There’s nothing I love more than delivering the bad news to prospective employees – especially the junior ones. They can be so easily crushed and demotivated, leading them to give up on their dreams of being software engineers. This is my chance to make a difference.
Of course I’m not a cruel or sadistic person – but those outcomes above are pretty real for aspiring engineers and developers. If you hire, you might not think this is you either, but there’s enough evidence on social networks to indicate that our manner of rejecting candidates can have this sorry outcome if we’re not careful, and many of us might not even realise we’re doing it.
Management comes with responsibilities, primarily to your own employer and your reports, but to the people you interact with outside of that circle. For one thing, those interactions are part of your company’s brand, but I think that there’s a wider responsibility to the community you’re a part of. We should ensure that our capacity to mentor and enable people extends outwards, and how we deal with interviews and the people who have invested time in them is crucial to that.
Poor quality feedback
Let’s just get one thing out of the way here. Don’t ever respond with lazy one liners like “We didn’t think you were a good cultural fit”. I don't even know what that means, but at worst, I'd imagine that it leaves your more culturally diverse applicants feeling like absolute shit.
“What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with.”https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-to-hire
Once a prospective employee has entered your interview process – be it a screening call or full interview – they’ve invested time and engaged with your business. And you’ve invested too, making notes, asking questions, reading CV’s and looking at some code all in order to make the best judgement you can. Done diligently, you now have a list of areas where your candidate succeeded or fell short, and assuming you’re engaged with developing your existing team, you’ll know that it’s a 10 minute job to write up a brief summary of these findings to deliver back to your candidates.
These are some examples of reasons why I have rejected candidates in the past;
Binary answers - replying “yes” or “no” to the majority of questions, and failing to provide context when prompted
Inability to rationalise/verbalise their code choices (I like to ask candidates to show me some work they’re proud of)
Overconfidence - arguing, belittlement or overt criticism of our technical stack or the state of it
Being ill prepared with no work to show or questions to ask
There is a knack to delivering constructive criticism. You’re not looking to merely point out failings, but provide context as to why the issue is important for you, and provide some suggestions for areas of improvement. This feedback goes in an email, or perhaps a phone call - usually based on my instinct of how the individual might respond to critical feedback.
Not everyone is capable of quickly processing a response to such things, and many would find it extremely uncomfortable to be cornered on a phone call. Sometimes an email gives people more time to consider a response, and though I make it clear I don’t expect one, it does make sense to be prepared for one and to be prepared to further backup up your feedback should they turn defensive or have questions (or to just cut them loose, in the event the conversation turns personal or aggressive - which is an unfortunate confirmation of a bullet-dodged).
I enjoy interviewing people since it’s an opportunity to meet a diverse range of people. There’s a lot to learn from that for both parties, and sometimes there’s a real connection made during those few hours that you’re in each others’ orbit.
Sometimes you’ll meet people who show extraordinary potential, but for a variety of reasons are not the right choice at that particular time.
“We’ll keep you file” has always struck me as an empty promise, and so where a connection has been made, and people are responding positively to feedback, there’s an opportunity to keep the conversation going. This can range from offering advice on their future job applications, forwarding on opportunities to offering more formalised mentorship.
Apart from being a very satisfying thing to be able to do, this does start to build a pool of talented individuals who one day, when the time is right, might be convinced to come and join your team.
30th September 2020
One of the trickiest conversations I have to have as a team leader is when there’s no path left to run for good engineers.
29th September 2020
John Arundel, software consultant and writer, asks me about helping troubled teams.