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Job Auditions: Secret to Successful Hires?

By Matt Mullenweg, Founder, Automattic.

Hiring potential employees on a trial basis can help you quickly discover things about them that you can’t learn from resumes, interviews or reference checks. Here’s how it works in our organization.

Automattic (the fuel behind WordPress.com) employs more than 225 people who live all over the world, in 190 different cities. Our headquarters office is in San Francisco, and it operates similar to a coworking space. Employees who live in the Bay Area can choose to work from that location if they wish. However, most of our employees choose to work from other sites.

For us, this arrangement makes sense — our business is based on open source software, which is a decentralized product. However, outsiders have been skeptical as we’ve moved forward with our distributed work model.

At the outset they said, “That works great when you have 10 or 15 employees, but when you reach a team of 30, it falls apart.” Eventually we passed 30 employees, and we started hearing that the magic number is 100. Then people said Dunbar’s number — 150 — would be the point at which it didn’t work. Yet we keep blowing past these thresholds. We hired more than 100 people in 2013.

What’s special about us? We don’t hire the way most companies do — both in our mindset and our actions.

Mindset: We Think Differently About Work

In many businesses, if someone shows up in the morning and he isn’t drunk, he doesn’t sleep at his desk and he’s dressed nicely, it’s assumed that he’s working. But none of that takes into account what he’s actually creating during the day — and that’s really what matters.

Many people create great things without having to follow established workplace norms. Our organization measures work based on outputs. I don’t care what hours you work. I don’t care if you sleep late, or if you pick a child up from school in the afternoon. It’s all about what you produce.

This arrangement isn’t for everyone. But a lot of people like the autonomy we offer, and that’s important. So we’ve arrived at an unorthodox hiring system that serves our needs perfectly.

Behavior: We Hire by Audition

Before we hire anyone, they go through a trial process first, on contract. They can do the work at night or over the weekend, so they don’t have to leave their current job in the meantime. We pay a standard rate of $25 an hour, regardless of whether a job candidate wants to be an engineer or the chief financial officer.

During the trials, applicants perform actual work. If you’re applying to work in customer support, you’ll answer trouble tickets. If you’re an engineer, you’ll address engineering problems. If you’re a designer, you’ll design.

Seeing Is Believing

There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone — working with them day by day. It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews or reference checks.

At the end of the trial, everyone involved has a great sense of whether they want to work together going forward. And, yes, that means everyone — it’s a mutual tryout. Some candidates decide we’re not the right fit for them. For others, the experience solidifies their commitment.

The Payoffs of Careful Hiring

Overall, we end up hiring about 40% of the people who try out with us. It’s a huge time commitment — coordinating the short-term work our applicants perform — but it leads to extremely low turnover. In the past eight years, only about 10 people have left the company, and we’ve let go of another 25 or 30. Those are great numbers in today’s work environment, so it’s a system we plan to keep utilizing.

Today, I spend at least a third of my time on hiring. And even though it’s a small part of our process, I still look at every resume the company receives, and I conduct the final interview with everyone who joins us.

It’s worth the effort. Nothing has the impact of putting the right people around the table. The aphorism is true: You can’t manage your way out of a bad team. We’ve done experiments to find the best way to hire based on our unique organizational structure. I encourage your business to do the same.

252691_10150856254811651_681132284_n(About the Author: Matt Mullenweg is the founder of Automattic, the company behind the open-source blogging platform, WordPress.com, as well as Akismet, Gravatar, VaultPress, IntenseDebate, Polldaddy and more. Additionally, Matt is a principal and founder of Audrey Capital, an investment and research company. Connect with him on Facebook or on Twitter.

(Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from a post at Brazen Life, with permission. It is based on a talk by the author at the December 2013 Lean Startup Conference. It originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. For more information, visit the Insight Center on Talent and the New World of Hiring. Brazen Life is a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. Hosted by Brazen Careerist, it offers edgy and fun ideas for navigating the changing world of work. Be Brazen!)

(Also Note: To discuss World of Work topics like this with the TalentCulture community, join our online #TChat Events each Wednesday, from 6:30-8pm ET. Everyone is welcome at events, or join our ongoing Twitter and G+ conversation anytime. Learn more…)

Image Credits: Wikipedia (feature) and Kevin Abosch (author)

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