“Recruiting is about helping companies make hiring decisions with confidence and based on facts, not biases,” Jan Fiegel says. “Especially in fast-changing startups, structure matters.”
It may sound simple, but Jan believes that creating structure is a vital component of recruiting. Currently the Head of Talent at Sidewalk Labs, he speaks from over seven years of recruiting experience that spans three different countries.
A German native who studied in Switzerland, Jan found himself in Berlin in 2009, having just graduated at the height of the global recession with a degree in International Affairs. The jobs he’d envisioned for himself were nowhere to be found. Then he saw an ad of a company seeking a “Manager Of Tomorrow.”
“I said, ‘Great! Sign me up!’” Jan laughs. He didn’t quite know what he was getting into, but he needed a job. The interviews led to a job offer with a recruiting agency, where he began his career. After two years, he moved to his first startup, a mobile gaming company.
It would be the first of four tech startups he would join over the next four years; he would also move with his wife from Berlin to the UK and finally to New York in 2014. In New York he joined Oscar, the health insurance startup, to grow them from 100 to over 500 employees in less than two years. In September of 2016 he started at Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company focused on making cities better through technology, and built the recruiting function and a small team. At quickly growing startups, recruiting functions are often cobbled-together, making it challenging to make the necessary hires and thoughtfully grow a team.
The upside is there is ample opportunity to learn about recruiting. In smaller companies without a full-time recruiting function, those in office and people management are often tasked with certain recruiting responsibilities.
For those new to the practice of recruiting, Jan offered guidance for building the right foundation. While he doesn’t believe there is one way of doing things that fits all companies or individuals, his insights can provide guidance to anyone interested in pursuing a career in recruiting or in improving the recruiting process at their company.
It’s a process, treat it like one
“Recruiting is, in many ways, an operations function. There’s a very clear set of stages that candidates and companies move through,” said Jan. “It’s a process, so treat it like one. Get the [software] systems to support your work.”
Every day, Jan’s calendar is packed full of meetings with team members, networking calls, phone interviews, rejection calls, email time, in-person interviews, and metrics reviews. Reviewing his schedule, it becomes clear that being a recruiter is not all about flashy searches for executive candidates or the power trip of constantly determining the fate of interview hopefuls. A large component of the work is administrative steps that take a lot of time, but need to be done correctly to move forward.
Jan insists that an applicant tracking system is essential to managing his time and decreasing the energy he spends on churn activities. It eliminates a lot of unnecessary emailing and time making spreadsheets. He also recommends having an email productivity suite to more efficiently reach out to multiple candidates and schedule or confirm interviews, among other features.
Even if certain software and applications make the work easier, ultimately, you still need to have strong organizational skills and the ability to multitask. Still, Jan advises that anyone asked to to juggle multiple responsibilities and roles clearly communicate their workload and what they can manage well, or where corners have to be cut or timeframes re-evaluated.
Recruiting is a people business, so be human
By nature, there is an emotional imbalance in recruiting: for candidates, the process is typically more personal, because they open themselves up to evaluation. Jan stresses that it’s important to realize this and remember that efforts to communicate clearly and get back to candidates promptly can go a long way.
As with most jobs, you’ll have to do things that are uncomfortable. He emphasizes that it will be nerve-wracking to make your first rejection call informing a person they didn’t get the job, but the subsequent rejection calls will get easier. To grow as a recruiter, it’s important to embrace trial and error. Remember: even if you fumble a phone interview, or don’t set things up for an on-site interview in exactly the right way, strong candidates, more often than not, will still come through.
“I think the great thing about getting into recruiting is that most of the time it’s not a very high-risk endeavor. There’s room to experiment, as long as others realize you genuinely care. Stakes become higher once you get to the offer stage,” he says. “Yet again, if you’ve done your job well in terms of treating it as a human endeavor, you should have the personal connection and the knowledge to navigate this step successfully, too.”
Act thoughtfully and structure your interview process
When it comes to the interview itself, Jan is a strong advocate of structured interviewing to create a consistent experience for all candidates. Almost everyone has experienced an unstructured interview, where interviewers come in unprepared and ask generic questions as they scan a candidate’s resume. Typically, those interviews are conversational, with no discernible focus, linger on the candidate’s experiences, and end up with repetitive questions for the interviewee. This approach has been shown to lead to inaccurate evaluation, as “go with the flow” conversation undermines proper evaluation and allows biases to run rampant.
Structured interview processes, on the other hand, build on a clear articulation of the evaluation criteria. The process consistently assigns specific criteria and interview questions to different interviewers. For example, one interviewer might ask about a candidate's work and communication style, while another might ask about their experience with data analysis. Of course, each structured interview process must be tailored to suit the culture of the company and the needs of the role and hiring manager. Working within a predetermined structure drives greater objectivity, allows interviewers to get a sense for what “good” sounds like [across multiple candidates], and ensures that all candidates are asked the same types of questions, repeatedly assessing for the same qualities and skills.
If you want to implement a structured interview process, these are Jan’s steps:
- Define what success looks like for the role
- Identify the drivers of that success
- Choose the appropriate assessment method and interviewers
- Brief your interviewers
- Debrief and discuss feedback after the interview
Following these steps will help you make better hires more confidently, and will likely help you create a more diverse workplace: evaluating all candidates using the same, consistent standards is a key step towards eliminating bias.
Stay open to learning and serendipity
For people new to recruiting, there is a lot of reading and content out there to learn about the profession. Recruiting is a relatively young field that has absorbed practices from other fields, such as marketing, human resources, and sales. Jan encourages looking for inspiration from these fields and applying aspects of each in a meaningful way.
In recruiting, as in life, there should also be room for serendipity within the structure. Even though Jan describes his own mind as “German, structured, [obsessed with] process and engineering,” there is one major part of his life that he came upon by pure chance. Eleven-and-a-half years ago he was traveling in Guatemala and ended up on a bus where he met the American woman who is now his wife. Their relationship crossed continents for years while they both finished school and took different jobs. This put Jan on the path that ultimately led to recruiting and to Sidewalk Labs.
“It’s the one thing in my life that that, as a rational German, I cannot rationally explain,” says Jan, smiling. “It was only because I was behaving irrationally that morning that I ended up on that bus. I was lucky.”
Photography by Tavish Timothy