Selling Utopia

Retention Rate > Interviewing Rate

It’s more important to ensure that the people you hire will stay than it is to get every great candidate through the door.

Interviewing is time-consuming. It takes time away from the most senior people in your department, and depending on how good your hiring process is (that’s another topic!), it can feel like 90% of the candidates aren’t worth interviewing. So it’s unsurprising that when you finally find a really great candidate, it can be sorely tempting to “sell the opportunity”, and paint your organisation in the best light possible.

The problem is, if there’s one thing that’s more expensive than interviewing, it’s having to interview again, because the people you hired are leaving again. It’s more important to ensure that the people you hire will stay than it is to get every great candidate through the door.

A Tale of Two Interviews

Two Software Engineers apply for Senior roles at a company. Both have similar levels of experience, enter the same environment, have largely the same onboarding, the same level of support, the same opportunities.

6 months later, one was happy. Challenges, but nothing unexpected. The other had handed in their notice stating that it wasn’t what they signed up for. Their reasons were completely valid - like all Engineering departments, there were problems that needed solving - but interestingly, they weren’t anything more serious than the other new starter was happy with.

So what was the difference?

Morale is a complicated thing with a huge number of factors; you could easily attribute this to prior experience. Maybe one of them left their previous job to avoid this exact set of problems, or maybe the one that stayed is happy because the place they left happened to be worse.

In this case, however, there is a key difference we can point at, which I know because I did both interviews.

One interview overwhelmingly positive. We talked about all the good things in the company - the people, the culture, the ambition of the business, the plans of the future. The candidate was visibly excited and couldn’t wait to get started. We had absolutely sold the opportunity with them; them accepting the offer wasn’t going to be a problem.

The other much less positive, however pragmatic. We talked about how there were great things about working there but it wasn’t some sort of tech utopia. There were frustrating challenges that needed to be addressed before we could get to the future we had planned, but we did have a plan for how to get there. The candidate wasn’t impatient to get started like the first one, but they were clearly positive, and commented on how it was refreshing to hear an organisation be honest about the challenges in an interview.

Which do you think stayed?

Expectation vs Reality

There’s no point in being anything but honest your organisation’s problems

The thing about high hopes is that anything that doesn’t live up to them is a disappointment. This is the core of a common mantra in Software delivery: “Under-promise, Over-deliver”.

Hiring is a fine balance. You absolutely want to extol the virtues of your organisation; any candidate worth hiring probably has options. If you undersell though, they’ll probably end up going somewhere else. There’s no point in being anything but honest your organisation’s problems, and if you talk about them, you can also talk about what you’re trying to do to fix them. Failing to talk about them prevents you from doing this, and can leave a new starter thinking that you’re not even aware of how bad it is.

Say it Straight, with a positive Spin

I don’t like the word spin. It has implications of trying to pretend a problem doesn’t exist by framing it in a different context. That said, framing the context is precisely what’s needed when explaining the problems at your organisation when hiring. Let’s say the majority of work your candidate is doing is on a legacy tech stack that’s being updated, but it’s slow going.

You could say:

“This job involves working with <legacy tech>. None of the Engineers like it and we never seem to get closer to the replacement.”

Or you could say:

“We’d be lying if we said that everything is a greenfield project on new tech. We’ve got a legacy stack that needs updating, but we’re having to balance that against customer commitments. It’s a bone of contention with the Engineers, and we’re working hard to find a compromise which gives us space to update.”

I don’t know about you, but if I heard the latter, I’d feel much more positive. I know what I’m walking into, but I have confidence that it won’t be forever; I can buy into the future because I’m prepared for the reality of the present.

Of course, you could say “We’re replacing our old stack with bleeding edge tech, and you’ll be part of the project to bring everything up to date!!!!!!”. Lots of companies do. Lots of companies are being economical with the truth to try and get you in the door. That’s the trap we fell into with the first interview; we were so keen to show the candidate how great our company was that we unwittingly oversold, and doomed them to be disappointed once they saw the reality of the situation.

In Short:

  • Your organisation has problems. Every org does. There’s no point in trying to hide them.
  • Don’t shy away from recognising your org’s problems in an interview.
  • Tell the truth, but frame off-putting realities with your plans to resolve them.
  • Don’t promise something to a candidate that you can’t live up to.

Do that, and you should have a much better chance of keeping the great people that you’ve hired!