Neil Kelly, Director of Engineering at Luno, has seen that if there’s one thing that can hurt your hiring, it’s rushing through the process. Taking shortcuts to land candidates quickly can lead to making promises that you can’t keep, or compromising on things you haven’t checked against your team. This article unpacks some strategies Luno uses to be upfront and honest during their hiring process, and why that serves them better in the long run.
Hiring is hard. Hiring tech talent is hard, too. Hiring tech talent when your team needs a role filled urgently is harder. Hiring tech talent for a role your team needs filled yesterday, when they have more than one offer on the table, is even harder. Hiring tech talent, for an urgent role, that has multiple potential offers, during economic crises like the one we’re facing during the COVID-19 pandemic… Well, I think you get the point.
With so many hiring pressures, Neil says that it’s easy for your priority to become getting a candidate to sign your job offer – and when that’s your main focus, you risk telling them what you think they want to hear, even if you know that’s not the reality they can expect. Often, the ways you oversell are subtle, seemingly inconsequential passing comments – of which you think very little in the moment, but that can compound negatively down the line:
“It’s even just adding an extra 5% to certain emphases in the discussion. That 5% is almost like a ‘white lie’. It’s using terms like, ‘That’s something we can visit once you’ve landed’ or ‘We can definitely explore that later on’.”
As an example, from what Neil’s seen, a common 5% ‘oversell’ is flexible working hours. Candidates might ask about missing traffic, and a working from home option in order to minimise time spent travelling. “I could easily say, ‘Look, we’ve got flexible work hours. You could start your work from home and then come in after the traffic’. But the People team actually owns the mandate around working hours, not me.”
Although this might help the candidate move along with their decision, Neil says people often aren’t conscious of how those types of ‘5% agreements’ might impact the rest of the company. Two of the biggest impacts overselling can have on a company are:
- Lower retention of new-hires: If a new-hire joins, and the things they were promised that led them to accept the offer – such as flexi-hours – are in fact not as they were led to believe, Neil says people often just leave. This is not only a bad user experience, it’s an expensive thing for your company to go through.
- Broader impacts on company culture: Making compromises to close a new-hire could also have broader company culture impacts. For example, if a new-hire is allowed to work from home until traffic slows, and that isn’t part of your culture otherwise, the rest of your company will expect the same. This puts immense pressure on you, or someone else in your company, to then manage expectations and do damage control.
Neil has been hiring for more than a decade, and is an advocate for being upfront and realistic with candidates in the hiring process. Although it sometimes means candidates turn away, Neil says it saves his team time and money, and results in higher quality candidates: “Sometimes we scare people off, but I would far rather take that risk this side of an offer then after the offer, with the very expensive joining fee when – all of a sudden – you realise you’re sitting with someone that isn’t prepared.”
Four areas in which Neil has commonly seen hiring managers and recruiters falter during high-pressure hiring processes are:
- The work the candidate will do
- The learning curve
- The impact a candidate will have in the first three months
- The company structure
Below, Neil shares his team’s strategies for managing expectations in those areas, being aware of the ‘extra 5%’, and keeping their hiring processes honest.
Be upfront about the work they’ll do
Candidates will have an idea of what it’s like to work at a company based on what they see online. Often, however, as Neil has experienced at Luno, what your company is known for and what the daily operations look like don’t always align in the way candidates might expect. What you do every day is probably going to be different from what people from the outside get to see, and thus expect, when they’re applying for a role.
Clearing up potential misconceptions
In Luno’s case, Neil says much of the first interaction he has with a candidate is managing expectations around the kind of work candidates think they’ll do at Luno. Although Luno is a crypto-currency company at its core, many candidates anticipate a career in blockchain – which, Neil explains, is not necessarily the case. He makes time to communicate the extent to which blockchain might form part of their role:
“We’re not a blockchain development company. I could tell a little ‘white lie’ – I could say we do have Bitcoin nodes, and sometimes we’ve got to look at the code; but that’s not really your job at Luno. If I look at the engineering capacity in the team, maybe about 2% of the engineering capacity is actually dealing with Bitcoin nodes and looking at the software.”
By setting someone up with that context so early on in the process, Neil mitigates the risk that someone gets hired, only to find out later that what they really wanted to do doesn’t actually form part of their day-to-day responsibilities.
Talking about tech stacks
“The second thing for me”, Neil adds, “is to be upfront about the stack we use.” Neil says that Luno’s OpenStack environment can often be a huge shock to a lot of engineers who haven’t had experience with it – particularly Microsoft-orientated engineers. If Neil doesn’t set their expectations about the stacks they’re be working on, he’s seen that new-hires – irrespective of seniority – can feel overwhelmed, demotivated, and may even leave soon after being hired:
“They often find themselves almost backtracking 10 steps, irrelevant of their seniority. You actually feel pretty bad when you’re an experienced engineer, and you can’t contribute. It’s the worst feeling you can ever give an engineer. The person lands and is like, ‘This is the worst thing I could’ve done to my career. I want out’.”
In order to effectively communicate the work they’ll be doing, and the tech stacks they’ll need to be comfortable with working on, Neil overstates the learning curve they’ll go through in the first three months.
Overstate the learning curve
In Neil’s experience, being really direct about how hard it might be for someone when they first join, in terms of the learning they’ll have to go through, acts as an ‘acid test’ for the kind of person Neil is trying to hire. Although it can scare people away, as Neil mentioned earlier, taking that risk on this side of the hiring process is far less costly than once they’ve already been hired:
“If you don’t overstate their learning curve for when they arrive, and they’re not prepared for it - not being honest in terms of the ‘sell’ - means you could be landing with performance problems from day one, that you yourself have introduced.”
The impact of this, he says, is a lot of unnecessary strain on the person you’ve hired, on you as the one who brought them into this role, on your team who has to spend time trying to help them, and on your company as a whole.
Neil has found that the best way of communicating this learning curve with a candidate is to test their willingness to jump into the deep end. In his experience, many companies will soften the blow during the interview process by saying things like, “Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up!” Neil, however, finds that acknowledging the inevitable stress a candidate feels in their first month makes them less likely to get demotivated, and makes it easier to discern the kind of person they’re hiring: “We talk with a sense of severity in terms of stack: ‘Are you willing to migrate your skills to a completely new environment? We as Luno will support you, but you need to realise that your learning curve for the next three to six months is going to be insane – are you prepared for that?’”
This honesty, Neil adds, also fosters greater trust and confidence between yourself and the potential new-joiner.
Be upfront about the impact they’ll have in the first 3 months
Overselling on impact means setting a candidate up wrong when it comes to understanding how they’ll be deploying code, shipping things, contributing to delivery, and being responsible for projects in the real-world. It feels good to ship impactful things, because it feels like you’re contributing something valuable, so this is why Neil has seen hiring managers fall back on this during the interview process.
“There’s a lot of gratification in getting work into production because you feel like you’re adding value, and getting recognition from your team, which is something everyone wants”, Neil explains.
If your company’s cadence to get things into production doesn’t align with a candidates expectations, the risk of them leaving or suffering from motivation issues is high. Rather be upfront about how soon they’ll get to work on projects, or deploy their code, than not. “There are environments out there where they only do two production drops a year”, he says. “As an engineer, you’re then six months away from work seeing the light of day - that’s not gratifying to me.”
However, Neil still says that even if that’s the environment, there is immense value in setting up and emphasising points of impact.
In other words, Neil’s team sets up an environment for that candidate which front-loads as much impact as possible, and highlights those moments in the interview: “A really good hiring manager”, Neil says, “will be so sure that they’re structuring an environment around a person to ensure that they’re getting that affirmation, or that job satisfaction, as quickly as possible, and can set that expectation from the get-go.”
Be upfront about your company structure
The trend in tech is to be part of, and contribute to the exciting innovation in technology. This environment, Neil’s says, has become synonymous with startups in particular, which has given the larger, more corporate companies a ‘bad rep’ and a tough time in terms of attracting tech talent. The ‘oversell’ here, he explains, is when companies try to seem more ‘startup-y’ than they actually are:
“In startups, you’re entrusted with a lot more work. It isn’t uncommon for the youngest graduate to be in control of a huge project, committing every line of code themselves. In corporations, you might see a particular project have 100 engineers, where each engineer gets to contribute a few lines of code to the overall success, and you don’t really ever get to feel like you had significant ownership for their project.”
At Luno, Neil knows that many people perceive Luno as a startup and this means he has to address these expectations directly: “One of the first questions I generally ask is, ‘Why do you want to work for us? What’s cool?’ Very often, people say, ‘Because you guys are a startup and I want to work on innovative ideas.’” From there, Neil manages their expectations by outlining the ways in which they still have a startup culture, and also the ways in which they don’t. “I start picking off all these expectations in a very realistic way”, he explains.
“I might tell them, ‘While yes, we’ve got a startup-vibe, we’re a scaling business, which means certain formalities.”
Once again, this comes down to understanding what a candidate expects and wants, and addressing those honestly and openly. Not being honest can set you – and your candidate – up for failure later down the line. “Bottom line is”, Neil says, “just be very real, upfront, rather than rolling with all these expectations that they enter the interview with, only for them to land the job and find it’s nothing like they expected.
“The moment you stop telling people all the truth, people wonder what else is not true. So, the more honest you are, the better for yourself and the candidate.”