The Foundational Secret of Hiring, part 2

Hiring is about people, but companies don’t want you to know that.

After last week’s article, I received this great question:

Do you think this concept [people driving hiring] applies more to smaller businesses than larger corporations? Does the person get taken out to some extent when it’s a Fortune 500-type company?

Simply: Yes, 100%.

Smaller companies will almost always have a more personable hiring experience as a result of their size. This is because smaller teams have no real reason to install highly-mechanical, de-personalized decision-making systems into their hiring workflow.

Until they reach a large enough volume of applicants and hiring decisions, a tight process actually slows things down and leads to a worse hiring experience & poorer decisions.

To explain this, let me tell two stories from my time leading hiring at Tread.

My first interview with Tread

The first interview I was a part of at Tread came about one month into my time at the company.

While I had been a part of a handful of interviews as a candidate and understood how they worked from that side of the table, I had never sat on the company side. This would be my first.

The interview was scheduled for mid-afternoon and I recall spending the entire day leading up to it in preparation. I did extensive research on the candidate, meticulously watched his application videos, and prepared 10 pages of questions with branch chain logic based on his answers (I wish I was kidding).

At this point, the entire Tread team totaled 12 people, most of which were former Tread athletes. This applicant was an outsider, someone who had a loose connection to the company but no direct tie. As such, we focused on preparation to deliver a highly-personalized interview experience that would benefit both him and us.

At the end of it, we chose to not offer him a position, but we continued performing highly-individualized interviews for the next 9 months, progressively systematizing chunks of the process as we added more people to the team and received a higher volume of applicants.

The takeaway: The smaller the organization, the more person-driven the hiring process will tend to be. Small organizations need to prioritize their attention to the current constraint of the business, and an extensive hiring process that early in a company’s lifecycle is not necessary.

Hitting the Inflection Point

About 6 months later, we hit the inflection point.

We were receiving more applicants than ever before, and as the volume of applicants increased, the average quality of applicant decreased. Therefore, I was sending more rejection emails, and those emails were going out from my Tread email account.

Now, there’s no inherent problem with that, but the issue was that the ever-increasing number of rejection emails led to a larger number of follow-up inquiries for feedback on what the candidate could do better to receive an interview, follow-up interview, or offer.

I took pride in our hiring process and sincerely wanted to help every candidate improve whether we offered them a spot on our team or not. But that became increasingly difficult as the volume of applicants grew. To help with that, I did two things.

First, I wrote a feedback email template. In it, I stated that while we couldn’t provide comprehensive individual feedback, we’d be happy to share some general principles for becoming a better coach. The email then proceeded to outline our top coaching improvement tips

This was helpful. From some of the candidates’ replies, they had never received that kind of guidance before. And tannerI was always impressed when a candidate came back and showed that they had worked on it (that was a great signal that they might be a good fit for the company, by the way).

Second, beyond the feedback email template, I created an email alias. Now, instead of sending these rejection messages from my email, they came from a different address which de-personalized the interaction a bit.


Did you catch that?

As we grew, I took measures to remove some of the personality from our process. This made it tougher for applicants to connect with me, Tread’s representative behind the hiring process.

I did it on a hunch that receiving an email from “The Tread Hiring Team” would lead to fewer post-rejection feedback inquiries. I was right.

Because while the foundational secret of hiring is that it’s a series of people interactions, organizations lose leverage if they treat it this way.

The takeaway: You [the candidate] should do everything you can to establish relationships, goodwill, trust, and credibility with the people. But, you also need to know that the organization (if it’s past a certain point of scale) has systems and procedures to de-personalize the hiring process & make it more mechanical.

Getting past this barrier requires relational tact. It’s difficult. But don’t be discouraged, it can be done.

Breaking the Barrier: the Alex Goetz story

After his playing career came to a close at Princeton, Alex spent a handful of years in the military. As his time in the service neared its end, his ambition shifted to getting into coaching. He knew his résumé was underwhelming and that he’d have to build influence & trust another way.

So, he took a different approach.

He did the necessary thing (submitting an application), but then reached out to us directly to ask for a conversation. It was an extremely well-written message, the kind that suggests the sender is more intelligent than the average person. I obliged.

We got on the phone and to be honest, I was blown away.

Alex arrived at the conversation with a personal story I could latch onto & thoughtful questions about things I had personally written, how to think about one’s coaching philosophy, and individual phrases on Tread’s website.

I expected the conversation to last no more than 30 minutes, but we finally hung up more than an hour later. To this day, it was one of the most impressive (and enjoyable) conversations I’ve ever had.

After a few more conversations to discern Alex’s desires & his best fit at Tread, we offered him the position and he graciously accepted.

I tell you this story to point out that if Alex had merely applied, he probably wouldn’t have even received an initial interview. It was only when I got to hear his story, encounter his thoughtful preparation, and hear the tactful way he spoke that I felt comfortable talking with him further.

The takeaway: Influencing the people behind the hiring process is still possible even if the company has reached the inflection point of systematization. It just requires some extra effort and relational tact on your part.

The Lesson

Hiring is about people, but companies don’t want you to know that.

Even the best ones will take steps to de-personalize the interactions and keep things rational, distant, and uncertain.

But, every system founded on people is ultimately operated by people. And every person — even the coldest, most “rational” hiring managers — have soft spots for influence.

It’s your job to find those soft spots and go to work building connection and getting through the glass wall.

Reflection Question

  • Think back to an experience you had in the hiring process. Can you identify a way you experienced de-personalization in the process? What could you have done differently to build a stronger connection with the people behind the process?