Applying for jobs can be exhausting. The whole system is set up in a way where people become a few pieces of paper stapled together (or in more recent times, PDF documents), and the amount of arbitrary expectations that only hiring managers seem to know becomes more and more confusing as time goes on.

As a non-profit leader who has been hiring for the past decade and who has worked with hundreds of people who are desperate to find work, I’ve found myself really trying to re-think what this whole process looks like. I’m by no means an expert… I’ve only taken one human resources course, and I’ve made hundreds (if not thousands…) of mistakes in my career as a manager.

But for the past number of years, I’ve really tried to focus on rethinking the whole hiring process, and how we can stop seeing people as just their resumes and cover letters. I’ve been working to make sure that I’m seeing candidates as real people, who are most likely tired of applying for jobs that they really want but never seem to be able to get, and who are probably really anxious or nervous about throwing their hat in the ring.

When the pandemic hit, I started thinking more tangibly about these ideas, asking myself what a truly people-centred hiring process would look like. While I’m sure they’re not perfect, and I’m confident that other folks who read this post might have pretty extreme disagreements with my ideas, I’m hopeful that I can put these out there, and ask other folks in charge of hiring to re-think their processes to become more compassionate and accessible.

For part one of this three-part series, I offer some of my ideas about handling applications in a people-centred way.

1) Accept and invite non-supervisor references.

Requiring applicants to provide only supervisor references can be a huge barrier for a lot of candidates who navigate job precariousness, homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism, sexism and other forms of violence in the workplace. The reality is that those who are impacted the most by discrimination in the workplace, hostile work environments, and workplace bullying aren’t often recognized by their supervisors in the way that they should be.

What’s more, is that for a lot of sectors, a supervisor isn’t always the person who has the best grasp on a candidate’s abilities and skills. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked a lot of jobs where my manager saw me for 10 minutes each shift, but my colleagues who were busting their butts with me were who really noticed my skills and could better speak to my work ethic.

When I started inviting people to share references from colleagues, peers and those who work alongside them, I was actively acknowledging the potential barriers that marginalized candidates might face in getting positive supervisory references, while also recognizing the value of references from those who might know them best.

2) Notify every applicant when the job has been filled.

I know what you’re thinking… “But I get hundreds of resumes each year! It’s just not realistic to contact everyone!” But listen, many of your candidates are applying to hundreds of jobs each year and are never hearing a word.

We all know what it’s like to be left on read or to be ghosted by a friend or potential partner, but we know it’s a terrible feeling, but we don’t seem to comprehend the soul-crushing feeling of never hearing from potential employers. The feeling of just sending out our resume into the abyss, never knowing if anybody ever sees it. After hundreds of applications to different potential employers, it can start to feel like “what is even the point?”

If you have time to review applications, you have time to create a spreadsheet with every email address that you can send a mass email to at the end of the hiring process letting them know that you’ve gone a different direction.

Since I’ve started notifying every applicant when the job has been filled, I’ve found that I am more likely to get strong candidates re-applying to future roles within the organizations I work with, and they’re more likely to get involved in our work, even if they don’t get the job. This is especially true when I’ve included information in a mass email about how to get involved in other ways, or how to stay up-to-date on the work we’re doing.

3) Be willing to meet and discuss unsuccessful applications.

Depending on the job and number of candidates, this might not be appropriate for every step but I’ve started to believe that it should become a part of every hiring process, at least for the candidates who get to the interview stage. For different roles, especially for non-profit organizations that serve specific communities, I’ve found it useful even for candidates at the initial stage of handling applications.

For me, this generally looks like including a sentence like: “Please reach out if you want to discuss your application and how you can improve it for a future role with our organization.” Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve only really had a handful of people take me up on it, but every time, it allows me to have a great conversation with a candidate who is passionately interested in working with the organization I’m with. It also shows me which candidates were really serious about wanting to work with us, and this can offer some insight into future roles. After all, if the candidate put this much effort in to trying to improve before they even get a job with us, I can only imagine how hard they’ll work to improve if they actually joined our team.

For candidates who were unsuccessful at the application stage, I simply offer a few pointers about what exactly I was looking for in a cover letter and resume. For candidates who were unsuccessful during the interview stage, I actually talk them through the interview, and let them know where they might’ve fell short. In each of these conversations, I reiterate multiple times that this feedback might only be useful when they’re applying for roles with our organization, when I’m doing the hiring, and remind them that I don’t speak for anyone else.

Of all the ideas I’ve started exploring about people-centred hiring, this is by far the most useful. Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve had more return applicants, especially the strongest applicants, and found myself working alongside people who are the more committed to the work than ever.

These are just some of the ideas that have taken shape for me over the past number of years as I’ve been trying to rethink the hiring process. Some of them might seem interesting to you, and some of them might feel totally far-fetched. Either way, I hope that everyone can take something from this conversation, and explore what a people-centred hiring process can look like in their organizations.

Do you have ideas for people-centred hiring? Send them my way! Let’s all work together for more inclusive, compassionate hiring processes.