The day after I was laid off from HuffPost in March 2021, I was lucky enough to have many people reach out with condolences and potential opportunities. Friends and former colleagues sent me introductions and job postings, and I spoke with leaders, hiring managers and recruiters at many exciting workplaces of all shapes and sizes.
The good news was that many people seemed to be looking for some of my skills and experience. But most weren't paying near my previous compensation or wanted to talk about roles at levels below even my last three jobs. Some were too narrow in scope or too much of a leap outside journalism. When I reached out about some that seemed a potential fit, they often already had internal candidates in mind, it was too late, or the opportunities were still theoretical, with postings months or possibly even years away.
After 14 frustrating months, I received multiple offers in one week, and I started a new job as the executive editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.
But before I got the great news, just a few weeks ago, I’d decided to stop applying for anything new and focus on building my consulting practice. I reached out to six talented job hunters in journalism to find out what the hiring process has been like for them. I heard many similar complaints. From those experiences (and my own) on the job seeker side of the recruitment equation, I’ve learned some critical lessons that I hope to put into practice when I next have a chance to hire.
First, set clear, upfront expectations about the process and timeline. One candidate, who was solo parenting and consulting while her partner was away for a few months, had minimal time to spend job-hunting every day. She’d often bookmark a role and return to it when she had time to apply, only to find the employer was no longer accepting applications.
Adding a deadline to the job description (which can always be extended) can help busy candidates plan their applications. Even better: Consider offering candidates some flexibility to accommodate their schedules.
Several candidates described the hiring process to me as “opaque” or even “mysterious” and said they’d appreciate more upfront transparency and more communication along the way. Remember that many candidates will be in multiple hiring processes simultaneously and might be juggling work and other obligations.
My interviews for one prospective employer were rescheduled 12 times, including during times when I’d said I wasn’t available (and twice for 6 a.m. my time). In contrast, one exceptional recruiting team let me know, two weeks in advance, which dates I should try to keep free in case I made it to the next round. Another gave me questions several days before my panel interview and actually stuck to those questions, making preparation a breeze. I felt those potential employers respected my time.
Communicate with all the candidates you interview. Everyone I spoke with had examples of being asked to apply for a job or being interviewed, then never hearing back from a human — or, in some cases, never hearing back at all. For example, one senior manager-level candidate described looking into approximately 100 jobs over the last year, applying for 30 to 40, and interviewing for 12. In most of these cases, he never heard from anyone again.
“The ones that hurt the most were where I knew someone there who put in a good word or interviewed me; then I got an automated note from HR instead of hearing directly from anyone," he said. "There’s no learning, no feedback to understand the flaw in your candidacy or to know what I’m doing wrong or should do differently. You feel like you get nothing.”
His experiences left him considering switching industries, a sentiment shared by two of the other candidates I interviewed.
To increase diversity, consider candidates with transferable skills from other industries. One candidate felt the process, especially the recruiter screening calls, was full of opportunities for unconscious bias. She felt constrained by her media background because she only got callbacks for roles very similar to those she had already done, even if she had all the qualifications and skills listed in other job descriptions.
It's wise for employers who want to attract diverse candidate pools to reduce the requirements to get more applicants. But if they’re unwilling to consider candidates that actually meet those requirements, this feels disingenuous and a waste of time.
While looking for a candidate that has already done the same exact role for a competitor might seem most straightforward — you already know the person can do the job and won't need much onboarding time to learn the new position — hiring from the same small pool can reduce diversity and innovation. This practice may also exclude more ambitious people who want to continue developing and progressing instead of just doing the same thing at another company.
Be aware of the amount of unpaid work you’re requesting, and offer to pay for time-consuming work beyond the usual interviews or short tests. Nearly everyone I interviewed, and many former colleagues I’ve kept in touch with socially, complained about the unpaid labor expected in many journalism hiring processes.
Expecting candidates to take on a big-picture strategic task without any of the context needed to make those decisions “feels like a very outdated way of assessing someone,” said one media executive who started his career in recruiting.
In addition to seven interviews, one senior editor told me she was asked to take an editing test, pitch an investigative project (which required reporting and took her a week to put together), edit a story and give the reporter feedback. She began asking for payment whenever she was asked to complete tasks that would take more than a day. Not every hiring manager agreed, but one paid her $1,000 for her work.
The Avarna Group, a consulting agency focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, recommends keeping unpaid work to three hours or less in its free toolkit, which has valuable tips for equitable and inclusive hiring. Asking for excessive work can limit your candidate pool, excluding people who can’t afford to spend that time in the hope of being hired. It can also generate resentment or a negative perception of your workplace.
I hope these tips might help employers who want to create a more inclusive and accessible recruitment process. Amid the Great Resignation and a push for diversity, equity and inclusion in recruiting, I believe the hiring process needs some new ideas.
How can we collectively rethink and improve this process? I’d love to hear your experiences and advice — as a job seeker, employer or recruiter.
Jennifer Kho has recently taken a new position as the executive editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. She also serves as president of the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and an adviser for the Bay City News Foundation and The Pivot Fund. Kho was previously the senior director of strategic innovation at HuffPost, where she led the development of new audience engagement, storytelling and revenue models, including membership; managing editor at HuffPost; managing editor at the Guardian US; and founding editor of Greentech Media.
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