Hiring During COVID-19

Published: April 28, 2020
Estimated reading time: 6 min

So how the @#$ do you hire during a pandemic?

Considering that many organizations are facing a threat (or reality) of furloughs, layoffs, or hiring freezes, this is a fortunate problem to have. Still, even those of us who fancy ourselves virtual hiring aficionados are finding ourselves faced with unique challenges because of the added uncertainty of a global pandemic. We’re here to help!

Four things you should change

1. The job description

If you’re hiring for a role that needs to shift significantly, don’t throw your original job description out completely. Create an addendum that describes what the job responsibilities and activities will (likely) look like over the next few months (and during moments of increased physical distancing). Share what you know and what you don’t know about what the job will entail. Indicate the areas where the person may need to be flexible, resourceful, or innovative (and make sure to test for these qualities—more on this later).

2. Video interviews (and with that, adopting new technology)

This one may seem obvious but switch to videoconferencing if possible. The silver lining here is that your candidate may feel more at ease and act more like their natural self if they’re in the comfort of their environment. If you’re not already in the practice of using video conferencing software, get your interviewers together to learn the technology (don’t assume that folks already know). (Note: there’s a chance your candidate(s) may not be able to do videoconferencing—if that’s the case, be flexible!)

3. Your hiring team

None of us can reasonably expect 100% of our people to be working at 100% capacity in a time like this. Assume that you’ll have fewer people available to be helpers in the process and put together a skeleton crew to account for reduced workloads and hours. As best as you can, ensure that there is a diversity of experiences and perspectives represented on your hiring team.

4. Your expectations about timing and timeline

Assuming that you (and your candidates) will have reduced capacity, the process will take longer than you’d planned. Also, not everyone has an ideal remote work or interviewing set-up. Candidates may be working around other people’s schedules or caregiving responsibilities, so if you can, be flexible on timing. If you can’t, acknowledge upfront that circumstances may be tough and assure them that it’s okay. You could say, “I know you may not be in an ideal space to interview. There may be disruptions (on both of our ends) of children, partners, food delivery, or that horn honking while you’re taking the interview in your car. I get it, and it’s fine.”

…and one thing you absolutely shouldn’t skip

Bias mitigation practices

In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic—and the federal government’s response to it—is already having a disproportionately negative impact on people with disabilities, immigrants, poor people, unhoused people, incarcerated folks, Black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian American folks, and many more.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative to double-down on your practices that promote equity in your process. These include internal practices like:

On the candidate-facing side, this also means removing unnecessary roadblocks in applying or finding ways to make it easier for the candidate to prepare. Here are some ways you might do that:

  • Send instructions on how to use technology in advance. (Unless being familiar with/proficient at the technology is a must-have for the role, don’t assume that they will know how to use it.)
  • Share potential interview questions with your candidates.
  • For written exercises, lower the bar on “polish”—for example, instead of asking for a full-blown memo, ask candidates to share a bulleted list of key points a memo should include.
  • If possible, ask for work samples instead of (or in addition to) original work.

Plus, remember that extending grace and giving the benefit of the doubt helps mitigate bias. We already do this for people that we are biased in favor of. Being mindful of this for all candidates, especially during a time that is particularly challenging for marginalized communities, is a way to level the playing field.

The interview process

We generally recommend that you go through your standard process without condensing any steps. For us, that includes a phone screen, a written exercise, 2-3 video interviews (one of which was previously an in-person interview), and reference checks.

Two potential new must-haves to test for:

  1. If your organization isn’t a remote workplace during ordinary times, you’ll find yourself screening for a new skill: the ability to work remotely—which is really about self-management and initiative. Here are some questions you can ask to probe for this skill:
    • Tell me about a time you had to work independently without a lot of close direct supervision. What happened? What were some challenges you encountered?
    • What are your systems or strategies for managing a full workload and busy schedule? How do you stay on top of your tasks?
    • *Note that we do not recommend asking about (or even looking for) previous remote work experience—as with many skills, prior experience in this isn’t an indication of competency.
  2. During a pandemic, the ability to adapt and exercise resourcefulness is valuable. If you’re hiring for a role that is not typically done remotely (such as an organizer or major gifts officer), here are ways you can test for this skill:
    • Ask something like, “As you know, this role typically involves a lot of in-person interaction, which isn’t possible right now. As an organization, we’re finding ourselves shifting a lot of our traditional practices. Can you tell us about a time you had to be particularly adaptive, resourceful, or creative in achieving your goals because of challenging external circumstances?”
    • Give a 30-minute homework assignment: “Our goal is to get XX voter registrations by June 1. Normally, our tactics for achieving this goal include a lot of in-person outreach (campus recruitment, door-knocking, and street canvassing). Please share 3-5 alternative tactics you would employ given the current limitations of our context.”

What to communicate and prepare to field questions about:

  • Your timeline. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, so any certainty you can provide will be helpful. And, where you can’t say anything for sure, acknowledge it, even if it’s something like: “We’d ideally like to decide by mid- to late April, but we’re still not 100% sure when this role will start.” Go to our email templates for communicating with job candidates for some more sample language.
  • How the role will look during the pandemic and what might shift once things settle down. Be specific. Include what you don’t know (yet) and what the person in the role will have to figure out.
  • Your COVID-19 response. You should anticipate that candidates will want to know what measures you’ve taken (or are considering) to better support and lead your staff through this difficult time.
  • Your organizational finances. With growing anxiety about the economy, candidates are likely to wonder about their job security. Be prepared to talk about your organizational finances and how you’re preparing for a looming recession.

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