Hacking Our Hiring: What You Can Do Right Now

A few improvements to your hiring process that you can take on ASAP


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.

The process we have outlined in this series is a lot to digest. We don’t expect wholesale adoption, even if the ideas resonate with news nerd teams. Many of us can’t reinvent the hiring practices at our companies. But we can still nudge it by sneaking these practices into colleagues’ heads.

Here are elements of the process that you could adopt today:

Recruit More Better

If you can’t do anything about the process, you can still influence the outcome. Encourage your ideal peers to apply and actively look for new job boards to post your team’s open position. Strive to talk to underrepresented groups about the role, and reach out to colleagues and peers to help find those groups. Encourage people who might not consider themselves “the perfect candidate” and think expansively about what underrepresented viewpoints means for your team.

In order to address homogeneity on teams, some news organizations or divisions have instituted a “Rooney Rule”: require your in-person interviewers have at least one candidate from an underrepresented perspective. See if your team would consider adopting a Rooney rule for your next open position.

Another thought is to ask for (optional!) demographic information within the application process. It’s worth asking if your organization’s HR or legal team would approve language within your application that allows applicants to optionally identify their race, ethnicity, gender identity or membership with an underrepresented group.

Take On the Interns or Fellows Process

If full-time hiring is driven by bigger forces, ask to lead an internship or fellowship process. We hope there will be room to introduce some of these ideas, like assessment rubrics (perhaps pitched as “we can collect team feedback more easily!”) or semi-scripted phone screens (pitch: “if we ask each candidate similar questions, it helps us evaluate them as a whole”).

Intern or fellowship hiring can often compress the types of applicants you get, making an rubric-guided assessment more powerful. You can more directly tailor it to specific needs, like guiding reviewers in how they translate academic projects into the types of tasks you expect our interns to do.

Leading an efficient and decision-oriented process for an intern or fellow is a great demonstration that hiring need not be set in stone. Improvements can help everyone involved feel better about their contribution.

Be the Change You Want to See in Your Segment

If your role in hiring is typically being asked to participate in one segment of an in-person interview and that’s it, we recommend you take the opportunity to develop your own plan for that hour. As an exercise, try setting up your own themes, script and assessment rubric. Some of those may not fit, but it’s helpful to know what exactly doesn’t and why.

If you can use your semi-script and assessment rubric for your piece of the interview, the gains are twofold: One, you will know you did a thoughtful assessment and treated each candidate evenly. Two, you can share your assessment results as killer feedback, if you have an open-ended feedback request at the end. Use your feedback request to demonstrate to your colleagues how a script/rubric helped you do your evaluation(s). It could grow into a chance to advocate for more of this process more broadly.

Always Be Upward Managing (A.B.U.M.?)

Upward managing bosses is a study in leveraging anxieties. Here we can use a time-honored tactic: pointing to your competitors! Right here in this series, you read about how two other newsroom teams are investing in better hiring practices and anti-bias efforts. We welcome you to use this series in this way.

Another good tactic is to rephrase things like rubrics as manager-oriented efficiencies, i.e. “Google Forms can help us gather feedback into one simple spreadsheet for you to read. I could take a pass at one the team can fill out after they finish their interview segments?”

Structuring scripts and incorporating themes may be a tougher sell. We recommend advocating for rubrics by starting with the anticipatory answers — a good answer, a medium answer and a poor answer. Demonstrating how they can help quantify candidate assessments is often immediately apparent.

You could reveal the underlying themes later, if people grow comfortable with the tools and efficiencies.

Take On Applicant Communication

Current applicants are future prospects. The first step to building a good pipeline of applicants is to treat applicants decently. Few people want to re-apply when they got an obvious form-letter rejection. Writing tailored and polite emails to applicants will help them feel appreciated and seen. You want to retain and cultivate great applicants for the next role.

We recommend creating templated emails for each step, something carrying these basic messages:

  1. (initial screening) Thank you for applying! We will be in touch once our hiring panel has reviewed your application materials. Two or more teammates will be reading your materials independently. You can expect to hear from us within X days/weeks.

  2. (short list) Thank you again for applying. Our hiring panel has reviewed your materials and we…

    1. Will not be moving forward with your application at this time. However, we would be happy to see you as an applicant in the future, when we have another open position that fits your interests. We wish you all the best.

    2. Would like to schedule time with you for a phone interview with one (or more) of our team members. We’d like to be able to chat within the next X days/weeks.

  3. (in-person interview) Thank you for the time you took to speak with us about the role and your background. Our hiring panel has discussed our phone interviews and we…

    1. Will not be moving forward with your application at this time. We think you have a strong background that aligns with what we do. We would love to see you apply for future positions with our team and we wish you all the best in the meantime.

    2. Would like to invite you to come interview in person, ideally within the next X days/weeks. Our interview format is [details]. [More details about figuring out a date/time.]

  4. (finalists) Thank you for all your time and effort in our in-person interview process. We have completed all our interviews and our hiring panel has made a decision. We…

    1. Will be making an offer to another finalist, and if it is accepted the position will be filled. We would like to keep your contact information, so we can let you know about any future positions we have. We hope one may be a perfect fit for your background and our hiring needs. We wish you all the best and thank you again for interviewing with us.

    2. Would like to make you an offer for the role. Our hiring manager will be in touch shortly to discuss the finer details of our offer. We hope it sounds like a good fit for you.

Share Links (Or, Rather, Don’t)

Should you share this series with other folks in your organization? Maybe! Or send them our SRCCON slide deck. But we encourage you not to wait around for things to change because someone important read this (very long!) series. Instead, press on making the changes within your reach.

Take Your Time

Introducing these topics to teams takes time, diplomacy, and persistence. We have to juggle a lot to truly reshape our hiring process. Even if we can adopt a new, tailored processes in full, we will need to iterate as we go. It is a long-term investment in the team’s future, after all.

Next in the Series

Our last installment looks at what local and smaller organizations can do with the best practices we’ve outlined.


  • 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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