Have creative hiring processes gone too far?

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Earlier this week, there was a surprising backlash amongst the creative community to Monzo’s hiring process. In a fairly typical display of start-up grandstanding, the bank published a blog post outlining its lengthy approach to recruiting designers. The process, which includes a design challenge that can take days to complete and an accompanying in-person workshop, reflects a trend amongst start-ups and tech companies of setting practical tasks for potential employees beyond the more traditional interview procedures.

Monzo’s post sparked a healthy debate, with opinion divided between those who felt it was the best way for them to secure the most capable candidates, and those who felt it was a step too far. There’s no question that these companies are considered great places to work, and they’re right to take a thorough approach to recruiting for roles which are no doubt in very high demand. But such an elaborate set of requirements up front raises some interesting questions about recruitment at a time when everyone, including small independents, start-ups, Silicon Valley giants, and even governments, are competing for creative talent. 

At their most onerous, the interview processes for design- and technology-led companies can take months from start to finish (anecdotally, some of the highest-profile roles involve as many as eight rounds of interviews), and require a time and financial outlay that generally comes at the expense of the job-seeker. That’s a lot of dentist appointments. But, of course, the competition for such attractive jobs is immense. Most technology companies and loss-making start-ups are awash with cheap capital that allows them to offer above-market-rate salaries, alluring fringe benefits, and equity in the business. Often the roles accommodate remote working and flexibility, something that other creative businesses have struggled to implement.

So, bearing all that in mind, isn’t it reasonable that these businesses should want to take appropriate measures to secure the most elite candidates? Absolutely. And yet, there’s a compelling argument to be made that a task-based recruitment funnel isn’t necessarily better when it comes to hiring creative talent from diverse backgrounds.

Take, for example, Monzo’s preferred design challenge, which is “to design a companion app interface for an oven with no physical controls”. It’s an interesting task that requires the designer to anticipate the needs of a wide variety of potential real-world users. But, where this exercise is concerned, you can easily imagine how a swathe of otherwise capable candidates – such as those with family obligations, or health conditions, or fledgling designers with supplementary – might struggle to find the extra time and headspace to devote to such a work-intensive spec application. Right out of the gate, a process ostensibly designed to yield the best candidates might already have filtered out some crucial perspectives.

By structuring their hiring processes around one very specific way of working, tech companies arguably aren’t filtering for pure talent, but for privilege. When a company requires that applicants explain their design decisions to a panel of internal employees at an in-person “workshop”, they’re inadvertently tipping the scales in favour of designers who might feel more comfortable defending themselves in the crucible of such an environment, and because of existing power imbalances in the working world, that runs the risk of putting more diverse candidates at an instant disadvantage. These companies would likely argue that a candidate’s thought-process is as important as the work itself, but a group interview dynamic is hardly the purest way to understand a designer’s rationale. (And, anyway, shouldn’t the most elegant service design have a way of explaining itself? Isn’t that the whole point?)

The unconscious bias inherent in hiring methods like this might also help explain the criticism of homogenised branding and design work that’s been aimed at a lot of technology brands and start-ups in recent years. Everything looks the same, everything sounds the same, and this old Twitter gem about the two websites rings truer with every passing year. No doubt some tech companies, driven by an unwavering belief in the algorithm, will continue to optimise and automate everything, including the process of hiring creatives, but when it comes to recruitment bias, it’s yet to be seen whether technology like AI will be a cure or a cause. 

For most practitioner roles (designers, developers, etc), the traditional format for sharing experience and expertise has been the portfolio or showreel. But is that enough these days?  One obvious downside to the portfolio-centric way of recruiting has to do with work that’s been done in collaboration with a larger team, and it’s not unusual for candidates to include a project in their portfolio that they were only tangentially involved in. We’ve even had candidates present our work back to us with a straight face, even though we’ve never met them before. These are potential pitfalls but, at the end of the day, it’s the duty of the employer to engage an applicant in real, meaningful conversation and to make an instinctive decision as to whether the person they’re talking to is a good fit for the role rather than pass the burden of proof back onto the candidates. At some point, the financial weight of such an extensive interview process should probably also switch from the employee to the prospective employer. If there’s enough interest in the candidate to set practical tasks to demonstrate capability, then it seems fair that the company should also cover the cost of that time.

At Stink Studios, our aim has always been to draw on diverse backgrounds and experience when recruiting new members to the team. There’s always been a bizarre alchemy at play with our biggest successes, one that hinges more on the unexpected byproducts that stem from teams of truly different people trying to find new ways to solve different problems. That sort of spark is the kind of thing you can’t really plan for. Often it’s the configuration of how people in the team work together, rather than their individual way of working, that delivers the solution that nobody was expecting. Of course, our recruiting process is far from perfect – no matter how many different perspectives we have in the company, we’re never as diverse as we wish we were. But maybe a better way to frame a recruiting process is to start by wondering who you’re leaving out rather than who you’re letting in.

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