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.

Last week, we looked at part one, about handling applications. For part two of this three-part series, I offer some of my ideas about interviewing in a people-centred way.

1) Share interview questions before the interview.

Who decided that interview questions were some top secret document? Aside from the obvious rationale that providing written interview questions is more accessible for people who may excel best when they can read instead of hear, there are tons of reasons why this is one of my favourite inclusive interview practices.

When we’re interviewing candidates, we’re trying to get a good sense of their work and experience, their personality and interests, the things they’re passionate about, and whether or not they’d work well within the workplace culture in your organization. The reality is that many candidates aren’t going to be able to give you a good sense of any of those things if they’re too nervous or anxious about what’s coming next to formulate a thoughtful answer.

If we want our staff to be reflective, thoughtful, compassionate and well-prepared in their work, then why wouldn’t we offer them the opportunity to show us, in an interview, just how well they can perform when they have the ability to prepare. When you refuse to offer interview questions ahead of time, one of the biggest skills that you’re unknowingly evaluating is the person’s ability to think quickly on their feet. When we consider how marginalized people are already having to negotiate and assess, mid-interview, whether their interviewer’s perception of them is tied up with racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism or other types of violence, this can be an unfair way of evaluating candidates.

Anybody who tells me that they can’t share the questions ahead of time because it would cause a person to be able to “look up” the answer, or something similar, I remind them that we want employees to be looking up the answer when they don’t know something and not just doing improv at work. And besides, any critical answer that someone offers that they found in the past 24 hours should be easily identified by the interviewer… if it’s not, you need to write better questions.

Aside from all of these important points, sharing questions ahead of time also means that, during a global pandemic and an over-reliance on Zoom or WebEx, there are less issues

When it comes to offering questions ahead of time, you can always consider how far in advance you should send them. Depending on the job, I’ve sent questions everywhere from 24 hours before, to 15 minutes beforehand. For your workplace, this might look totally different, but at the very least, letting candidates know that the offer is there can be a good start to introduce some ideas for people-centred hiring when it comes to interviews.

2) Embrace the conversational interview.

The days of a stoic, “neutral”, cold interviewer should be long gone by now. As non-profit and community organizers, we know that the best way to get to know someone is to connect with them on a human level. Through a conversational interview, you can offer more context to candidates about different aspects of your work, and they’ll appreciate this! I find that by having a conversation with a candidate, often jumping off from a great point or idea they’ve put forward during an interview, I can get to know them better, and get a stronger idea of what kind of contributions they’ll bring forward to the organization.

Generally, I’ve embraced conversational interviews in two major ways. Firstly, as mentioned above, by simply diving deeper into something they’ve said, offering some context about how their point either does or doesn’t necessarily fit well with the work of the organization they’re interviewing with. The second way is by offering more context before I ask a question… if I’m going to ask a question about someone’s capacity with program evaluation, I might offer some information about why this is important to us, or the strategies we’ve used in the past to be successful.

All of this helps the candidate frame their responses in ways that they think are the most relevant, meaning that I’ll get a better understanding of how this candidate thinks and they’ll get a better understanding of the kind of organization they might be about to walk into.

3) Don’t count long silences or deferring questions.

The stress associated with silences can be absolutely terrifying in the midst of an anxiety-provoking interview. While the obvious reasons for not penalizing a candidate for taking some time to answer a question can be chalked up as just being blatantly ableist, I’ve also found that penalizing (or even giving the impression that you’re penalizing) candidates for taking too long to respond or not be able to skip and come back to questions causes candidates to rush and then not be able to answer questions to the best of their ability.

When you let a candidate know that they can return to question later, or don’t have to rush through questions, and that taking a few minutes to collect their thoughts or figure out how they’ll word a response is totally okay and won’t impact their performance, it also means that you’re giving them the opportunity to show you if they think before they speak. In non-profit work (and in so many other sectors!), putting our foot in our mouth can be what significantly damages a relationship with an important donor or client, can be what causes a major PR problem, or worse, can be what causes some legal trouble.

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.