When Hiring - Try Before You Buy

Posted by Andy Singleton on October 2, 2007 18:36:00 PM

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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About the author

Andy SingletonWorking on Continuous Agile and Accelerating Innovation, Assembla CEO and startup founder

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