How to Run Debriefs & Make Great Hiring Decisions
Making hiring decisions is really hard and really important. The blast radius of a bad hire is huge — lost time, lost money, cultural impact, the painful process of letting someone go and worst of all, the collateral damage of departures of valued team members. However, what we don’t talk about as much is the cost of not hiring for a business critical role, which I think all founders would agree is just as high, if not even higher, than the cost of a bad hire. That’s because bad hires produce bad outcomes, but no hires produce nothing, and startups that produce nothing go nowhere.
So, how can we set up a process that reduces the likelihood of bad hires, but ensures that balanced decisions can be made swiftly with the business tradeoffs in mind? Here’s how:
1. Always Debrief, in Bulk if possible
After your interviews and scorecards are complete, gather everyone who interviewed the candidate into a meeting –ideally within 48 hours of the interviews, unless you are bulk debriefing (see below). A debrief should last 15-20 minutes (15min for roles you have hired many times before, 30 for n=1 roles).
If you are debriefing for a new, n=1 role, try to have them interview around the same time and debrief “in bulk” — 3-4 candidates in an hour. This will ensure your interview team can calibrate their feedback and compare candidates. You’ll get to a decision faster and be less likely to miss out on early, great candidates.
2. Be Clear on Goals
The goals of the debrief, in our view, should be the following:
- Ensure the interview team has the full context on the role & search to contextualize their feedback
- Provide the hiring manager with the full picture of how the candidates performed on the various competencies tested
- Allow the interviewing team to substantiate their feedback and hear others’ feedback on the candidate that may differ or reinforce their read.
The goal of the debrief is to debrief, not to make a final decision.
3. Who, what, when?
In our opinion, here are the roles and responsibilities:
The recruiter is the facilitator. The recruiter states the goals and calls on people to share their feedback and speak to their scorecards. They summarize areas of agreement and call out areas of dissent to ensure time is being spent getting to the bottom of important things, while not overspending time on the concerns alone. It’s the recruiter’s job to push interviewers to substantiate their views (e.g. probe on “something I didn’t like, couldn’t put my finger on it) and call out potential bias. When things get heated (they will sometimes), the recruiter will “blow the whistle” and acknowledge the different points of views and move on. At the end of the meeting, the Recruiter will summarize next steps. Optional idea – it can be helpful to show a table of the competencies on a whiteboard or shared screen so the recruiter can take notes in real time on how the person performed on each of the competencies.
The interviewers are contributors. Each will take a turn explaining their feedback on the competencies they tested, what they asked, and what the person said or did to give them their read. Interviewer trainees go first, the hiring manager goes last to avoid biasing the group.
Hiring Manager provides the context in the beginning, listens and asks clarifying questions. The context they provide is 1) the general skills/competencies the person needs to demonstrate to do the job 2) how long the search has been open 3) how many people they have interviewed 4) how and when the final decision will be made.
4. Making the Decision
Three important points about how the decision should be made.
Do not rely on systems to make critical business decisions for you — no point systems, votes, hiring committees, or “rules” around champions and veto-ing. These just do not work well at startups because none of these systems can possibly take into account the cost to the business of not hiring the person, which is an implicit and critical variable for startups. Second, these systems, which many startups have implemented, were started by big tech companies like Google and Amazon…but what people forget is that big tech companies can afford to wait forever and not hire people…startups can’t. Worse, when a decision is made for you by points or rules, it eliminates human accountability. If the hire doesn’t work out, who owns that failed decision? No one, so no one learns from it to avoid it again next time
The decision should be made by the hiring manager (with sign off optional – see below). This is the person you hold accountable to making good, business driven decisions every day, so of course it should apply to hiring as well. If the hire doesn’t work out, this is also the person who needs to solve it, and not make the mistake again. Also, group/consensus driven decisions don’t bring great outcomes. As Ben Horowitz described in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, hiring decisions need to be “lonely decisions” because consensus-based decisions about hiring executives almost always sway the process from hiring for strengths, to hiring for lack of weaknesses.
This decision should happen after the debrief, not in the room. Why on earth would you force such an important, expensive, impactful decision be made and communicated in real-time when we would *never* do that for any other business decision? Treat hiring decisions like every other major business decision – one owner that owns the decision, it’s outcomes, and is responsible for carefully communicating it to everyone it impacts, thoughtfully and empathetically (e.g. “Bob, I know you said no to this hire and I heard your concern, but here is why I’m moving forward anyway…)
5. Require Sign-Off to Avoid Urgency Bias
People who use “systems” cite hiring manager urgency bias as the reason not to let hiring managers own the decision. A better solution for this is to require final sign off from the hiring manager’s boss. If that’s not enough to give you confidence, make it their boss + Founder(s) (lots of founders love to be a part of the process for as long as they can — this is a great way to do that) or their boss + one cross functional, relevant, leader. It can be all three if you are really risk averse. At Flatiron, (after unsuccessfully experimenting with a hiring committee, bar raisers, and other systems) we landed on this and we called it the “hiring review board.” We operationalized it by creating a template for hiring managers to fill out and send via email with all the information (role, context, search stats to date, feedback, summary). It’s sent to the review board and they have 24 hours to approve, ask for more info, or veto. For speed, no response = approval.
Hope that is helpful!