Hacking Our Hiring: Why You Need to Plan Better

A compendium of wisdom and practical advice, to make hiring better for everyone

(Jordan Whitfield)

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. Details about hiring efforts within the data and news apps team at ProPublica are offered here as a contrast.

What about our hiring practices needs to be fixed? Just about everything! We know that putting thought and care into hiring pays off for everyone involved, with both immediate and longer-term improvements. But hiring is rarely listed as part of our official job duties, so it is easy to settle for a bare-minimum effort.

Can any of us say with total certainty that our current hiring efforts are consistent, considerate, and good at evaluating real skills tied to the work? Or do we miss some key things?

Do we routinely encourage a broad pool of applicants or do our biases play a role in hiring people too similar to ourselves?

We believe there is room for improvement in any existing hiring process. Starting with some small forward steps—or perhaps adopting a process overhaul—we can all make significant improvements in how our teams and news orgs hire. And we can have confidence in a process that is worthy of good applicants.

Reasons to Improve Our Hiring Practices (Some of Many)

There are many reasons why you may want to improve how your team hires new employees. Each item on this list could be its own article, in truth. And this is hardly an exhaustive list. But let us start with some big goals, then get into more specific and isolated tactics. At our organizations, we want to continually improve hiring because we want to…

  • Build a process worthy of good applicants. We want to find the best applicants for the job, so why treat them to an ad-hoc effort? Applicants are evaluating us as much as we are evaluating them. Thoughtful hiring is a strong signal to applicants about the professionalism and culture of our teams.

  • Help applicants feel valued throughout the hiring process. If we make our process more consistently considerate, applicants will feel more appreciated and informed, with more clarity about the role.

  • We want to increase equity across applicants during the hiring process. Providing a very similar process for each applicant means we build an even foundation for comparison and all applicants get an equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

  • We want to fight our biases, by recognizing we are all biased in some way. Humans often gravitate toward the familiar, particularly people from experiences and backgrounds similar to our own. This is a significant disadvantage for applicants who do not fit those narrow ideas, and it can lead to more homogeneity, myopia, and hubris in our work. Understanding our biases and counteracting them with training and tools is essential.

  • We want to learn more about what an applicant can bring to the role. No applicant wants to be assessed solely by their résumé’s bullet-point brevity. As hiring teams, we should want to include a lot more information in our decision making.

  • We want to build a predictable process for those helping with our hiring internally. Our colleagues don’t want to do a mediocre job when they participate in team hiring. If their involvement is more consistent, they will feel more invested and confident in our process.

  • We need to provide effective filtering, as we hone in on finalists. We’d love to avoid tough decisions, particularly when judging potential colleagues. A rigorous assessment process can increase our confidence in our decision-making. Effective filtering can also help hiring teams devote the majority of their time to the most qualified applicants.

  • We want to speed up hiring by making the process more efficient. If we implement and refine a process for hiring, we should see efficiencies next time we get to make a hire.

  • We want to lead our teams toward incremental improvements. Not all of this is going to stick on the first try. These recommendations take time to get working, and perhaps not all of them fit. But we hope to increase team investment by presenting any new “hacks” as an ongoing conversation about hiring, team-wide.

  • And much more! We could list more benefits that come with improving our hiring practices. This is broad strokes, but we hope these prompt you to consider your own team’s goals and needs.*

*Credit due: We are exceedingly indebted to colleagues, who helped pilot these processes at The New York Times and ProPublica, in addition to thoughtful companies who committed to public write-ups by their own employees. Many people—credited and uncredited—have helped cut this trail.

The time commitment for hiring well is significant—there’s no way to soft-pedal that fact. It requires a lot of work to organize and coordinate materials, emails, schedules and people. Much of that comes before we start looking at résumés or making decisions. But we have to be willing to make that investment.

Tactics and Tools We Use (and Recommend)

The most important tactics we use are the classics:

  • Organization
    We hope the days are done of a hiring manager pulling a resume out of a stack, or looking for a familiar name because the calendar requires a decision.

  • Thoughtful emails
    Effective reporting to your team is key, but thoughtful communication with applicants is perhaps more important for easing the tensions inherent in hiring cycles.

  • Planned, efficient meetings
    Run your hiring meetings with agendas! These meetings will often focus on buy-in and making hard decisions. They need to be planned so the pace of the process doesn’t wander off track.

  • Persistence, patience, diplomacy, and an open mind
    You may need to cajole, persuade, or otherwise work around assumptions that colleagues may bring to how they want to hire.

Some news orgs have contracts with third-party hiring software, so parts of your hiring may be dictated by that software, too. If so, we hope it works well for you; however, what we suggest here may be well beyond that software’s scope. (We recommend you go around it if you need to do so.)

Both The New York Times and ProPublica have third-party software involved in hiring But we also use no-frills tools in abundance. We use shared drives (cloud or networked) to collect applicant materials. When we want to survey our teams for their feedback about an applicant, we use Google Forms or an equivalent to make sure everyone has the identical prompts for feedback. Once we have feedback, we analyze and quantify it using spreadsheets or other data-analysis software. And we summarize the results in tables or charts, to help our hiring panel’s decision-making when it comes time to review.

Some of this may fit into your current process. But we also hope to provide you with new tactics or ideas you could adopt one at a time. (The New York Times’s 2018 Diversity and Inclusion Report just came out this week, and it’s worth a look to see how far we have yet to go.)

Next in the Series

Next week, we will go into greater detail about our hiring process, diving more specifically into the practices in use by the Interactive News team at The New York Times, as well as parts of The NYT’s broader Technology organization.



  • 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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