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Recruiting in The Time of COVID-19

In a time of deep uncertainty, how should seed-stage founders change their recruiting practices? I held a session with four leading recruiters across the country on how to do remote interviews and convince candidates to take a leap amid a pandemic-induced recession. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

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Photo credit: Amtec

First off, are companies still hiring?

The last few months have brought upheaval to roadmaps and hiring plans slated for 2020. Growth plans turned into reduction in force overnight. With no clear path ahead, the assumption is that many companies would be more conservative with regards to bringing on new talent. Not so, according to our panelists.

Stacy Donovan Zapar, founder of The Talent Agency notes that “the tech industry is still hiring fast and furious. Yes, there are layoffs, but even companies that are going through reductions are still hiring. In an informal, unscientific survey that I did, 40 percent of companies were still hiring, 40 percent slowed down and 20 percent stopped.”

Matt Jones, partner at Harmer Consultants says that they’re “now seeing a 20 percent response rate to every message we sent on platforms like LinkedIn versus 15 percent before this, which is a huge bounce — up by about one-third.”

How can you hire in this market when candidates might be more risk averse to changing?

For the last 15 years, tech companies have been in an arms race, tripping over one another to compete for top talent. Conversations about an economic downturn and distributed workforces raise questions about the new war for talent. Will market rates be impacted? Will the perks matter? But most importantly, if companies are still hiring — are people open to shifting jobs right now?

Stacy encourages our founders to get ahead of the game. “Lead nurturing is where it’s at. We’re seeing responses almost across the board like “Thank you so much. But now is not the right time.” I would start identifying four, five or six priority roles for when the world comes back to some semblance of a new normal. You should start identifying that talent now, reaching out to them, and creating content that’s interesting to them.”

Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify gives the honest truth for startups: “It’s a hard sell to pull hires out of big companies into a startup right now, if the startup isn’t perceived to offset the risks of being a new company.”

How do you recruit remotely?

Companies were brutally thrust into operating remotely overnight. Every system and framework they had was put to the test. Most were agile enough to make it work for the short term, but we need to be very sober about remote recruiting for the long-term health of our companies. Lars has been investigating the distributed workforce for the last decade. At Unleash World last fall in Paris, he addressed a room full of 10,000 HR and Recruiting leaders, urging them to accept that the future of work is now. Remote work is here to stay and the companies not willing to evolve would be left in the past. But are we really ready for this? Can we assess and adopt new humans into our organizations without ever having met them in person?

Lars encourages founders and recruiters to consider their value proposition. When you’re recruiting remotely, you don’t have an office. You can’t have someone look out your skyline, see your amenities, or take them to a custom kombucha bar or what not.”

Stacy recommends that companies “should devote more time to allay concerns. Normal things that would get addressed by being in an office and would get picked up by candidates through osmosis are not going to be there. So don’t try to squeeze interviews into 30 minutes. You’re not going to give them enough information to make a decision.”

Ammon Bartram, founder of TripleByte, which is a database of more than 60,000 technically-assessed software engineers, gives advice for hiring engineers in a remote setting: “With technical interviews, you can screen share instead of whiteboard. You’ll be seeing them work at a level of comfort and accommodation that’s most closely to how they work. You’ll want to evaluate them in something that’s as close to their own environment as possible.”

Lars reminds us to maintain good interview etiquette to maintain a great candidate experience. “Have a good Zoom game. Don’t multitask. It just pulls away your attention. You need to be there for the applicant. Try very, very hard to take them as seriously as you can. Be really cognizant also of how you’re dealing with existing employees. Reputations can prosper or get crushed by how you treat your employees. Employees talk, so that affects morale and brand.”

Are layoff lists a good source of hires?

With several companies having done reductions in force over the last few months, layoff lists are flying across the internet in an effort to help impacted employees find new homes. Many founders want to know: Are these lists worth investigating?

Stacy notes that while there is likely good talent on these lists, they scoured. “You can reach out to candidates and then they go radio silent because they’re getting contacted by everybody. A better strategy is to look at peer companies. Their employees are probably also scared and uncertain. Or there’s also higher ROI if you focus on employees that are still at the companies.”

Use this time to improve on diversity and inclusion

Ammon adds that “starting with your own network does make sense. It’s easier to close your first few people by having a personal connection through your network.” He follows up with a cautionary point about taking advantage of this extra time to improve your diversity hiring metrics. “There’s an opportunity here to get a leg up on a really thorny problem. The enemy of diversity is often the pressure to hire quickly. There’s so much pressure to bring in software engineers. But now that the market is getting more liquid and many companies have decreased their hiring goals, companies are in a position to step back, go slower and build a more diverse workforce, which pays dividends. It’s much easier to maintain it going forward if you have it early.”

The conversation continued to cover additional topics: hiring freezes, talent attraction, employer branding, candidate experience, and sourcing. If you found these anecdotes helpful and would like to hear more, a recording of the panel has been posted here.