This month’s edition of the Harvard Business Review (subscription required) includes a profile of the hiring process at Automattic, a tech firm that’s behind the free, open-source software platform WordPress. Founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg wasn’t happy with the traditional recruiting process (resume screening, in-person interviews, taking candidates out to lunch, etc.) his company was using, he writes:
As we considered the situation, it became clear that we were being influenced by aspects of an interview — such as someone’s manner of speaking or behavior in a restaurant — that have no bearing on how a candidate will actually perform. Some people are amazing interviewees and charm everyone they talk to. But if the job isn’t going to involve charming others, their interview skills don’t predict how well they’ll do as employees. Just like work, interviews can be “performed” without real productivity.
The more he and his team thought about it, Mullenweg writes, the more they recognized that there’s no substitute for actually working alongside someone in the trenches. Thus began Automattic’s “auditions” for job candidates, in which those who’ve made it through the firm’s resume-screening process (which it retained) work for the firm on a contract basis for three to eight weeks, 10 to 20 hours per week, performing real tasks alongside the folks they’d be working with if they’re hired. Candidates (regardless of the position they’re auditioning for) are paid $25 per hour and, thanks to the firm’s highly flexible work arrangement, can work nights or weekends so they don’t have to quit their existing jobs during the audition period.
The tasks candidates perform depends on the jobs they’re auditioning for: a customer-service candidate would interact with customers, an engineer would write code and a business-development candidate might run the numbers on a business proposal. The goal, Mullenweg writes, is to assess whether having the person work at Automattic would be a mutually beneficial relationship: The company can evaluate the candidate while the candidate evaluates Automattic.
Candidates are provided with feedback during the audition, Mullenweg writes — in some cases, if it becomes clear things aren’t working out, the company calls an end to the process as quickly as possible “out of respect for everyone’s time.” The auditions require a substantial investment of time from Automattic employees as well as candidates, he notes — in the engineering department, for example, four engineers oversee auditions for their department. The final step in the process is an interview with Mullenweg. Ninety five percent of the people who make it to that stage end up getting hired, he writes.
The extra scrutiny afforded by the auditioning process is important for Automattic because — unlike many software companies — the firm wants employees who will build long-term careers there and it needs to ensure employees will be able to handle its flexible-hours, limited-supervision work culture. About 40 percent of audition candidates are hired by the company, writes Mullenweg. The process has proven successful so far, he says: Of the 101 people hired last year, only two ended up not working out.
Although auditioning may not be ideal for every company, Mullenweg writes, it could be useful as an augmentation to a firm’s existing hiring process. It’s worth considering because so much is at stake, he writes:
Nothing you do for your company has as much impact as putting the right people around the table. The aphorism is true: You can’t manage your way out of a bad team.