Building Your eCommerce Team: The Interview Process

|

We started this blog series by discussing three keys of successful hiring: Vision & Values, Skills & Fit, and Candidate Compensation. Interviewing is simply the process of gauging how a candidate aligns with these keys.

Today I’ll explain why a defined, collaborative hiring process is a great way to do that. I’ll guide you through some potential pitfalls, like legal concerns and why you shouldn’t consider cultural fit. (Seriously!) Then I’ll describe some common interview types you can mix and match, with a quick-fire list of my Top Tips for each.

Why You Need A Defined Interview Process

It’s a Catch 22: Hiring well takes time, but nobody hires because business is slow. You hire when everyone is juggling a heavy workload. While you may be tempted to wing it, there are some excellent reasons to define a process.  

1.  Bad hires are crazy-expensive. Employers estimate their bad hires cost them from $25,000 to $190,000 per year. That $190K? It’s not from fat-cat executives in fancy-pants skyscrapers; it comes from small businesses where everyone wears many hats. A thorough interview process can prevent most bad hires.

2.  Employers in the tech industry hire more often. The average US employment tenure is 4.2 years; in tech, it’s about 3 years. Following a process is much easier than reinventing the wheel for every position—or worse, every interview.

3.  Inconsistent interviews produce unreliable results and increase legal liability. A defined process gives everyone a fair shot and keeps you from comparing apples to oranges.

It boils down to this:

A solid interview process is the only way to identify strong candidates who are aligned with the 3 keys: Vision & Values, Skills & Fit, and Compensation Demands.

Alignment is the best way to predict whether a candidate will become a resource draining seat-filler or an engaged and committed employee.   

Why Your Interview Process Should Be Collaborative

How do you know when an HR idea is really radical? When it gets its own reality show. Collaborative (or team-based) hiring is a hot topic in recruiting, for good reason. It takes the bulk of responsibilities from one person and distributes them across a hiring team. It’s become the norm for the tech industry, and for us, it’s a no-brainer.

Four Benefits of Collaborative Hiring

1.  Exposes Candidates to your Team & Culture You could say you have a collaborative, two-way fit mindset, but why not prove it? Involving your team gives candidates a first-hand look at your team and vibe. Plus, your satisfied, aligned employees can be your best ambassadors.

2.  Increases Ownership, Engagement, & Retention This point’s about current employees, not candidates. There are a few very simple concepts at play here:

  People quit their jobs for a better work environment. Helping to shape their team gives employees a sense of ownership over their workplace. It proves you trust them and value their input.

  People stay in their jobs when their values align with the business and they feel connected inside the organization. Explaining big-picture ideas like workflow and company values can remind your employees how they fit within the wider picture too.

  People get used to anything. You know the elation of a positive change: a new car with a sweet sound system, or a new workplace with a great environment. Over time, though, the newness wears off and excitement fades. You get annoyed when the Bluetooth doesn’t connect right away or when a coworker lets their meetings drag on endlessly. 

It’s called hedonic adaptation, and recruiting can be a powerful force against it. When I leave an interview or career fair, I feel amped about working at Gauge all over again. Articulating what we do and our unique approach reminds me that, “Yeah, we have a great thing going here.”

3.  Sets Realistic Expectations Just like elation, we all know the pain of disappointment. Jobs are no exception; 31% of people have quit within the first 6 months. A top reason is “The job wasn’t as expected.” Discussing the position, environment, and team with several different people paints a much fuller picture for your candidates.

4.  Reduces Unconscious Bias When hiring depends on one person, it can be really easy to gravitate toward the best fit for you instead of the best fit for the team. We’ll discuss this further in a minute.

» Top Tips: Collaborating Successfully

1.  Use a Hiring Brief. When hiring collaboratively you can lose a lot of time to miscommunication. We avoid this by creating a Hiring Brief, which outlines every aspect of hiring: the salary range and hire by goal, what the interview process looks like, who will do what, and more. As far as I can tell, the Hiring Brief is a Gauge original. See a sample and get a template by contacting me for a free hiring toolkit.

2.  Listening is paramount. The biggest risk of collaborative hiring: Loss of good faith when decision makers don’t take input seriously. A unanimous decision may not be necessary, but general agreement is. You must be willing to reevaluate your stance on a candidate if it goes against your hiring team’s consensus.

 

Legal Considerations

Most people know it’s illegal for interviewers to ask about religion, sexual orientation, age, and other federally protected areas. But slipping into dangerous ground can be deceptively easy. Brief your hiring team on what questions they can’t ask and arm them with plenty of legal alternatives.

Example: In a one-on-one interview
Candidate: “I studied computer science at Georgia State.”
Interviewer: “Me too! What year did you graduate?” (Illegal because it relates to age)

That dangerous ground gets even more slippery just before and just after an interview, when people chat casually. Remind your team that illegal areas are always illegal, even outside formal interviews.

Example: Walking the candidate out after an interview
Candidate: “My wife and I love your city. We can’t wait to relocate here.”
Interviewer: “Yeah it’s a great place to raise a family. Do y’all have kids?” (Illegal because it pertains to family status)

 

Accidental Values: The Case Against “Likeness”

One of my favorite takeaways from a recent Gauge book club is the idea of accidental values. In The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, Patrick Lencioni says:

Accidental values are traits that are evident in an organization but have come about unintentionally and don’t necessarily serve the good of the organization.

These are by nature unwritten, but once you’re looking, they’re pretty obvious. They can be:

  Positive, like a shared fastidiousness in washing your own dishes. (I can dream!)
  
Negative, like everyone coming from similar social backgrounds. (The stereotypical “old boys’ club”)

The problem arises when negative accidental values sneak into hiring. Lencioni again:

They develop over time because of history, and because people start to hire employees who come from similar backgrounds. One day everyone looks around and realizes that just about every employee who works in the organization shares some quality: socioeconomic status, introversion, or good looks.

Few interviewers would consciously evaluate candidates with criteria like socioeconomic status or attractiveness in mind. So how do these accidental values sneak in? Under hiring’s holy grail: “Cultural Fit.”

Cultural Fit: An Outdated Concept

The “fit” in Skills & Fit doesn’t refer to candidates fitting company culture; it refers to their work style fitting the needs of the role and team. Cultural fit is a clunky, outdated concept.

I can hear the objections through time and space: “She’s a witch! Protecting company culture is paramount! A witch! We found a witch!” I absolutely agree—well, with the paramount part, not the witch part. But the pivotal question is, what exactly does culture include? Definition from The Balance [emphasis mine]:

Company culture is the personality of a company. It defines the environment in which employees work. Company culture includes a variety of elements, including work environment, company mission, value, ethics, expectations, and goals.

Nothing in there about individual personality types, personal tastes, personal anything.

Bearded.com founder Matt Griffin wrote an excellent article explaining the culture fit conundrum. If you read nothing else I’ve linked, read Matt’s article—it’s that good; the issue that important. He says:

I like hanging out with people I can talk to easily. One way to make that happen is to hang out with people who know and like the same books, music, movies, and things that I do; people with similar life experiences. It may not surprise you to learn that people who have experienced and enjoy all the same things I do tend to look a whole lot like me.

See the problem? “Cultural fit” is too often shorthand for “someone like me.” This isn’t a matter of conscious discrimination, but of human nature. We’re programmed to look for similarities—to find our tribe, or as Matt puts it, to “unfairly overvalue people like yourself.” Phenomena like the halo effect, confirmation bias, and the Dunning-Kruger effect work against organic diversity. A lack if diversity not only poses a legal risk; it puts you and your business at a distinct disadvantage.

Diverse teams:

•  Improve financial returns; are directly correlated with higher earnings
•  Outperform other teams
•  See increased innovation, creativity, & problem-solving
•  Perform more accurate analyses and
•  Are more engaged and loyal
•  Appeal to job candidates
•  Can prevent disastrous shortsightedness

The Alternative: Culture Add

If seeking cultural fit isn’t sufficient, what’s the alternative? How do you build a diverse team within your culture? The answer is simple: Seek alignment with the core components of your culture—mission, vision, values, goals, expectations—and then seek cultural add. Again, Matt sums it up pretty perfectly:

[I’ve tossed] out the whole “do I want to hang out with them?” question. Instead, I’ve tried to replace that with more specific, more culture-agnostic questions:

  Are they kind and empathetic?
  
Do they care about their work?

  Do they have good communication skills?
  Do they have good self-management skills?

If the answer to each of these questions is yes, then it’s very likely I will want to hang out with them all day, regardless of which movies they like. […] Then we can also include a new question:

  Do they bring a valuable new perspective?

Don’t let “Not a good culture fit” be a valid reason for disqualifying a candidate. Dig deeper. Pinpoint what’s misaligned: vision, values, skills, or work style fit. If you can’t identify one, bias may be sneaking in.

How to Guard Against Bias

1.  Collaborate. A variety of perspectives can balance bias.
2.  Stay focused on the 3 Keys. Don’t overemphasize surface traits.
3.  Identify accidental values. Ask your team to describe the typical employee for your company or what employees have in common. Any traits listed that aren’t core components—company mission, ethics, values, vision, goals, or expectation—are your accidental values.
4.  Seek alignment + culture add. Aligned candidates will inherently fit your culture, and adding new perspectives will pay off in the long run.

These strategies can mean the difference between a vibrant, successful, diverse team and a homogeneous team that uunderperforms, but sure does enjoy hitting happy hour together.

The Interview Process

Time for the nitty-gritty: the actual interview process. The goal isn’t to put candidates through a Survivor-style competition, but to explore whether the position is a good mutual fit together. Remember, you’re collaborating with candidates too.

Your hiring process should be custom-built around the three keys, and adjusted for each position. Perfecting yours will take experimentation, but save drastic changes for the next hiring project. When evaluating candidates, consistency is king.

» Top Tips: Assessing the Three Keys

Vision & Values: The only way to uncover someone’s vision and values is to spend time with them. That’s why you need more than one interview: more time to learn who the candidate is. Listen to the language they use and what they emphasize.

Example: I knew a recent candidate would make a great Account Manager when, while discussing her last job, she focused far more on her clients than her skills or daily tasks.

In his book How to Think About Hiring: Play Smarter to Win the Talent Game, Lex Sisney suggests a great strategy for assessing this key: past why/future why questions.

Past why: Ask the candidate to talk about their professional transitions—changing employers, job titles, locations, even industries—and the reasons for them. Pay attention to the answer, plus their emotions and communication patterns. Do they seem at peace? Are they still angry about an old layoff? What have they learned?

Future why: Ask the lottery question: “If you never had to work again, what would you do to give your life a sense of meaning and purpose?” Then ask why. Reasons will reflect values.

Skills & Fit: Everyone overestimates their own competency sometime; it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. We also have a tendency to miss red flags once we see something we like—a shared interest or a confident aura. To avoid hiring the “overconfident incompetent,” you must test skills. Always include practical interviews or technical assessments when hiring.

Lex Sisney has great advice about determining work style fit too [paraphrased a bit]:

Pay attention to two simple factors—the candidate’s pace & energy level, and the areas in which they inspire the most confidence—to reveal a surprising amount about the candidate’s management style, including his or her strengths, stressors, communication rhythms, language tendencies, preferred work habits, and natural fit for the job.


Compensation Demands:
Talking about money can be awkward, but since you’ve done your research, you know your comp is fair and appropriate. Candidates will take their cues from you, so be confident and direct.

  Confirm hard comp early.

Example: In the first interview, I say something like “For this position, we’re offering [salary range], plus the benefits listed on the job description. Is that within the realm of possibilities for you?”

  If the candidate hesitates, probe further. It’s maddening to lose a finalist because compensation wasn’t confirmed early or because they low-balled their own needs.
  
As candidates move through the process, look for hints about their soft comp, like what they enjoyed or disliked about past jobs. Ask them to describe their ideals: ideal supervisor, client/customer relationships, team relationships, workflow, environment, etc.

Quick-fire: Interview Types

Here’s a quick-fire overview for interview types that are compatible with collaborative hiring, plus my tips for each. To build your process, start with the three keys. Consider what you need to uncover about each candidate, and which interview types would be useful. Then mix, match, and combine as appropriate.

To see an interview process we’ve used at Gauge, contact me for your free hiring toolkit.

Timelines

1.  Serial – A one-day interview process ala Men in Black. Includes several interview types with various interviewers. Evaluations can be done at the end or “Survivor-style,” with candidates disqualified along the way. 

  Can be done with single candidates, but are often group interviews
  Requires fewer time off requests for candidates with inflexible schedules
  Due to the time investment involved, you’ll need to screen rigorously. Carefully determine your screening criteria and allow for longer appointments.
  For collaborative hiring, don’t use group interviews or Survivor-style DQs. Bookend a serial interview with personal screenings and finals.

Example: Hold a 1:1 phone screening on Tuesday; a serial interview with a skills test, behavioral interview, & panel interview on Thursday; then a 1:1 final on Monday.

2.  Sequential – Several interviews scheduled individually over a period of time. Evaluations happen after each step, with the candidate DQed or moved to the next stage.

•  Better for getting to know candidates. The average hiring timeline is 42 days, plenty of time to schedule several interviews and get to know them as people.
•  More common than the serial interview
•  Require your team to share evaluations quickly so you can keep the process moving

Participants

1.  Personal/One-on-One – The stock-photo interpretation of “interview;” one candidate + 1 interviewer, usually a recruiter, dept. head, or other leader

  Good for first & final interviews
  Can be conversational or Q&A
  Consider nontraditional locations, like a restaurant or cafe, to see how the candidate interacts with people outside the interview setting

2.  Panel – One candidate meets with several interviewers, usually people the new hire will work closely with  

  A great way to test collaborative hiring with your team
 
Allow time for plenty of candidate questions, so they can take advantage of access to more perspectives
  Assign one person to lead the interview, keep it legal, and stick to the format & schedule
  Can be intimidating for candidates. Minimize this by introducing each panelist with their name, role, and some humanizing ice-breaker info

Example: This is Sam, a senior developer. He can tell you way more than you’ve ever wanted to know about Star Wars. Indira is a project manager; she’s our reigning gif champion.

 Make expectations very clear for:

  Prepping beforehand
  What to evaluate and when it’s due
  What not to ask
  Who makes the decision whether to DQ if there’s no consensus

Interview Formats

1.  Candidate Screening  Typically done via phone or video. Shorter & less formal; often more conversational than Q&A

  Clarify any questions about application materials and fill info gaps
  Assess basic communication skills & how the candidate presents themselves
  Weed out any obviously poor matches with a preliminary assessment of the 3 keys:

  Ask basic technical questions
 
Ask the “future why” question
 
Confirm salary range & benefits package
 
Pay attention to pace, energy, and areas of confidence

2.  Question & Answer Interview What it says on the tin: a Q&A. 

  A great time to ask your past why/future why questions
 
Build a list of core questions and choose from it for each candidate
 
Don’t use your questions as a script. Ask follow-up questions like “Why?” or “Can you tell me more about that?”
 
Ask what they know about the company; candidates should have done some research
  Adapt this for the mutual fit approach by splitting the time between interviewer questions and candidate questions. Explain the format when scheduling so your candidate can prep.  

3.  Practical/Performance Interview Assesses how a candidate will perform common tasks or responsibilities; usually includes 1-2 “peer-level” employees + a leader. 

  Again, assign one leader
  Can include:

  Situational or hypothetical questions; “What would you do if [x]?”
 
Candidate presentations
 
Portfolio reviews
 
Job shadowing; candidate spends part of all of a workday shadowing someone on your team

4.  Technical Assessment/Skills Test Assesses specific skills needed for the position. Often timed; usually conducted by 1-2 “peer-level” employees + a leader

  A critical step
  Can include:

  Traditional tests, like coding exercises
 
Sample projects or task assignments
 
Role-playing, like handling a mock customer service complaint

5.  Behavioral Interview Focuses solely on what a candidate did in the past and why, no future hypotheticals. Often done via panel or via personal interview with a leader or two.

  Explores a candidate’s past behavior only
  Uses “Tell me about a time when [x]” or “Give me an example of [x]” questions
  A great time to ask “past why” questions

6.  Final Interview – The last interview; happens just before a Reference Check or Offer Letter; hosted by whoever makes the final decision between candidates

  Addresses any unresolved questions or areas of concern
 
Discusses specifics like compensation and potential start dates
 
Our CTO & COO always do this interview, in person and over a meal.

Other Interview Process Elements

1.  Application Screening – Not a meeting & distinct from a candidate screening; refers to reviewing resumes, work examples, etc. to select people to interview.

  We use an application questionnaire to gather extra info about candidates.

Example: A drive to learn is critical in the fast-moving eComm industry. We ask applicants to “Describe what you’ve done in the last 6 months to grow your skills.”  

  You can get creative with the application process.

Example: Our Project Managers need impeccable attention to detail. To test this, we recently buried these instructions in a paragraph on our job description: “When you apply, skip the cover letter. Instead, send us a writing sample describing something you’re passionate about and why.” We could see who paid attention at a glance. As a bonus, the writing samples that were submitted gave us a glimpse into those candidates’ values right off the bat.

2.  Reference Checks – An important due diligence practice, usually done at the end of the hiring process

  EEOC laws apply to reference checks too. State laws vary, so do your research. Rule of thumb: Always restrict questions to job performance, not personal info
  You can also contact previous employers on the candidate’s resume. Skip the current employer unless they already know the candidate is resigning.
  Watch for neutral or carefully worded answers; they can hide red flags
  Request 3-5 names from your finalists, with:

  Company & title
 
Dates worked together
 
Working relationship
 
Email & phone number

3.  Background Checks

  There are a lot of laws to navigate when checking arrest records or credit reports. I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll keep it simple: Follow recommendations from the EEOC & FTC, and again, do your research on state laws.

» Top Tips For All Interviews

  1. Always record your notes after an interview. If you’re DQing, summarize your reasons.
  2. Record your interviews too, and always tell the candidate when you do. 
  3. Balance your head and your gut. Intuition can be a powerful hiring tool but should be backed by solid info. 
  4. Explain your hiring process early on. Include your “hire by” date and explain your focus on collaboration. Tell candidates you expect them to interview you and your team as well. Then allow them plenty of time for that in your interviews. 
  5. In the same vein, when you schedule an interview, explain the format, who the interviewer will be, and any important info like parking for in-office interviews. 
  6. Follow up quickly and expedite really promising candidates. The best candidates are off the market in 10 days
  7. There are thousands of interview question lists online, so I’ve mostly avoided that topic. My best advice:

  Ask open-ended questions
  Give standard questions a new twist. Instead of “What motivates you?” I ask “What demotivates you?” The answers are less rehearsed and more enlightening.
 
Include lighter, ice-breaker questions
  Ask past why/future why
 
Don’t grill candidates; have a conversation

So there you have it! That wraps up our Building Your eCommerce Team hiring series. If you’d like our free hiring toolkit, which includes all kinds of tools, templates, and materials for your next hiring project, drop me a line

And remember, if you’re ready to add to your team but you just don’t have the time to do it right, we can help

Happy hiring, y’all!