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First Impressions Count When Hiring Agile Talent

13 September 2016

by: Gez Smith

As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

It’s true of people, and it’s also true of organisations. When hiring agile talent for your organisation, have you ever stopped to think that your hiring process might be the first impression your future employees get about your organisation, and how that might be setting the tone for their entire time with you? 

There are lots of different ways your hiring process could be giving the impression that your organisation isn’t a happy place for agile practitioners, or isn’t somewhere agile is expected to thrive. Let’s look at a few of them, and how you could stop them happening. 


The first thing is of course the advertisement for the job itself.

This is pretty easy to get right, just get someone internal who understands agile to write it, but it’s surprising how often organisations get it wrong. As some quick checks, make sure you’re spelling things right (it’s Scrum, not SCRUM), aren’t calling agile a process, and aren’t asking for irrelevant certifications like PRINCE2. In the Agile For Recruiters surveys I’ve been running, agile practitioners say that badly written job ads are often their way of spotting which organisations not to apply to. 

Assuming you get the job ad right though, what if the first round of the hiring process is some screening questions?

Many large organisations use these, and they seem like a tempting way to sift and filter large volumes of applications. However, one of the four key elements of the agile manifesto says we value ‘Individuals and interactions over processes and tools’. Filter a candidate in or out on the basis of an automated test before they’ve even spoken to anyone, and you’re strongly suggesting your organisation doesn’t get this part of the manifesto. Besides, anyone with half a mind can game these tests pretty easily. They don’t add value, and they shout that you don’t get agile. Personally, I wouldn’t use them. 

The same goes for CV scoring software. Not everyone knows about this at the moment, but there are programs out there that scan CVs for keywords and score them on the candidate’s suitability for the job. I can’t think of anything much less agile than these systems, or anything much more ridiculous. They just turn job applications into tests of candidate’s ability to get the right keyword densities in their CVs. The candidate may even have outsourced this task to one of the many companies that you can pay to get your keyword densities right. These systems really are a terrible idea in agile hiring. 

Say you don’t have those tests though, don’t use CV scoring software, and applications are all read and screened by real people, who then draw up a shortlist of candidates to interview face to face. Great stuff. However, what if that interview is then completely formulaic? One where the interviewer is given a fixed set of questions they have to ask, drawn from a pre-approved question bank, and candidates have to ‘give an example of a time when they have…’, in order to be scored out of five on each answer. Again, you’re valuing processes and tools over individuals and interactions. Not to say each interview should just be a freestyle random chat about just anything, but it’s not difficult to create a fair and equal interview for each candidate that’s based around human conversation rather than reading out a written exam. 

Say you get through all of this though. You don’t filter with screening questions, you let real people draw up shortlists, and you run human interviews face-to-face. Great stuff, but there’s still one big thing that could ruin the fantastic first impression you’ve been giving; your reference checking process. 

Principle five of the agile manifesto says “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”. 

Yet nothing says ‘I don’t trust you’ like a reference checking process. 

Of course, there’s a problem here. On the on hand, taking references is all about a lack of trust, otherwise you’d just take at face value what a candidate has written on their CV and said at interview. On the other hand, it’s a process that probably does still need to exist. If no-one ever checked any references, I’d be CEO of Apple by now, at least. So how do you square this circle?

Well one simple way to do it is to make the referencing process as simple as it can be. If you insist on checking every single detail a candidate has put on their CV, wanting certificates from every online training course they’ve done, or demanding a reference from every unpaid voluntary role they’ve ever done, no matter how short, then you’re screaming that your organisation isn’t built on trust. Perhaps just check the references that matter, and only ask to see the more significant certificates, like their degree.

A truly agile organisation could go further than this though. Agile people love feedback.

We also use a style of leadership called servant leadership, and one of the ten principles of that is empathy. So how about you turn the reference checking into an explicit session of feedback and empathy?

Rather than contacting previous employers just to check the facts of what a candidate has said, use it as an opportunity to gather some feedback for the candidate too. You’d need to agree it with the candidate first of course, but if you did, you’d be demonstrating clearly that you hold true to agile values such as transparency and collaboration, working with the candidate right from the start to help their personal growth. 

On top of this, another element of empathy is understanding the experiences that have shaped the people you’re working with.

So perhaps you could use the reference checking process to get a sense of the organisation or organisations the candidate has been working for previously. So you wouldn’t just be finding out about the candidate, you’d be finding out about their previous employers too. Getting a sense of the experiences and environments that have shaped the candidate will really help build empathy with them once they join your organisation. 

On top of this, doing both of these things gets round another big problem reference checking can cause. Sometimes you come out of a final round interview all pumped up after a great conversation about an exciting role with some people you love to work with. They offer you the role, and then you have to stop talking to the people whilst the references are checked and you find out if you will actually be working with each other. Using the reference process to build empathy and help the candidate grow gives you two excellent reasons to keep those conversations going, meaning that once the candidate does start, the conversation and collaboration is already open and strong. 

Great agile talent doesn’t grow on trees. 

In many sectors it’s a seller’s market right now, with the great candidates holding most of the cards. Organisations that work hard to give the right first impressions to candidates, and demonstrate that theirs are workplaces where the agile values are lived and breathed every day, are far more likely to attract the best talent and so succeed with agile. Your hiring process is a huge part of your first impression. Have a think about what it’s really saying…

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