In April 2018, my business partners at Ragnarson and I joined a local group of IT entrepreneurs in Lodz, Poland. We usually meet once a month and discuss topics that are relevant to our interests. It's a place to learn from each other and share our struggles.
One of the most common problems that keep popping up is the low motivation of employees to do their best at work. They're often not engaged enough or lack a proactive attitude. Instead of bringing out the best in them, the company seems to drag them down.
We've been through this at Ragnarson.
We kept improving our environment to tackle those problems. This means that we experimented with our company culture, vision and mission, projects, organizational structure, and many other elements.
Ultimately, we learned that no matter how 'good' your environment is, it's only one part of the equation.
The other part is about the kind of people you bring to the table.
Every environment is attractive only to a specific group of people. If you hire 'everyone' without considering how they fit into what you offer, the chances are high that 'everyone' will end up disappointed and unmotivated.
The question is not how to motivate every single employee on the market. That's just impossible. Instead, we need to focus on recruiting the right people for our organizations. We need to know who they are - and then get them on board.
If you have ever:
- Hired someone who left after a few months because 'the company was not what they expected',
- Dealt with an unmotivated employee who struggled with their responsibilities and delivered little value,
- Hired a person who didn't get along well with the rest of the team,
then let me introduce you to our secret sauce that helps to handle this problem.
In what follows, we share an overview of our recruitment framework. It has been tremendously helpful for minimizing such problems and brought us a lot of other benefits.
Note that we've been tweaking the process for years and adding new features that help to attract desirable candidates, give them more value, and filter out the undesirable ones. Moreover, we constantly adapt it to changing market conditions.
Our interview process
Our recruitment process consists of three steps.
- The first interview with our HR team,
- Technical interview,
- Cultural fit and soft skills check.
The importance lies in what's being checked and how. This order works for us, but it doesn't mean that it will also work for you. Moreover, the entire process is done remotely. Let me walk you through it with more detail.
Most companies are adept at the initial interview with candidates. It's chiefly about getting to know each other, talking about basic expectations, checking their language skills, and getting a general impression of the candidate.
Some companies engage the final decision-makers at this point. They speak with a candidate for an hour, and if they like what they hear, they make a hire. In my opinion, this is where the greatest danger lies. All you can do in an hour is to get a vague idea about someone. That's why we do more than that.
The main question marks we want to address at this stage are:
Do the communications skills and maturity of the candidate correspond with our requirements?
As a self-managed company, our expectations need to be at the top end of the spectrum. For example, most of our employees communicate directly with clients. They are responsible for making decisions which in traditional environments are handled by more experienced managers.
Can we provide the candidate with what they're looking for (and vice versa)?
In our case, the responsibilities of developers are broad. They not only code but also manage the relationship with our clients. This means they engage in tasks like collecting feedback, organizing in-person meetings, learning about the business of our clients, and handling issues if any arise. A person looking for a calm environment where their concerns are limited to the technical challenges of the project wouldn't be a good fit for us.
Does the candidate speak English fluently?
Practically all developers write code in English and need to understand this language to be able to learn new things. In terms of speaking English, not all companies on the market require that. This creates a pool of specialists whose speaking skills don't allow for smooth business communication.
Do our mutual expectations meet (like salary level, flexible working hours, or remote work)?
Flexible working hours and remote work provide a lot of freedom to employees who can work from any place and at any time, assuming that their team and clients get enough time overlap. But not everyone wants that. People who need a bit more structure in their lives and/or prefer working from an office aren't going to appreciate the option (or necessity) of remote work as much.
If we don't see any major red flags at this point, we move forward with the process.
From the candidate perspective, they get a basic overview of our offer and recruitment process. It gives them the first glimpse of our culture to decide whether this is what they are looking for. Nobody proposes marriage on the first date, and the same logic applies here. Both sides need time to figure out if they fit well together.
Once we have an overview of the candidate, it's time to make sure that they possess the relevant skills for the job. Depending on the type of individual we are looking for, we ask them to perform different tasks.
Most of the time, we hire software developers. In this case, there are two steps to complete:
A programming challenge carried out offline at their convenience
This is the first technical step that gives us an overview of how the candidate thinks and what kind of quality they deliver. It's not enough for us to reject the candidate at this stage. In practice, some candidates give up without completing the challenge for various reasons. It saves time for us both.
- A call with one of our senior developers consisting of:
A discussion about the solution of the programming challenge prepared by the candidate (around 30 minutes)
This step is crucial in understanding how the candidate approached the challenge and why they solved it in this particular way. It tells us a lot about their perspective and how broadly they look at problem-solving.
Theoretical questions (30-60 minutes)
Contrary to how it sounds, this step doesn't aim to bore the candidate. The goal is to uncover whether they have a deeper understanding of the technologies they use. It's crucial, especially if someone aspires to a technical leadership role. In the case of less experienced candidates, it tells us a lot about their potential.
Live coding (around 60 minutes)
Theoretical knowledge is nice but not very useful if the candidate struggles to apply it. At this step, we see their problem-solving capabilities in real time. The task also simulates everyday challenges they are bound to encounter at work. Both sides get a chance to see how the collaboration may look like once we decide to work together.
Q&A and next steps
At the end of the process, we summarize it - we describe our expectations regarding each step, provide candidates with feedback, and answer their questions.
During the technical interview, two good things usually happen for candidates.
First, they get a chance to get to know us better, understand what technologies we use, and what maturity level we represent. This allows them to imagine their future working environment in more detail.
Second, they get a professional evaluation of their skills in relation to market expectations. This is invaluable for understanding how they're doing in comparison to other professionals in their fields. Moreover, when the live coding session is over, many candidates who did well are very satisfied. It boosts their confidence and makes the process valuable, even if, for some reason, we end up rejecting their application.
Cultural fit and soft skills
After the first two steps of the interview process, we have a brief understanding of the candidate's experience. We know that their hard skills are on the required level. We still need to dive deeper into soft skills, previous responsibilities, expectations, and cultural fit. It helps us to find potential blind spots.
At the last step, our process engages around 6 employees. Each of them has a 30-minute call with a candidate. Involving so many people sounds expensive and time-consuming, but so is making a bad hire. The more team members participate in the process (up to a certain level), the more comprehensive the candidate image we are able to build. It minimizes the number of bad hiring decisions and allows the team to pick their new workmates.
In our experience, companies rarely make this kind of effort. That's why our approach not only gives a chance to gather more information about the candidate but also helps us stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, for candidates, it offers a great opportunity to get to know the team and the company.
It's crucial to have a structure for each conversation. We don't want to just hang out with candidates but also spot potential problems. Here's what we especially look for during these calls.
Soft skills and expectations
From the candidate's perspective, it's essential to understand how we differ from the competitors. This is also something that we mention during the first interview, but it requires constant reminders. Now is the time to give them a proper introduction and lay out the concept in more detail.
Oftentimes we experience 'aha' moments when the candidate realizes what our environment really looks like. I always tell the story of how we help T-shaped individuals  to flourish. One of the best examples involves our self-set salary process. By the time I have a chance to speak with the candidate, they usually have a vague idea about how it works. They often don't realize that they will be ultimately responsible for their own salary, and no one, not even me, can influence it.
But back to what matters now: understanding the value proposition makes all the difference in the long run.
We want to avoid a situation where someone leaves after 3 to 6 months because the job is not what they expected to be.
From the company perspective, we need to make sure that the candidate is really able to handle the job.
An example of that would be asking about the experience of working with external clients. All of our projects require such interactions. If we see potential red flags here, we note them down and discuss them with the rest of the interviewers later on.
Another good example is when interviewing someone who is or was a team leader. Our expectation is that such people should be able to solve problems within the team, pick new team members, and, of course, handle interactions with the client. Oftentimes, the experience of candidates is limited to interacting with clients to some degree or simply being the most experienced member in a team.
Culture fit is my favorite part. We look at our core values for guidance. We also have a scorecard with sample questions to make sure that every "recruiter" is on the same page during the last stage of our recruitment process.
For example, one of our core values is growth. Obviously, every candidate claims that they are looking for it.
Perhaps that's even true in most cases. The difference is how we define growth. How often are people expected to leave their comfort zone? What kind of skills should they be developing?
We ask many indirect questions to understand how we both see it.
Another important aspect is how the candidate fits into the team in general. Since we're a self-managed company, there are many responsibilities covered by people who wouldn't necessarily be involved in them at other organizations. We try to understand whether the candidate is interested and willing to engage with various aspects of the company.
There are many people who have a narrow specialization and would rather have only responsibilities related to it directly.
There's nothing wrong with that. It just means that such candidates are not always a good fit for us.
Finalizing the process
Once we have all pieces of the puzzle in place, it's time to summarize what we know and accept or reject the candidate.
All interviewers participate in a 30- to 60-minute call.
We voice our impressions one by one and vote for or against the hire. This is not a democratic process. We always select one person who bears the burden of the decision. This person is responsible for managing the probation period and firing the candidate if something goes wrong.
Usually, the best person for the job is the team leader of the project who is going to be working with the candidate once they are hired. Usually, it's one of the developers or our project manager. Such leaders emerge naturally and are expected to encourage their team in decision making. In the case of adding a new team member, the entire team provides feedback during the probation period and decides whether the new person stays at the company. If for some reason, things go wrong and the new hire needs to be fired, it's the leader who pulls the trigger.
If the hiring decision is positive, we always make referral calls. For some obscure reason, I noticed that companies often omit this step.
I remember situations in which we learned that the candidate was responsible for a project that failed or had been fired. It gave us a chance to confront these findings with them and openly discuss their lessons learned to avoid such cases in the future.
If for some reason, the candidate is rejected, we provide them with extensive feedback. This is another way of improving the process and making the experience more valuable to them.
Let's summarize the most important aspects of the process. It should give you a better indication of how to design yours.
- Make your recruitment process two-sided. Candidates need to 'recruit' you as well. Otherwise, you risk losing them after a few months of working when they realize that your company is not what they were looking for.
- Don't sugarcoat your environment. There is always something that doesn't work great, and I strongly suggest you be open about it. If it discourages the candidate, you might be saving both of you a lot of time and nerves.
- Engage your team. It brings so many benefits to the process that it's even hard to mention them all. The most important thing for the candidate is getting to know their future teammates beforehand. They can ask questions about the company first-hand and get honest feedback. And you can get a much broader and comprehensive picture of the candidate.
- I believe that just like in sales, the best recruiters act as advisors to the candidate. They're not someone looking to close a deal at all costs. We often challenge the decisions and preferences of candidates. We want to know how well-thought those choices are and whether our offer makes sense for them in the foreseeable future.
- Provide candidates with feedback. It's extremely valuable to them as it provides a reference point for future improvements. If the candidate was rejected, it also helps you to keep the door open and encourages them to get back to you once they meet your requirements.
Building thriving working environments is not only about their design and features. An important part of it is the people you invite to the table. Candidates have diverse preferences and because of that require different environments.
To minimize the chance of hiring someone who isn't a good fit for your company, establish a process that makes the selection more accurate.
One of the biggest pitfalls I've seen is having a hiring process that is too one-sided. Companies check whether the candidate is good for them but not the other way around. They have little knowledge about candidates and hope that it all works itself out.
If there was only one thing I could ask a candidate, it would be about what drives them.
If what your organization offers doesn't match their interests, don't expect them to be motivated or engaged.
Managing expectations is the key.
 More about t-shaped individuals can be found in T-shaped Professionals, T-shaped Skills, Hybrid Managers by David Ing.