

Create a process that tries to achieve objectivity through diversity: never have one single individual following the whole process, but allow at least two people, as different as possible (roles, backgrounds, genders, races, nationalities, etc.) to review and cross reference each others perceptions.

Just don’t overdo creating huge committees that get slow and foster mediocrity.


4. Rounded Skills Criteria

Companies tend to setup the people doing hiring in a way to assess their vertical skill on the specific job they are meant to do. Fortunately, in recent years, we are starting to acknowledge that we are hiring people, not machines, and as such we need to assess things soft skills. And soft skills are hard to assess.

It’s important to hire and review separately for:

  • Role-specific skills, the job they are meant to do
  • Soft skills, how they interact with others
  • Management skills, if they are meant to lead a team of any size

Soft skills is another of the terms that emerged in recent years and has yet to be properly defined and even more properly included in assessments. Similarly, management skills are conflated together with role-specific skills (see also: Management is a Career Change in this regard).

Making sure all of these aspects is evaluated separately and independently, as a sperate skill and not as a byproduct of the role-specific one, allows to reach better grounding for hiring decisions.

For an approach that can be helpful in this regard, check the Hybrid Traits Model.


5. Diversity Criteria

This is another recent criteria, but it’s emerging quickly as a very relevant one in terms of effectiveness and fairness:

If 7% of Apple’s tech employees are black and it is literally the most valuable company in the world and Slack can have 8.9% of its engineering staff be black then break records by being the fastest enterprise startup to hit a $1 billion valuation, it’s a farce for other tech companies to imply that hiring more than 1% black engineers can’t be done without lowering their standards.
— D. Obasanjo (2016)The Big Lie: Tech Companies and Diversity Hiring

While some of the points above support this criteria (subjectivity and rounded skills) it’s important to have this as a separate goal.

One issue is that often cultural fit is seen at odds with diversity: “How can you hire for diversity if you’re hiring to match the existing company culture?”. This is a good question, and it’s the result of an aspect that is still in development: while “diversity” as a term is fairly well defined, “culture” is poorly so (see for example an analysis of AirBnB’s). Cultural fit isn’t at odds with diversity. Sure, there can be backgrounds that are harder to review from a specific company perspective, still, it’s most of the times not an issue with the company values but with the criteria used to assess fit.

To mention an example I had direct experience of: “good written communication” might mean lots of updates, positive and detailed for someone coming from one country, and dry, short and to the point for someone coming from an entirely different country. That’s not an issue in the value, or in cultural fit. If you can assess that both are “good written communication”, you can properly hire for diversity. These two styles together will both improve the value they represent!

Of course, this assuming that none of the company values is against diversity. If that’s the case, the problem to be solved is even bigger and comes far before hiring.

One interesting aspect when training to improve in these criteria is how the learning happens. It’s incredibly important to avoid learning by negatives.

The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.

Many firms see adverse effects. One reason is that three-quarters use negative messages in their training. By headlining the legal case for diversity and trotting out stories of huge settlements, they issue an implied threat: “Discriminate, and the company will pay the price.” We understand the temptation—that’s how we got your attention in the first paragraph—but threats, or “negative incentives,” don’t win converts.
— F. Dobbin, A. Kalev (2016) Why Diversity Programs Fail

It’s not just that forced training and threats don’t work, it’s also that just showing the bias can amplify it instead of lessening:

When the managers read that many people held stereotypes, they were 28 percent less interested in hiring the female candidate. They also judged her as 27 percent less likable. The same information did not alter their judgments of male candidates.

Why would knowledge about stereotype prevalence lead to greater stereotyping?
— A. Grant, S. Sandberg (2014) When Talking About Bias Backfires

Convey to recipients that the desired activity is widely performed and roundly approved, whereas the unwanted activity is relatively rare and roundly disapproved.
— R. Cialdini, L. Demaine (2006) Managing social norms for persuasive impact

This is a key element in learning and in the design of new processes to create positive change.


Thanks to Naveed for the article that triggered this reflection.