Can you hire someone without meeting them?

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Today we can do so many things remotely. We can do our grocery shopping from the couch, we can pay bills or buy tickets without lining up, and we can see what our dogs are doing in the backyard from our phones. We even know when our ride will arrive without needing to speak to anyone. We owe that to technology, which has made our lives so much more convenient.

“Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards.”

Fred Hoyle

Technology is not a substitute for everything though. Sometimes, our practical objectives can be achieved with higher speed but the intangible, human touch is missing. Just like the sensation of a scented candle can’t be experienced remotely, body language may be harder to read, and rapport can be more challenging to generate. A handshake or an embrace is not possible.

The hiring process is a negotiation to form a partnership. Technically, that partnership is between a business and an employee. But in reality, it is a partnership between human beings who need to work together and achieve common goals.

Does that mean that you have to meet each candidate in person before hiring them? Not necessarily. But you do need a plan for overcoming the challenges that the physical distance can create.

It can be hard to remain human with online recruitment. But the technology exists to support the experience.

It’s common to distinguish between skills and behaviors, sometimes referred to as hard skills and soft skills, or, to quote Seth Godin“functional skills” and “real skills”. Thinking of hiring in this way can help break down the assessment into targeted components.

Let’s apply this approach to online recruiting. Here is a simple, four-step process that won’t let you down.

  1. Separating the substantive and human touch components
  2. Substantive assessment
  3. Human touch
  4. Reference checks

Step 1: Separating the Substantive and Human Touch Components

It’s good practice to always start with the job description and align the hiring process to the daily activities that will be performed in the role.

First, make a shortlist of all the things you’d like to assess. Next, split out the things that you think fall into the “human touch” category. These are things you would typically gauge when you’re in the same room as someone, such as chemistry, warmth, or even communication style.

Try to resist the temptation to label every so-called soft skill as “human touch”. For example, things like grit, motivation, or teamwork are very substantive and can be assessed online. The way to think about the “human touch” category is to focus on the things you might pick up in the first 30 seconds of meeting someone. It’s the first impression.

Let’s call everything else “substantive.”

Step 2: Substantive Assessment

Use performance-based hiring methods to assess all the “substantive” skills and behaviors you identified. That includes “functional skills” and “real skills.”

Everything will be online due to the distance. You could conduct two-way, live interviews, that require you to participate in each interview. That could be done over Zoom or Hangouts.

But if you want to save a lot of time, you can conduct automated interviews.

These are one-way, on-demand interviews, so you will only have to spend time viewing the responses. Automated interviews will help you simulate tasks that are typically done on the job. Each candidate will answer an identical set of questions so there won’t be any interviewer bias. Writing an expert interview script is key to success here.

This part of the hiring process should be highly structured. In the end, you will know two things about your candidates: what they can do and how they approach their work.

You’re nearly there.

Step 3: Human Touch 

Start with a pre-recorded video to get a sense of how the candidate speaks, smiles, and makes eye contact. There are no right answers here, just intuition.

Timed interview questions that simulate real-world customer scenarios are great in the “substantive” part of the assessment, but not here.

What we’re looking for here is a relaxed environment, not a pressure cooker. Ask candidates to speak about the last project they worked on, about their favorite hobby, or about something they really enjoy doing. The answers don’t matter. It’s about connecting on a human level.

End with a live video discussion. Keep it informal. You’re only talking to people who you know can do the job well at this stage. The focus should be on assessing fit and validating everything you learned so far.

Arranging for several people from your team to speak with the top couple of candidates by phone or video is always an option.

Step 4: Reference Checks 

Given the remoteness, reference checks are an essential component of the hiring process, and they should be used wisely.

Notwithstanding any video recordings you watch and live video discussions you conduct, you still haven’t met your preferred candidate in person. That’s nothing to fear, but speaking to someone who has worked directly with the person you’re about to hire will add a lot of value. It will help you fill in any remaining gaps.

The focus of the reference checks should be on how the candidate interacts with others. Here some of the questions you could ask the referee:

  • When did you see the candidate out of her comfort zone?
  • What kind of personality type does the candidate not get along with?
  • What kind of management style would the candidate not respond well to?
  • Describe the candidate when he is having a bad day.
  • What does it take to get the candidate off balance?
  • When the candidate is at his best, what stands out the most?
  • If the candidate works on a project with two other peers, will she take the lead?

For more on how to conduct thorough reference checks, read Who: The A Method for Hiring by ghSMART.

Keep It Simple

By breaking down the hiring process into different assessment components, and being a little bit creative, you can find sensible alternatives to traditional methods.

The process I described is very much an automated online hiring process, but with a small twist. The face to face discussion that usually takes place with the top two or three candidates is replaced with a few alternate steps. These steps are designed to substitute, as much as possible, the things you would pick up instinctively when meeting people in-person.

With today’s technology, being in the same room, or even the same city, isn’t essential. An automated online recruitment process can overcome the tyranny of distance and save a lot of valuable time.

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