Hacking Our Hiring: Fair & Useful In-Person Interviews

Everything we’ve learned about in-person interviews, including planning and communicating

(WOCinTech Chat)

This article is adapted from a presentation given by Tiff Fehr and Ryann Grochowski Jones at SRCCON 2018. The version you’re reading features greater detail about hiring efforts within The New York Times’ Interactive News Team, specifically, but offers information on ProPublica’s processes for comparison. You’re about to read part 5 of this series. Here’s the full series so far.

In-person interviewing doubles down on everything we have been talking about so far. Let’s say our hypothetical phone screening and/or take-home test helps us narrow our candidates down to four amazing finalists. We want to meet these finalists in person and learn greater details about their aptitude for problem solving, follow through, collaboration, empathy, etc.

Remember: through our hiring process, we want to judge what an applicant knows, what an applicant can do, and how an applicant works. For in-person interviewing, we should focus on how they work. (We should be familiar with what they know and what they can do by now. If not, perhaps they shouldn’t be a finalist.)

We recommend interview segments, instead of one long conversation. For each segment, we recommend semi-scripted questions and assessment rubrics tailored to that segment. Ideally, each segment and its feedback should come together into a holistic picture of each finalist.

Of course, we can’t be robotic towards our finalists. In-person interviews are more casual and conversational by nature. This is why we say they’re semi-scripted. Each segment (30- or 60-minute blocks, or whatever fits) should center on our themes so that even if our colleagues go off-script, we’re still in the right neighborhood.

Planning Interview Segments

Planning an interview segment is important among a hiring panel’s activities. Panelists will participate in interviewing, in addition to our teammates, colleagues and perhaps some select bosses. As panelists, we need to be clear about what our interviewers are covering during their segment. And our interviewers should know that our efforts toward providing a theme or semi-script are meant to help them complete a valuable assessment at the end.

Contact us at source@opennews.org for a text copy of this table

Sample interview segments, with themes and graded responses.

It’s hard to write potential answers for open-ended conversations, so instead we recommend describing the tenor of the conversation.

Let’s return to our initial screening rubric again. Consider how you might make this fit into a one-hour, activity-oriented interview segment.

Contact us at source@opennews.org for a text copy of this table

Sample interviewing rubric.

With this assessment, we can collect quantified data and qualitative notes about each segment. Together they provide a holistic picture.

And remember: ask interviewers if they think the team should keep going with a given candidate. This helps us look beyond the numbers in the rubric.

Assessing In-Person Interviewing

Our assessment of our finalists after in-person interviewing is again a lot like our previous steps. But after this step, the hiring panel decides who they recommend for making an offer. This is not an easy decision, particularly if no one finalist has emerged above the others.

We have little guidance about how to make tough decisions between extremely similar candidates, except to rely on all the data and feedback we have collected so far. Read backward into the previous steps if it helps. Make sure particularly strong freeform entries (qualitative data) are considered. Talk openly about what the finalists said that tracked to the themes. Check references, re-read application materials, etc.

Then it’s finally time to make a decision, even if there are multiple rounds of approvals and boss-vetting yet to go.

Once we have selected our finalist, communication with our other finalists becomes more challenging. We want to keep options on the table, in case our top finalist does not accept the offer. But we can’t let it drag out for finalists unlikely to be picked.

We recommend asking yourselves whether you would want to hire your 3rd- or 4th-place finalists, if those ranked ahead of them fell through. If you wouldn’t want to hire them even if your top picks vanish, it’s time to politely let 3rd- or 4th-place candidates go.

Communicating with Finalists Who Don’t Make the Cut

Finalists who will not be progressing further should then get a nice note informing them that they’re out of contention. Encourage them to keep an eye on the team and set the expectation that we’ll reach out if another position becomes available.

What happens if all the finalists don’t work out? That’s possible and perhaps the worst possible outcome after so much time and effort all around. We could go back to the short list of everyone who got phone screens…but they didn’t make the cut for a reason.

In this case, we recommend starting over entirely. Hopefully we have also come to some tough realizations about the initial role or types of skills we’re seeking during our hiring process. Take a break, consider making more recruiting efforts, and start it back up again.

Next in the Series

Next we will look at what “hacks” you can extract from all this, with an eye to picking up pieces if you have significant obstacles to changing your broader hiring practices.


  • Tiff Fehr

    Tiff Fehr is an assistant editor and lead developer on the Interactive News desk at The New York Times. Previously she worked at msnbc.com (now NBCNews.com) and various Seattle-area mediocre startups.


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