· 9 min read

Hiring for Earnestness

“When you call someone earnest, you're making a statement about their motives. It means both that they're doing something for the right reasons and that they're trying as hard as they can.”

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Daniel Jakaitis
“When you call someone earnest, you're making a statement about their motives. It means both that they're doing something for the right reasons and that they're trying as hard as they can.”

How are you supposed to know if a candidate has another full-time job or plans to do the absolute bare minimum?

Paul Graham put it well in his 2020 essay Earnestness: “When you call someone earnest, you’re making a statement about their motives. It means both that they’re doing something for the right reasons and that they’re trying as hard as they can.”

Earnestness, above all else, is the defining characteristic of high-quality team members.

Below, we walk through seven ways to improve your existing hiring program to evaluate candidates more efficiently and effectively.

7 Ways to Ensure You’re Hiring for Earnestness

1. Structure Your Decision Making

Too many startups rely on a few disorganized informational interviews to make their hiring decisions. Not only does this approach seem haphazard, it’s a poor experience for your candidates and results in an adverse impact.

Structured interviews are an ideal solution to this problem. Although they take a bit longer to set up, they limit bias and ensure that interviewers ask questions that more comprehensively evaluate your candidates.

To conduct structured interviews, you first need to develop a list of competencies required for each role. These competencies could be behavioral, functional, managerial, or technical in nature. Some examples might be “perseverance,” “result-orientedness,” “develops employees,” or “innovative power.” From your competency list, you can start creating questions that every interviewer will use.

Standardizing what questions interviewers ask (and the order they ask them in) makes interviews run more smoothly and reduces the chances of bias creeping in. The interview process becomes less about how much interviewers like the person and more about how candidates respond to the same scripted questions. This also makes it easier to compare the responses of multiple candidates.

During or after the conversation, interviewers are asked to rate the candidates’ answers on a predefined scale - typically from 1 - 5. Tools like Chatkick’s Interview Insights can help you customize and configure this process. On the backend, recruiters can see the results in near real-time and know whether to move a candidate forward or let them know they aren’t moving on to the next round. Overall, structured interviews make the process faster and more scalable.

2. Ask Stellar Interview Questions

Your typical interview questions like, “What are your biggest weaknesses?” or “Can you walk me through your resume?” aren’t going to get to the heart of a candidate’s work ethic, personality, or potential.

You need to be asking questions that will show how a person acts under pressure and what their motivations are. You want to know what they’re passionate about, what leadership qualities they have, and how they use their skills creatively and cross-functionally.

It’s hard to gather all that in one interview, so we aren’t suggesting you try. But picking a few questions from this list can make your phone screens faster and your non-technical interviews more comprehensive.

  1. What’s the biggest misconception people have about you? - This gives candidates a chance to share something that may not have come up in regular conversation – and their answers may surprise you.
  2. If I talked to people who don’t think highly of you, what would they say? - Although this is similar to the traditional weaknesses question, it gets candidates to reflect on their flaws in a more realistic, work-centric way.
  3. Among the people you’ve worked with, who do you admire and why? - Pay attention to the adjectives candidates use in this answer to see if they align with your company values.
  4. Tell me about a time you strongly disagreed with your manager. What did you do to convince him or her that you were right? - Respectful disagreement is a rare and valuable quality. Stellar candidates will explain how they articulated their points in a clear, polite, firm way.
  5. What was the last thing you nerded out on? - Look for enthusiasm in this question. Does it seem like the person really cares about the topic? How do they research it, and could that translate to something at work?
  6. What does success mean to you? - Open-ended, tough questions like these get candidates to pause and think about their internal motivations and drive.
  7. Have you ever put your heart and soul into a long-term project that failed? - Someone who’s never made a mistake could be a big red flag. Having an open, honest conversation about how someone dealt with failure gives you a sense of ownership and accountability.
  8. When was the last time you changed your mind about something important? - Being open-minded and challenging one’s opinions is a sign of flexibility and good teamwork.

3. Change Up Your Environment

Being in a stuffy conference room is enough to make anyone uncomfortable. Taking your candidates out of the office can make interviews feel more natural and encourage candidates to show their true colors.

Start by walking around the building and observing how the candidate reacts. Are they curious about what everyone is doing? Do they treat people with respect? Staying highly engaged with you and the surrounding environment is a good sign someone is interested in your workplace.

You could take this a step further and share a meal or grab a coffee.  Are they polite to the barista? Do they ask you insightful questions as you wait for your food? Do they get easily agitated if something goes wrong?

Getting the person outside of a typical interview environment makes it more likely that you’ll see a different side of their personality – another data point for your final decision-making.

4. Put Others in the Driver’s Seat

Having a diverse interview panel infuses new perspectives into your hiring process and is a good way to curb bias.

However, that doesn’t mean you should throw others into the ring cold turkey. Interviewers must be fully trained on your hiring process to ensure interviews are fair and you maintain a high candidate NPS score. If you haven’t already, you should define and implement an interview training process where employees can learn about the HR tools you use, potential legal issues, and the list of structured interview questions and competencies they need to use.

The Amazon Bar Raiser Program is a good example of this in practice. They’ve built an elite squad of hiring managers (roughly 5,000 people) that has full veto power over any part of the interview and hiring process.

Every year, people invited to participate in the Bar Raiser Program go through a certification process to learn the latest updates to Amazon’s interview process and to reevaluate and reemphasize Amazon’s high candidate standards.

And the Bar Raisers aren’t just on the people team – they come from across the organization, serving as an auditing function to ensure Amazon continues to hire the best of the best.

Introducing potential hires to different people exposes their social skills and their ability to interact with employees at any level. Inviting teammates and even employees on other teams to participate can also help them feel more valued and involved in the process.

5. Do a “Free Trial”

Startups have a bit more flexibility regarding the interview process, so why not take advantage of that?

If you work at a smaller company, consider doing a paid trial run. Get the candidate onboarded and give them a several-week project. This puts candidates’ problem-solving skills to the test and lets you observe their behavior and verify culture fit.

Another version of this is to set up a paid academy or intern program. A digital marketing company uses this strategy, advertising and selling SEO, Google Ads, and Facebook Ads courses to recent grads or people looking to switch careers. The star students in those courses end up being excellent pre-vetted hires.

6. Take Reference Checks Seriously

Today, reference checks are treated like a formality, but they should be an essential part of your hiring process.

Candidates will only share the names of their big fans, you can still learn about a candidate’s work habits, dedication, and compassion from their peers. Ask for 5-6 references and actually contact every single one.

That may seem like a lot, but you want to get a holistic idea of who the person is, how they work, and what they are like as coworkers. When you get in touch with a reference, ask deep questions, like:

  • What are [candidate name]’s biggest areas for improvement?
  • Would you ever start a company with this person?
  • What was the best part of working with [candidate name]?
  • [Candidate name] mentioned they had trouble with ____ in this role. Do you have any insight into that?

Most references don’t want to give negative reviews, but little signs of hesitation or obviously false praise serve as good warnings. Push people to give answers by rephrasing questions. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but references are the most critical factor in reducing false positives in your hiring process.

7. Make a List of Your Company’s Red Flags

A list of red flags should already be a part of your hiring SOP.

Everyone on your team, from recruiters to hiring managers to interviewers, should know – and be able to easily access – a full list of company red flags. Whenever an interviewer hears or sees these things, they should probe the candidate for more information or pass on the candidate altogether.

Some examples of red flags could be:

  • Exaggerated answers
  • Lack of explanation for why they switched jobs
  • Subpar reference interviews
  • Taking credit for others’ work
  • Speaks poorly of past coworkers or bosses
  • Tardiness
  • Upfront demands

Take input from employees and leadership when developing this list, and be sure to update it as your culture and business evolve.

Hire Top-Notch Candidates

While you’ll never be absolutely certain that a candidate is a right fit for a role, there are ways to instill greater confidence in your recruiting team and hiring managers. Implementing some of these best practices can dramatically improve the quality of the candidates you hire. Recruiting the most driven, high-performing folks boosts team morale, company productivity, and ultimately, your bottom line. It might even lead to candidate acceleration, which might work out for the best!

Of course, that can’t happen without the right tools at your disposal. You need a platform to help you reach out to candidates, schedule interviews, prompt interview questions, collect interviewer feedback, and more. Chatkick’s Talent CRM and Interview Insights streamline the hiring process and ensure your candidates have a top-notch experience – every time.

Request a demo to see Chatkick in action.