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When Hiring - Try Before You Buy

Posted by Andy Singleton on Tue, Oct 02, 2007

To me, it is self-evident that you should test any co-worker, in the job that they will be working at, before you make a permanent offer. I was surprised to see how much criticism Dharmesh Shah picked up for recommending a two month probationary period for new hires, during which the employer or employee could withdraw without negative consequences.   [This is a repost of an article from a previous iteration of Andy's blog, which we bring back because it is a good starting point for anyone building a software team]

Much of the criticism was along the lines of “You should do better interviews”. I suspect those critics have not hired many people themselves. I have been doing it for 20 years, and my hit rate for picking really good workers (who don’t bail out) from even the most extensive interview process is still only about 50%. By persisting in finding ways to run trials, I can move that to 90%. This makes an enormous difference in startup risk and ramp time.

A 50% failure rate sounds high, but if you actually add up the reasons that people leave a job within the first three months, it might even be an underestimate. Reasons include:

  • They aren’t very good in the role and you encourage them to leave, or don’t renew an agreement.
  • You can’t work with them or you don’t agree with each other.
  • You change your priorities or you can’t afford them.
  • They determine this job isn’t a good opportunity, because the company or role has limited prospects.
  • They determine on their own that they can’t do a good job, and bail out. Or, perhaps the advancement path isn’t clear, or the job role isn’t the best one for them. People are surprisingly efficient at figuring out their chance of success in a job.
  • They find they can’t commit the time you are asking for.

There is one place that I disagree with Dharmesh. He’s recommending a two month trial period. I think that is too long.

There is a some evidence, discussed in my article Blink and the art of hiring the best, that people form strong opinions within the first two minutes. However, those are inaccurate opionions that are not based on actual work in the chosen role. Those are the inaccurate opinions that come out of the interview process.

You have to give people space to work. However, once your mutual opinion forms, it is unlikely to change. So, once your opinion forms, you should act on it. This will not take anywhere near two months.

You will form an opinion of someones effectiveness, and they will form an opinion of you and their chances of success on the job, within the first week of work. If the person is working remotely, it may take two weeks to stabilize the opinion.

My goal is to put someone in a working role BEFORE I interview them. That way, I get the acccurate information, without the inaccurate information that comes out of interviews. This is possible with developers, but harder for other positions.

If you do hire someone and they quit or are released after a two month trial, you just did something very expensive and very risky. You spent from $10K to $80K on recruiting, salary, admin time, severance, etc., and lost two months. It’s a huge risk that few startups can afford, and it’s avoidable.

I find that getting good at doing the one or two week trials makes an enormous difference in startup ramp time. This can move the expected time to fill a position from two months to two weeks.

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It's a great assessment of how to reduce the risk for an employer, but from the employee's perspective, being offered a 1 to 2 week "job trial" that may or may not pan out into a firm offer is asking them to take on more risk on top of the standard risk associated with accepting a new job, and with no increased reward to compensate for the risk. Now, maybe you want people with that much appetite for risk in your startup, or maybe you want to see how badly people want the job. If so, this is a good way of testing for those traits. There's a decent sized number of people who will go to work for a startup and accept the risks involved. Upping the risk level to only those who are willing to leave their current gig for a 2 week trial is going to make the pool of potential employees smaller. If you're looking to hire 24 year olds, it's probably not going to affect the hiring pool all that much, to be sure. However, if you're looking to bring in more senior people, who tend to be older and have more financial commitments they need to meet, I'd suspect you're going to see a sharp reduction in the size of your hiring pool with that approach.

posted @ Wednesday, October 03, 2007 1:40 PM by Sprezzatura

Indeed - from the potential-hire perspective, I'd much rather be given a fortnight's trial than an interview. I'm quite confident of my ability to do any job I apply for, otherwise I wouldn't have applied for it - but my ability, and my confidence in it, to persuade someone to hire me is basically non-existent. The only reservation I will express is that the way I relate to my co-workers warms up substantially after the first few weeks, as I get to know them better and feel more comfortable and accepted around them; and I don't think I'm alone in that - so if that's an important aspect of the job, I think two weeks won't be long enough to evaluate it (and taking a "well, it should be" attitude runs the risk of discriminating against shy or naturally reserved people).

posted @ Wednesday, October 03, 2007 1:42 PM by gwenhwyfaer

I'll admit that not everyone can make themselves available for a two week trial, even though it is a paid trial. However, the trial can be part time, with a full-time commitment at the end. So, this could be something that someone does while still employed at a previous job. With this option the trial can actually expand the pool of candidates. Different dynamics are at work for senior positions. The job search for a senior position is typically longer than the job search for a less senior position, and the risk of accepting the job is higher. So, the idea that a candidate can do a few weeks of consulting, starting immediately, without derailing the job search, rather than waiting through a long evaluation process, can be appealing to candidates. In fact, I have seen trials become the norm for VC-funded CEO hires. Often the candidate does a few weeks of consulting on business planning or a functional task, while the team and the candidate figure out if they can work together.

posted @ Wednesday, October 03, 2007 5:41 PM by

The only people who are likely to accept your "two week trial" are those who are currently unemployed. Even part time, I don't see this as working out for someone who is currently employed, experienced, and looking for a different position (which is probably the vast majority of job seekers). Part time on top of a full time job (even for two weeks) is a difficult commitment (especially for those with kids). If you have problem evaluating their development abilities, maybe just ask them to write you a simple program and provide the source.

posted @ Thursday, October 04, 2007 8:59 AM by Dave P

This is one of the reasons hiring from an existing open source community can be beneficial. You can evaluate their code, you can evaluate how they interact with others and collaborate, and you can do it from the comfort of a google window...

posted @ Thursday, October 04, 2007 10:00 AM by Jeff Eaton

Of course, it would reduce your risk even more if you could bring people on for 2 years, not pay them if you don't like the shoes that they wore last Tuesday and you can't agree.

Employment is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Attitudes like yours contradict this, and attempt to erode the value that a job seeker has and shift the risk to them.

Good luck. As much as it might be an ok arrangement for some people, I can't see a bunch of people worth their salt taking you up on this.

Frankly, I think your prospective employees are likely to be pretty well insulted. I know I would be.

posted @ Thursday, October 04, 2007 11:10 AM by BJ Upton

I totally agree in trying to put somebody in a working situation before interviewing him. Although this is almost impossible (at least up here in Europe) unless you offer him exceptional working situations (salary, work, team etc.). Who could accept to wait for a hiring-answer for 2 weeks if the (equal) concurrence says yes/no in a much shorter delay... A possible compromise is to have the candidate working a day or so or have it read code details, discuss the architecture of his supposed work etc.

posted @ Thursday, October 04, 2007 11:42 AM by André Dietisheim

I can see people that are unemployed possibly doing this. All thou they most likely will continue to look for other positions during their trial period. You haven't offered them any security. If you really want to do some thing like this hire freelancers then offer them jobs after words. Most developers do some form of freelancing. Your pool will be a lot larger and there wont be any of the personal security issues. Of course they may not be looking for a job and you will have to give them a sweeter offer, but you have found a higher quality candidate right.

posted @ Thursday, October 04, 2007 2:40 PM by Egon Casteel

Most employment contracts prohibit doing paid work on the side, some prohibit doing any work on the side.
If I were to take a 2 week vacation to take part in your "tryout period" (the only thing I could do without quitting my job on the hope you'd hire me afterwards) I'd be in violation of my current contract, which could lead to me loosing my job and getting sued as well.

A 1 or 2 month probationary period is the norm in many countries, and in combination with fixed term contracts (most companies now hire people on 6 month renewable contracts rather than a permanent position) all employees are essentially on permanent probation anyway.
Employers can always get rid of them with no consequences by just not renewing those shortterm contracts if the employee indeed wore the wrong colour shoes one day when the HR manager was in a bad mood (and they do).

That's one reason some countries (maybe many) have placed limits on such practices, and require companies to offer a permanent position after a maximum period on shortterm contracts (or after a number of renewals, or both).

We're not at the moment in an environment where employees have to take whatever job they're offered because there's a hundred other candidates who will if you don't, but those conditions may return at any time.
When that happens your plan may work, as many people will be desperate to get a job, any job, instead of living on the dole.
But they won't be "the best" people, as those have jobs already and won't let themselves be pushed around by your practices which treat them as highschool kids being graded on an assignment and not as professional adults.

posted @ Friday, October 05, 2007 1:59 AM by JT Wenting

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