How NOT to Hire an Entirely Remote Workforce

Recently there was an article in the Harvard Business Review about how a particular company hired a 100% remote work force.

I highly recommend hiring a remote workforce. I have a lot of experience helping companies do so and even present talks on the subject. I wholeheartedly agree with the article’s author: there are incredible benefits to supporting a remote workforce.

That said, the Clevertech hiring process as set forth in the article is not only a bad way to interview for and hire remote workers, it’s a bad way to interview for and hire ANY workers. That such poor advice was provided in a publication as well-respected as the HBR is disappointing, to say the least.

From my nearly 20 years of experience in this industry, I cannot see anything in the Clevertech process which can lead to hiring and building more effective remote teams. I would not recommend these processes for any team, and especially not for those which are distributed by default. Instead, the processes set forth in the HBR article would lead to expanding the echo chamber of an organization and blocking the hiring of those with new and potentially challenging viewpoints.

This post will help to clarify why the Clevertech process is not one which companies should follow, either when hiring on-site or remote employees. It is a master-class in how not to run the hiring at your organization, unless, of course, you are looking to minimize the diversity within your company.

Let’s start where the article starts: the job description. The Clevertech approach is to make the job description as vague as possible in order to entice curious onlookers to ask for more information. The claim appears to be that this somehow attracts employees who will thrive in a telecommuting environment, though it’s not expressed how vagueness of job posting aids in this.

Making a job posting at all vague is arrogant and disrespectful to candidates. You, as a company, are starting your relationship with your potential employees by playing games when instead you should be respecting them as professionals and providing them the data required to make an informed decision.

For those who wish to telecommute, expressing clearly and unambiguously that the position allows it is usually enough enticement for them to continue reading, if not also to apply. Not providing additional details, however, is going to lead to a large number of unqualified applicants and a commensurately large amount of staff time spent filtering out and declining these applicants.

Wasting the time of staff and candidates is unfortunate, but it’s not as problematic as the exclusionary nature of a vague job posting. Studies show that women only apply for jobs if they feel they meet 100% of the requirements.

If no requirements are listed at all? It’s unlikely that many women will apply for the Clevertech positions. Vague job postings aren’t only exclusionary to women, but also to people of any gender expression who do not think exactly like everyone else in Clevertech. This leads to a lack of diversity of ideas as well as of genders.

The article then continues by extolling the virtues of a “Log in with Google” call to action. The reasoning provided is that “If someone doesn’t have a Google account and isn’t willing or able to set one up, that person probably isn’t advanced or flexible enough to work remotely and positively impact our company.”

Again, the article does not explain why the willingness to have a Google account is in any way generally advantageous for remote workers. Without a valid explanation of that, this particular data point is invalid as to the topic at hand: advising how best to hire telecommuting employees.

This is another example of how the Clevertech hiring process is exclusionist. There are a great many reasons why a person may not be willing to have an account on a particular service. For instance, I know many privacy advocates who have either avoided signing up for a Google account or who have closed the one(s) they had open.

If Clevertech is using the “Log in with Google” as a way to filter out people who will not use Google on principle, that’s their choice to make. However, stating that the reason for the requirement is that it leads to candidates who are better qualified to telecommute is both disingenuous and unproven. There is no correlation–let alone causation–between the two.

But that’s OK, because the article continues, “If candidates are put off by our unorthodox approach, we know immediately that they are not a good fit for our firm.”

In tech we are more and more often supplied proof that the phrase “not a good culture fit” is code (subconsciously, perhaps) for “not exactly like us” and a sign that a company may not support a diversity of thought or of hiring.

If I may be allowed for a moment to judge purely by appearances, Clevertech does, indeed, appear to fit into that camp. 94% of its work force is technical in nature (IT or development). 4.8% of its workforce is female. 0% of their technical workforce is female. Zero percent.

There is not enough data from this one article to show that hiring processes of this sort lead to a lack of gender diversity at Clevertech or any other company which uses them, but there is certainly enough data to cast suspicion upon such practices and processes.

Another arrow in Clevertech’s remote hiring quiver is a “badge” system, wherein the employees get to bequeath each other with points every month for embodying the company’s core values. Again, it’s unclear how this helps when hiring remote employees. It’s even more unclear how this helps within the company itself.

Just a tip, Clevertech: If you have a numbers-based gamification in your company, the engineers WILL game that system. When your organisation is 94% percent technical staff, either the system is already being gamed or the engineers don’t care enough about the system to bother gaming it. If 94% of your staff do not care about a policy, drop it and take the time to find a substantial method for appreciating the contributions people make to the company, its culture, and its values.

Clevertech’s interview process relies upon the candidates being willing to video themselves answering supplied questions. The reasoning behind this is that it shows the interviewers how the candidate reacts under pressure. If you’ve ever been in a software development department when there’s a crisis situation, you know that how one is able to perform on camera is nowhere near the top of necessary criteria for resolving the issue at hand.

All interview processes for all positions, remote or otherwise, should relate 100% to the position for which the person has applied. For a newscaster, performing on camera is a vital part of the job and therefore asking them to create a video is a valid part of the interview process. For an engineer or IT professional, it is not. Asking engineers to make videos to supply answers to questions is quite silly and a waste of everyone’s time. It will not provide much information which is relevant to the position and the problems it will face. It will, however, turn off candidates who are not extroverted, who are not comfortable in front of a camera, who are afraid of being discriminated against because they are older or are fat or are female or wear religious artefacts or are disabled or are not precisely like the rest of the team they had applied to join. Requiring candidates to send videos is a gating question. It allows the company to filter out those who are not like them. Who are not “a good culture fit.”

The article states that the video questions asked of the candidates help to filter out those who are “…put off by the intensity of the questions…” as well as to attract “…applicants who respect the high level of our questions…”. Setting aside for the moment that neither of the example questions provided were either intense or high level, it’s worth considering that these particular questions and the method in which they are presented and evaluated are not, again, optimized for the hiring of remote workers. What they ARE, in fact, is optimized for filtering out those candidates who are not 100% in sync with the existing opinions and norms of the organization. Once again, these are questions which lead to groupthink and a dangerous lack of diversity both of people and opinions.

As you can see, there are no hiring or interview tips raised in the article which are in any way connected with whether a candidate will be a good telecommuting employee. Instead, almost every tip is one which can lead to a lack of diversity of genders, backgrounds, and opinions in a company. A truly innovative company values these differing views and strives both to maximize them in their workforce and to leverage them for the flashes of brilliance which they bring to otherwise mundane situations. Hiring practices such as those expressed in this article are a bad business practice and bad for the bottom line. Please do not use them.

For resources on how to hire and work with remote teams, check out this curated list of resources.