Thoughts from our CEO

Hiring in crisis

To Hire or Not To Hire: Team-Building in a Time of Crisis

1920 1282 Paul Breloff

Do you recall what the world felt like when March 2020 started? That was just a few weeks ago, though it feels like a few lifetimes have passed since. Globally, we’ve been thrust into a new world. As the CEO of a recruitment company, Shortlist, one of the questions I am getting asked most frequently is, “What should I do about my hiring plans?”

Whether companies were planning to hire for a growth spurt or even just adding one or two key positions, this is a critical question without easy answers as they are now hiring in a crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I’ve spoken to business leaders in the last few days, I’m struck by how personal these choices can be. Our near-term decisions stand to deeply impact the people who are the lifeblood of our companies – both those we’ve already hired and those we had plans to hire in the coming weeks or months. We need to look out for our people at the same time as we look out for our companies; we want to continue investing in growth while being cautious about what’s to come. How to balance?

Try as I might to turn this into a simple analytical framework or one-size-fits-all approach to hiring in a crisis, it’s more complex than that. Instead, I’d like to share some of the questions we’re asking ourselves and suggesting our partners consider. We hope these will help you think through your own plans, too. And of course, we’d love to hear from you – email me at paul@shortlist.net. We can’t promise answers, but we can promise an open mind, transparency, and the best video chat our home WiFi can deliver.

As you consider your next steps, we’d suggest you weigh the following three questions related to hiring in a crisis:

  • Company Impact: Will your company be impacted, how deeply, and for how long?
  • Role Particulars: How does the new hire serve the present vs. create the future?
  • Costs of Starting Over: How hard will it be to start over the hiring process later?

Company Impact: Will your company be impacted, how deeply, and for how long?

No doubt, the global economic slowdown is real and many companies will face challenging times. However, there’s a big difference right now between a company that might actually see an upswing in business (e.g., a hand sanitizer company, a telemedicine business, Peloton) and a company that may be permanently damaged (e.g., an airline), with a vast continuum of possibilities in between.

Each company’s leadership should try to understand what the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for them, and how long it might last. Don’t jump to worst case scenario thinking, and think in specifics not generalities. Your business is not the stock market; just because markets are down doesn’t mean your business will be for long. Some of the most stringent social distancing and shutdown measures may pass in under 2 months, and we all know that the world will want to get back to normal as soon as possible. We’re even optimistic that for some businesses, the acceleration of experiments like #WFH and video calls could present new opportunities.

At the same time, it is a good time to take a sober look at what the known risks mean for your business and for your cash runway. Do you believe the worst will be over in the next 1-2 months? If so, perhaps the best answer for hiring in a crisis is to stay the course, considering delayed start dates for new hires if that’s helpful or possible. Or do you believe you are facing a more long-term or existential threat to your business model? To state the obvious, the more seriously you’re impacted, the more seriously you should consider a hiring freeze for at least some positions, if not more drastic cost-cutting measures.

Role Particulars: How does the new hire serve the present vs. create the future?

Not all new hires should be considered equally. There are several dimensions along which you might consider differential approaches to hiring in a crisis. For example, are you hiring this person to address short-term production or client needs? Or are you hiring this person to build a stronger future? If you’re hiring people to serve short-term customers, and those short-term customers may not be coming through your doors right now, then you ought consider pausing. However, if you’re hiring someone to build a product or lay a foundation for future growth, this may be a great time to get them on board and get to work.

I’ll share an example from our business. We’re part search firm, part recruitment tech platform. We anticipate that in the short term, recruiting activity will slow down, and it remains to be seen how long this will last. So, while we had planned to hire a number of new recruitment professionals to serve clients, we’ll likely pause those searches, acknowledging there may not be sufficient short-term work to keep them fully occupied. On the flip side, we are in the process of hiring a senior technology leader to support our product roadmap. We’re proceeding with this hire full-steam ahead, thinking this is actually a great time to get a jump on product features and data science so we can emerge stronger than ever on the other side.

Costs of Starting Over: How hard will it be to start over later?

Last but not least, it’s worth considering where you stand in your process. If you haven’t written the job description yet, there are fewer costs to pausing. On the other hand, if you’re interviewing finalist candidates and on the verge of an offer, the costs of starting from scratch are very real.

Don’t adopt a sunk cost mentality, but it’s also important to remember that finding great people is a challenge even in the best of times. If you’re finding candidates you like, there’s no guarantee that they or equivalent talents will be ready to join when you’re next ready to hire. In these situations, you might consider making the offer but working with your candidate to delay the start date. While caution is appropriate, we ought also ensure we have the team in place to get back to business when this passes.

Another thing: while we do what’s right for our business, let’s also continue to have empathy for the jobseekers out there. Just as this is a frightening time for the macro-economy and many of our businesses, many individuals are facing uncertain job prospects and professional futures. Let’s extend the same kind of empathy and transparency we’d want if the tables were turned. Take the time to communicate clearly with candidates who have applied. Share any relevant changes to hiring plans. Do what you can to offer advice or feedback. Respond to emails, and when in doubt, pick up the phone. Granted, we all have our own problems, but times like these also present opportunities to come together to be the best versions of ourselves.

These are complicated times and topics, and we’re having textured conversations with our clients spanning many unique circumstances. And things are changing nearly daily for all of us, particularly in our core markets of India and Kenya. We come to this with more questions than answers about hiring in a crisis. How are all of you approaching this? What’s working for your unique circumstances? We hope to share more ideas on how to make #WFH work for you, how to hire and on-board virtually, how to preserve and build culture in a time of uncertainty, and more… And of course we’d love to hear from you, and please do let us know if we can help.

Co-founders

Tips for a strong and successful co-founder relationship

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Starting a company with other people is a Big Deal. Co-founder relationships must be among the most unique and rarely discussed natural phenomena of the business world: different parts colleagues, close friends, spouses, and co-parents, mixed into an exact cocktail whose measures are different for each company.

Not only are co-founder relationships unique, they are also extremely important to get right. Noam Wasserman reviewed 10,000 startups for his book The Founder’s Dilemma and found that 84% had multiple founders. And when high-potential startups failed, co-founder dynamics were to blame nearly two-thirds of the time.

Given how many things could go wrong, I feel truly lucky to have started Shortlist with such great co-founders, Simon and Matt. We’ve been through some crazy times, with each of our roles shifting in significant ways since we started. We have worked together through two funding rounds, team members leaving at critical times, amazing new people joining, major contracts getting won (and sometimes lost), and all of the other ups and downs that make startup years feel like dog years. And now I’ve got all the grey hairs to show for it.

To complicate things further (and I’m not sure I would recommend this to everybody!), Simon and I are flatmates in not one but two different cities as we manage our three offices across two continents — just to up the stakes that much more.

Through it all, the three of us have maintained a pretty darn special relationship. This is what we’ve found works for us to keep things stable, productive, and fun.

Build from the “why”

Before we started the company, we invested significant time journaling and discussing our respective answers to the question, “Why Shortlist?” This of course touches on very big picture “Why” questions like purpose and mission (“unlocking global professional potential!”) but also the more banal but equally honest reasons like trying to stretch personally, making money, and having a great time working with great friends. At our annual co-founder retreats (more on that below), we nearly always start with a “Why” refresh and check in on if and how the “Why” might be changing.

Make culture and values primary

Early on, we spent a lot of time working to clarify the bedrock ideas on which to build our team on – the Shortlist core values. We’ve written elsewhere about our efforts to document and evolve these values, but it’s important to recognize that we also use these to drive our own interactions and relationships. When we’re giving each other feedback, solving problems, or looking for a tie-breaker, we will often fall back on our values to shed light on the best way forward.

Always get to empty

Another important principle for us is to never leave things unsaid. Particularly when we’re giving feedback, talking about tough topics, or asking each other for help, we have a principle (coined brilliantly by Matt) that we should “get to empty.” That is, nothing should be left in the “tank,” no additional points you wish you had made as you reflect a day or a week later. One of the ways to accomplish this is to simply listen and at the end, pause, repeat back what you heard, and ask “Is there more?” This makes sure there’s never a frustration or resentment hangover, and encourages us to tackle questions and issues head-on.

Disagree and commit

Even when we disagree (and yes, we do sometimes disagree), we try our best to make the decision and then all stand behind it. Jeff Bezos talks about this idea in three words: “Disagree and commit.” We don’t have to always agree on everything, but at some point we need to make a decision and whether or not we all are convinced, we need to commit to the decision and do everything humanly possible to make it succeed. We also need to make sure the team sees us as unified co-founders, to avoid the politics and cultural deterioration that can creep in when the “bosses” don’t seem aligned.

Prioritize fun and adventure

One of the most sacred of our commitments to each other is that at least once a year, we will get away from our everyday mindsets and locales and “retreat” somewhere sufficiently adventurous to suit the co-venture of Shortlist. We’ve been to a beachfront yoga institute in Kerala (pictured), a ranch at the base of Mt. Kenya, and a condo in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (don’t worry, all done in ways that are free or creatively cheap for the company).

This gives us some space to recharge and also to tackle some of the bigger questions facing us as a company, as friends, as people. We intersperse marathon deep dives on the strategic questions of the day with great meals, intense workouts, and a cocktail or two, and re-enter reality ready to blow the doors off the day.

Have a “keeper of the force”

With Simon and I spending nearly all of our time with our teams in Kenya and India, we often find ourselves deep in the “trees,” making the “forest” a bit hard to see. Matt’s relative distance (he’s based in California) makes it a bit easier to pull us out of the trees, remind us of the bigger picture, and keep us focused on the important (not just urgent) stuff. He’s also there to diffuse any tension when the strain of multi-city flatmating and co-founding gets too much. We’ve often reflected that Matt feels like the “keeper of the force” for the three of us — sans lightsabers. While the typical co-founders are likely all “on the ground,” you may be able to identify another senior team member or advisor who can “keep the force” for you too.

The only constant is change

Yes, startup years are dog years. Things change often and they change fast, with crazy ups and downs – often in the same day. Teams turn over naturally and unnaturally in myriad ways and business strategies and products evolve at hyperspeed. For us co-founders, that change has come in many ways, including significant role evolution for each of us, physical moves across continents (sometimes twice in the same year!), drinking from fire hydrants as we learn new industries, new functions, and new markets. I have been inspired to watch the way Matt and Simon leave ego at the door and give Shortlist whatever it needs, at any given time, to be the best version of itself.

How do other people make these special, unique co-founder relationships work? I’d love to hear from you!

Book Recommendations Shortlist

Need a book recommendation? Check out these non-fiction classics

5275 3517 Paul Breloff

I love to read. So when my team asked for book recommendations in a recent Town Hall, I hopped on the opportunity to reflect a little on the books I’ve found helpful on my career journey these last 15+ years. These are all nonfiction favorites — narrowing my fiction favorites is simply too big a task — and all made a strong impression at the times I read them, even if they may not all stand the test of time equally. While these aren’t the most original or arcane selections, they’re ones you’ll almost certainly be glad you checked out.

Happy reading!

Books about the world: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond) – One of the very first books I read that sparked my interest in why certain places were different than others. I am pretty sure I read it while backpacking in Vietnam. One idea that stuck with me was about the conditions that enable a production surplus (i.e., enough food that we can save it for the future) and how that served as the foundation for modern civilization (e.g., science, philosophy, commerce). The flipside, of course, is how horrifying it is to learn the ways those tools were used against the defenseless as imperial ambitions grew…
  • Cosmos (Carl Sagan) – This is a Carl Sagan classic, and if you don’t know about the Big Bang or time dilation or how big the universe is and you want to have your mind blown, read this book. While it hasn’t directly shaped my career, it’s definitely shaped my worldview (er, universe view) and I like to think there’s an alternate dimension in which I’m an astrophysicist.
  • Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari) – This guy writes his book as if he’s sitting on a nearby planet, thoroughly untroubled by the contemporary concerns of humanity and more interested to understand our trajectory from a cosmic or millennial perspective. The way he grounds the arc of human experience as an extended trajectory of conquest and stories, always within the frame of Earth’s lifetime, makes everything feel small but in a powerful, mind-expanding way.
  • India After Gandhi (Ramachandra Guha) and The State of Africa (Martin Meredith) – I read these books about a decade apart (IAG around 2009, SoA only this year) but they were indispensable books for me as I seek to better understand the context and history of these amazing markets I work in. The books are similar: massive tomes that take on the task of telling the myriad stories of hugely complex and diverse places from the time of independence movements (roughly mid-20th century) through the early 2000s. Obviously, any book like these is totally incomplete and I’m sure disputable on many fronts. But for me, they’ve been useful tools to help me structure my understanding of where India and Africa have been and search for clues about how best to navigate the present and look ahead.

Books about work and teams: 

  • Execution (Larry Bossidy) – I read this book a long time ago, and I fear it’s better suited to a simpler, pre-digital age — in certain parts they recommend writing hand-written letters! It contains a lot of wisdom and best practices about how to create systems for people, strategy, and operations to get stuff done and ensure maximum impact, productivity and accountability. While some of the tools work better if you’re leading big teams, there are ideas anyone can take advantage of, even if you’re just the boss of yourself. Another book recommendation on the execution theme is The 4 Disciplines of Execution. This one pushes us to focus on our “wildly important goals” and keep track of progress via “lead” measures on a scoreboard, all while (reassuringly) acknowledging the whirlwind of day-to-day stuff that can suck up 80% of our week.
  • The Four Hour Workweek (Tim Ferris) – The Tim Ferriss classic… It seems cliche to recommend this but what I really liked and what led to some useful epiphanies is the reminder that a good business makes money, and some of the best businesses make money quite simply — without crazy new ideas, lots of VC money, and impossible odds. It’s kind of an antidote to the voracious world-dominating viewpoints of most VC / entrepreneur books (e.g., Zero to One!) and re-grounds business in a simple profit equation: Put in as little resources as possible to make as much money as possible, and focus on actual free cash flows so you can live a really cool life.
  • High Output Management (Andrew Grove) – Another classic, written by the longtime Intel CEO and Silicon Valley legend Andy Grove. Maybe a little dated, but still largely applicable and covers a lot of amazing basics about building and growing teams, running complex organizations, creating leverage points, and making decisions.
  • The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) – This one rocked my world, and was a topic of a previous blog post. In essence, Daniel Coyle asks, “Why some teams are more than the sum of their parts, and some are less?” This gave me a way for thinking about teams of all stripes (athletics, business, etc.) and what makes them great, without just falling back on some flaccid notion of “shared values.” There are a number of other culture-oriented books I’ve also enjoyed (including Primed to Perform, Delivering Happiness, and Setting the Table, to name just a few), but this one is special.
  • New Power (Jeremy Heimans) – Written by the CEO of Purpose, I recently found this book a very insightful and useful framework for thinking about the role of social media and movements and virality in building great businesses. I fear I am still an “Old Power” kind of guy (maybe it’s my age?), but there’s a lot in this New Power method and philosophy I’d genuinely like to learn and leverage to unlock professional potential through Shortlist.

Books about development: 

  • The Mystery of Capital (Hernando De Soto) – The book that drove me to become (briefly) a real estate lawyer… This is one of the most insightful development books I’ve ever read, describing the complicated interplay of law, record-keeping, and politics that turns things we own into “capital,” i.e., things we can easily turn into money through mortgage, collateralization, etc. The idea of widespread “dead capital” in emerging markets was fascinating to me, and I went into real estate law so I could learn in detail how a web of property rights and contracts could actually turn this dead capital into living, breathing capital ready to be deployed toward investment and growth.
  • The Elusive Quest for Growth (William Easterly) – The William Easterly classic (along with White Man’s Burden), which I remember as one big, brilliant takedown of traditional development economics and the development-industrial complex that rests on it. Easterly became a persistent counterpoint to Jeffrey Sachs and his “if we only had enough money, we could solve all the problems!” idealism. I like that this book eschews big development aid in favor of letting a thousand flowers bloom. This was an initial spark that got me more excited about tools like microfinance and entrepreneurship to solve big problems rather than massive institutions like the World Bank.

Books about startups:

  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things (Ben Horowitz) – A more recent hit, written by the iconic founder of venture behemoth Andreessen Horowitz. I found the first half a bit self-congratulatory, but the second half was full of interesting examples and insights about the challenges and celebrations along the way of building startups.
  • Traction (Gabriel Weinberg) and Lean Startup (Eric Ries) – These are good books to refer back to every once in awhile; they’re kind of like two sides of one coin. Lean Startup focuses on the “rules” of building product in a rapid prototyping/iteration model (“build-measure-learn” cycles), and Traction focuses on distribution and goes through a bunch of marketing and sales tactics to get your product out there.
  • Zero to One (Peter Thiel) – This is the Peter Thiel meditation on what makes a high-growth, dominant startup. There’s a lot here that I question or don’t agree with (e.g., the focus on building a monopoly as a positive thing, the need to dominate markets, etc.). But, it’s a really useful framework to try to make sense of the modern tech landscape and the difference between a normal business and a venture-backable startup.

I hope you were able to pick up one or two ideas for your next read. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own book recommendations, so please leave comments or write me at paul@shortlist.net.

Managing distributed teams

Distributed Teams: Eight Ideas to Help Them Thrive

2246 1090 Paul Breloff

We believe that talent is global and the strongest teams are borderless. The digital-first jobs of tomorrow — engineers, data scientists, digital marketers and content creators — can be done by anyone, anywhere as distributed teams,  as long as they have the right skills, a computer, and wifi access.

The rise of global freelance marketplaces like Upwork, Fiverr, and Toptal is a bellwether, but so is the increasing number of firms that choose to be distributed from the start, with teammates scattered across living rooms, coffee shops, and WeWorks, and connected through Slack, Zoom, and WhatsApp. Some investors have gone as far to proclaim that distributed teams are the “new cloud for startups.”

The concept of a global distributed team is deeply ingrained in our Shortlist DNA. We launched in two markets (India and Kenya) nearly simultaneously, and today have three offices across two countries, along with consultants and board members in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco and Mauritius (not to mention clients in 12+ countries).

We certainly still believe in the power and the magic of working (mostly) alongside our teammates. Special things can happen when brainstorms are done in person with a whiteboard, when data can be explained while pointing at the same screen, and when relationships can be formed over regular coffee or lunch meetings rather than just messaging platforms.

But with 80+ Shortlisters in across our Nairobi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad offices, we’ve become thoughtful and creative about how best to build a #OneTeam culture and generally get stuff done efficiently and to our high standards. So what are some of the things that have worked for us in operating through distributed teams?

1. Create spaces for chatter and personality

Because we can’t count on the spontaneous collisions of a single shared space to deepen connections, we have had to create these opportunities digitally. We have a series of WhatsApp groups keyed to different logical divisions (by geography, function) where there’s a steady flow of welcomes, birthday wishes, photos of social events, GIFs, and more. It’s the modern day company-wide water cooler.

Shortlist team

We also have a weekly Zoom call among the senior leadership, which is less a space for substantive discussions and  decisions, and more space to just chat and catch up. Each person has a lightly structured few minutes to share travel plans, a mood check, points of nervousness and points of celebration, which usually involves a lot of venting, movie references, and vacation longing. It’s the one time when no one cares if you take the call from the back of an Uber.

2. Institute a global social operating system

As we’ve built and tweaked our social operating system (i.e., the processes and tools in place to ensure an efficient flow of information and decision-making), we’ve done so at a global and local level. It’s helpful when everyone is on the same page about how we structure functional team check-ins, send calendar invites, and join video chats – especially when they’re happening remotely!

We have quarterly Town Halls where we attempt an (often fraught) global video-conference, with all the offices beaming in (below are all three distributed teams tuned in to our most recent Town Hall). The meeting features updates on important stuff, but also introductions to new folks, celebrations of promotions, and cross-office “high fives,” where the Kenya team gives shout outs to members of the India team and vice versa. It’s a valuable chance to express recognition of great work to team members who you won’t have a chance to thank in person.

3. Invest in “unnecessary” travel for distributed teams

We accept that part of the cost of multiple offices is increased travel bills. We make sure to budget for frequent flights between Hyderabad, Bombay and Nairobi – for the senior functional heads, of course, but also for more junior managers on the team.

These visits serve a critical culture transmission-and-smoothing tool, as teams learn from the visitor (who is usually extra motivated to go out for some local food, drinks and adventures) and the visitor brings back lessons and perspective to their home office. Below are snapshots from Product Manager Austen and Talent Advisor Mehndi’s visits to the Mumbai and Nairobi offices.

4. Commit to annual retreats

While this can sometimes feel like a scary line item in a startup budget, I highly recommend committing to gather parts or all of your distributed teams together in one place on a regular basis. Our leadership team meets for a retreat at least once a year (here we are during an epic brainstorming session) and we make sure to find a place that feels suitably adventurous: the hills of Lonavla outside Mumbai; a house on the shore of Lake Naivasha outside Nairobi.

It’s an incredible opportunity to push strategy forward but also go deep as teammates and as whole people, and have a little fun as well. We also recently invested in an “All-India” retreat bringing together the Mumbai and Hyderabad offices at one resort for a couple days of programming, a “gala” evening of team appreciation, and a surprisingly competitive cricket match.

5. Don’t cheap out on phones, speakers and internet

This should probably be #1! We’ve cycled through so many different pieces of technology in hopes of finding the Holy Grail of cross-border communication. Would that Pied Piper’s video calling were real!

The best answer we’ve come to (and we’re not being paid to say this): the Jabra 510, a steal at $110. We have a few Jabras and it takes us from our standard sequence of “Hello?… Can you hear us?… What?… Switching wifi to data… Seems there’s a delay… There’s an echo… Let me try you back…” (you know you’ve been there!) to a welcome sense of “We’re in the room together” crispness and clarity. Even better is when we get video working: we’ve had a lot more luck with Zoom than Google Hangouts or Skype but we’re still hunting for The Answer!

6. Enshrine and preserve the important stuff at a global level…

We’ve had to be even more deliberate and intentional about defining our global values, culture and identity, given the fact that we can’t count on it to simply “emerge” from the great people we have sitting around the same table. We spent significant time on our core values (read how we did it here and here), and we make sure to highlight these values and recognize the importance of company-wide culture and ways of working together at every chance we get.

Last year our co-founder Matt started an internal  “values podcast” in which he interviewed folks on the team about their personal stories and journeys to Shortlist, including a deep dive on the person’s favorite value and what it means to them. It’s been amazing to draw out the different dimensions and texture of our values that are important, deepening the words beyond just posters on the wall.

7. …but let local be local

At the same time, not everything can be global. We have such vibrant teams and offices in our two markets, and there is plenty of space for local innovations: from our Holi parties to games of Kahoot to First Friday team brainstorms to “Biggest Loser” fitness challenges to “Wellness Wednesday” self-care breaks (check out that chair yoga!) to the once-famous “Meditation Room” to the Snack Wars to the After-Hours Ping Pong Tournaments to the chai breaks to the Throwback Thursdays (game of “guess who” with childhood pictures) to Friday Jam Sessions (with guitars and beers), each office has found unique rhythms and rituals and inside jokes to keep things fun and human.

8. Cherish the diversity 

One of the best parts of building global distributed teams is that there are so many differences across the group, and so many opportunities to learn from each other. Beyond national diversity, we’re proud that 75% of our senior leadership and 65% of our global team is female. We celebrate a range of Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays, we sample foods from all over India and Kenya, we learn from the dramatically different life experiences of folks who have grown up in all sorts of different circumstances, went to all sorts of different schools, come from all sorts of different prior jobs.

Managing distributed teams

This is magical and fun and one of the most enriching parts of my job, so while building that global team, don’t forget to embrace and enjoy the differences!

To be clear, we haven’t figured it out and we’re always looking to make improvements, learn, grow. We’d love to hear how others do it out there. If you’re on a team that’s distributed across multiple locations or has multiple offices, how do you make it work? Any tricks, tactics or tools you can share? Let us know; this is only going to become more common and more pressing for all of us to figure out!

Sparking a Talent Race-to-the-Top

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This post originally appeared on PCDN, in their Future of Work in Social Change Career Series. See https://pcdnetwork.org/blogs/sparking-talent-race-top/.

 

The last time I applied to jobs (admittedly, a few years ago now), it was a miserable experience. Dozens of applications, dozens of hours wasted on job boards and cover letters, and what did I have to show for it? Nothing. No interviews, at most only a handful of form rejections. It was mostly a big, yawning black hole. And how did this experience make me feel? Like crap!

Imagine a similar dynamic playing out literally millions of times every day around the world. In India and Kenyaーthe two markets where we workーover a million people join the workforce each month, and the typical job posting gets upwards of 1,000 or more applicants. We’ve all heard the horror stories of millions of people applying for a few thousand jobsーand I’d wager my next paycheck that 90%+ of those applicants never got so much as a courtesy rejection. This is totally demoralizing!

As we’ve gotten to know these talent markets better, I’m increasingly convinced that this breakdown in trust and respect creates a vicious cycle of wasted time and bad outcomes for both the employer and the candidate. Instead of a “race to the top,” it’s a race to the bottom. In this race, candidates lose faith in the fairness and transparency of the job market, driving them to apply to jobs blindly and without any research into the role or company (i.e., “spray and pray”), while companies are so flooded by resumes that they don’t have time to carefully weigh the merits of each application or respond with a status update or rejection.

Exacerbating the problem, job boards have made it easy to apply with one-touch applications, leading many jobseekers to apply to every single open job every day for weeks. And so called data-driven approaches like automated CV keyword searches only incentivize jobseekers to add meaningless buzzwords by the handful, hoping the job board and application tracking system filters will catch them and move them higher in the pile.

Let’s be clear: I don’t think anyone is winning in this current state of affairs. Companies are drowning in resumes and resorting to old-school, bias-heavy approaches like screening only for top academic institutions or known companies to cut through the noise. And jobseekers are not rewarded for deeply researching a role or company and taking their time assembling strong applications that show what they can do and why they’d be great.

So, if much of the market is racing to the bottom…what might companies and employers do to spark a talent race to the top?

  • Make it worth the effort to try: Right now, there’s not much rewarding candidates for taking the time to learn about a company, work hard on an application, and follow up professionally. There are various ways we could incentivize good behavior and deliver more value to jobseekers. We can communicate expectations more clearly on both sides, and be clear about what the overall process will look like. Make it easy to learn more about the company, with compelling job descriptions and links to further information. Communicate excitement about the role and the impact (social or otherwise) you can have on the job. Gamify the process and use icons that visually reinforce best practice (🌟🎖🏆🏅💚). Offer tips and tools on how best to interview, what skills or competencies will matter most in the role and which traits the hiring manager will be looking for.
  • Be human: The job search often feels inhuman, and it has been made even worse in some ways by the digitization of many steps of the search and application process. But an increasingly digital process doesn’t have to be an increasingly cold and inhumane one! Use technology, but make it fun. Invest in well-designed UI/UX. Share personal anecdotes and success stories of current employees and past applicants. Use engaging graphics and emojis (🏄😇💪💥). Don’t be afraid to send an email, make a phone call. Try not to unnecessarily prolong the process (e.g., don’t wait over a week to review an application; don’t stretch processes over 2+ months and 10+ interviews). Use the candidate’s first name every chance you can. In the interview process, show empathy and gratitude for the candidate’s effort and interest in your company. When closing the candidate out, avoid “corporate speak” and give it to them straight, and respect the effort they put in.
  • Deliver value at every turn: Let’s be honest: applying for jobs is grueling and many candidates face 99 rejections for even 1 promising interview. How can we make sure that every candidate, even those we ultimately pass on, get value from the process? To the extent practical, we can provide feedback on why people didn’t get the job. Provide advice about how to make a better application next time and resources about the employer’s industry or the function the person applied to (e.g., a generic white paper on how to prepare for a career as a finance manager or UX designer). Suggest other positions within the company that could be a good fit, and email as similar positions come up in the future. Invite applicants to informational events in the future or networking events to meet other young professionals with similar interests.
  • Be transparent: Black holes suck. It’s bad enough to be rejected from a job you want; it’s even worse when you don’t hear anything at all, one way or the other. Be clear up front what the role requires and the criteria that will be used in deciding who to interview and hire. Acknowledge that you’ve received an application and that you’re reviewing it. If it’s been awhile and you still haven’t made a hire, let candidates know that the hiring process is still underway, and acknowledge the understandable eagerness they may feel for a resolution. And above all else, let people know if you decide not to proceed with them (and bonus points for actual feedback!).
  • Make the process fair: Recruiting processes are riddled with bias at every turn. Resume screening is often based more on recognizable school or company brand names more so than any real markers of ability to do the job. Interviewing is notoriously biased, with most decisions made in the split-second upon meeting and confirmed with conversational trajectories subconsciously directed to confirm initial impressions rather than objectively assess fit. To make the process more fair, invest in tech-enabled screening that vets candidates on objective factors that have been determined in advance. Use skill and other competency assessments to gauge what a candidate can do, rather than just what they say they’ve done. Collect the same information and data-points on each candidate so you can compare apples to apples. Interview in a structured format, with clear notions of what you’re looking for, and what makes for a good and bad answer. Make every effort to make sure the playing field is level, making sure the best and most deserving really do rise to the top.

At Shortlist, we’re trying to build a better way to hire, one that will use a combination of tech and human touch to scale these “better behaviors” across all our clients’ hiring processes. We create media-rich, colorful, and engaging job descriptions. Our digital application process is full of humor, progress updates, “what-to-expects,” color, and graphics. We automate application updates, letting people know they’re still in the running if the process drags and closing out all applicants. We offer dedicated applicant care, a human being candidates can call or email for help. We let employers know when candidates are waiting, offer helpful reminders about how to keep the process moving, and help with structured interviews after the first screen is done. And in the future, we hope to offer many more links and resources to help jobseekers on their journey even if they’re not selected for the job for which they applied.

Our hope is that if we can help employers engage in better behaviors, jobseekers will start to follow suit: we hope candidates in the future research jobs in advance, only apply for the jobs they really want, invest in the process, show up to interviews, negotiate in good faith, and show up on the first day of work (none of which can be taken for granted!). Let’s rev up these virtuous cycles and start a race to the top, so everyone can win.