Cut & Polish

A Talk with Gem’s Recruiting Team

This week, we chatted with some members of Gem's team to talk about recruitment during COVID-19. Here are some insights from that conversation.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve had a lot of conversations with recruiters about what they’ve had to shift, or let go of, or reimagine, during this time. Our team is doing some of that same shifting-and-reimagining at Gem; and we’ve been documenting and writing about it to keep our customers informed. (Transparency is one of our four company values, after all). But we’ve also been writing about it as a way of offering the best practices we’re uncovering to recruiters who might be looking for ideas about how to move forward. In late April, we gave you a view of what remote onboarding now looks like at Gem; and last week, our Head of People, Caroline Stevenson, talked about what our recruitment team has turned its attention to in light of COVID.

To be clear, we don’t have all the answers either; but we’re researching and experimenting and having as many conversations as possible—with stakeholders, with industry leaders, and amongst ourselves.

This week, we chatted with some members of our recruitment team—Georgena Frazier (GG), Diana Ogbevire, Viet Nguyen, Ian van Dijk, and Donald James (DJ)—to dig a little more deeply into the details of what they’re working on as hiring slows, how they’re crafting outreach, what reply rates look like, how they see this pandemic affecting recruitment as a whole, and more. Here are some insights from that conversation:

We’re still hiring at Gem; but we’ve put some roles on pause. What are you working on in the meantime? Where’s your energy going right now?

Georgena: My energy is always focused on thinking about ways to improve the magnificent work Gem has done on diversity of inclusion. Currently, I’m working on nurturing candidates—developing and maintaining relationships with them so when hiring does pick up again, I’ve got folks who’ve already been considering coming to work with us. This work cuts down on time to hire and gives me more time to recruit diverse candidates.

Every week I’m thinking, okay, of the roles I have on pause right now, which one is most likely to open up the soonest, and how can I diversify my pipeline? That’s where I focus my nurture strategy that week. If I think that role may be in sales and we’ve recently published a blog post about how a sales leader is using Gem, that’s something I can send to the SDRs or AEs I’m nurturing to get them interested in the product and company.I’m really motivated to get to a lot of other projects kicked off right now. Taking this time to think about hosting online events that help those affected by COVID. Social media and our online presence for recruiting passive candidates. This has been a great time to think about talent branding.

Diana: I’d second GG on diversity. That’s a big one for me always, but especially right now. These paused hires are a great opportunity to increase our pipeline of diverse candidates. I’m currently dedicating my time to actively looking for URM candidates to be a part of our AE pipeline. That way when it’s time to ramp up, we’ve got a lot of candidates in the pipeline, and we can continue to uphold diversity as one of our core values in hiring.

What’s changed about your outreach to talent during this time?

Diana: That's a huge one. Are we being as sensitive as possible to others at this time? How do we reach out and say “hey, we have this opportunity” when there’s the possibility that the person’s world is being turned upside down? There isn’t a single email I send out these days that doesn’t first recognize the state of the world.

Georgena: I agree with Diana on this one. I acknowledge Covid in every one of my sign-offs. Something to the effect of: “I hope you and your family or your community are staying healthy and well.” I’ll tweak it depending on the audience. For more junior talent, I might say “you and your community”; but for someone who’s more senior I’ll say “you and your family.” The point is just to acknowledge, every time, the possible enormity of this crisis for them.

Ian: As I’m writing to engineers for a startup like Gem, the core purpose of a first email hasn’t changed. I’m still addressing a skeptical reader, trying to quickly convey as much information as I can about the nature of the role and the health of the business so she can decide if it’s worth her time to learn more over a phone call. When considering an unfamiliar startup, I think candidates are straight-away asking “Who?” and are principally concerned with whether the company will exist a year or two from now. What has changed is that now engineers might have the same existential concerns about the larger, more established ventures as well; so their concerns are no longer addressed by simply showing off a star-studded list of customers and investors.

If everyone is struggling now, showing that you’re in the “in-crowd” is a lot less meaningful. Instead, you need to go into real detail about your sales and financials—especially how you’re strategically navigating the macroeconomic climate—and show how you’re exceptional: destined to be a post-Depression success story akin to Dropbox and Airbnb. How you paint that picture depends entirely on the available facts about your company. Personally, I’m pointing to our month-over-month growth numbers since February, the years of runway we have to work with in a worst-case scenario, specific strategies we’ve adopted to grow as a company even as hiring broadly slows, and as always, what makes our product and team unique.

DJ: Outreach has always been about describing the ways Gem stands out. But now a lot of that communication has to do with the likelihood that we’re not only going to weather this storm; we’re also going to come out really strong on the other side. Understandably, candidates want to know what makes Gem different from all these other companies that are letting people go. The fact that we have a leadership team in place that’s been financially prudent; the fact that we have so much runway; the fact that investors are still circling back and asking if we’d like more money are pretty remarkable points to make right now.

I’ll typically acknowledge to prospects that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the market, so they may feel like now’s not the best time to consider a move. But here’s how we’re standing outand why you might want to consider after all. It’s a revealing time for a lot of companies. And if you happen to be among those companies that are still strong at the center when you peel back the onion, you’ve got to give prospects data points on how that’s so.

The other thing worth mentioning is being really mindful when you’re reaching out to talent that’s recently unemployed. As a recruiter working for a company that’s still hiring, the layoffs happening all around us mean a lot of great talent is now suddenly available; but you don’t want your outreach to feel like you’re taking advantage of the situation. If I’d just been let go, I’d want to hear from every company who would want to talk to me immediately. But not everyone might feel that way. So we’ve been having conversations about how much time and space to give folks after we see they’ve been laid off, so they can sit with the change, take a breath, and figure out what’s next for them. We might not want to reach out to a bunch of people who’ve been let go of the same team. I don’t want to accidentally rub the wound while I’m offering someone an opportunity.

More than ever, I also try to pose those initial conversations as an information exchange rather than as a recruiting pitch. No one wants to be sold to right now, whether it’s a product or a job. Does the candidate feel like “it’s not the right time” because they’re actually happy in their job, or because they fear the uncertainty in the market? Let’s pursue the call and find out. But rather than me pitching you a role, let’s just chat and see if our values align.

What’s changed about your messaging once you’ve gotten a candidate on the phone—especially when it comes to making a career change in this climate?

Georgena: Interestingly, not much has changed on that front. After all, we’re a startup, and so every conversation with every candidate is about the health of the business. I think the big difference is in the order in which that topic comes up. Prior to Covid, I was typically answering candidates’ questions first and then offering up information about the health of the business. But now, anytime I open a conversation, the health of the business is the first thing I’m talking about. The other thing I am sure to bring to the forefront these days is the way Gem has treated its employees during this time: continuing to pay for our lunches, online therapy, and wellness days—the cool thing about wellness day is that you can choose to attend activities or take the day off. Talent knows the way companies are treating their employees right now speaks volumes about the way they will treat them under normal circumstances.

Have you seen reply rates to your outreach change at all?

Georgena: I have. My response rates have actually doubled. My sense is that folks are really aware of the changing market, and what that might mean for their own jobs, which maybe until recently they thought were stable.

Diana: I think the fact that many companies are laying their employees off right now is triggering the change in response rates. Ian and DJ are seeing higher response rates on the engineering and product design side, which are roles that traditionally see low response numbers. There is panic that’s causing people to respond to outreach made to them.

Georgena: That said, there are a lot of lists circulating of candidates that have been recently laid off. When I begin sourcing I look to those lists first; I think that may have contributed to my higher response rates as well.

How have you had to reimagine what candidate experience looks like?

Diana: Viet, GG, and I sat down together and walked through our entire onsite, step-by-step, early on, to figure out how to offer the same kind of experience candidates would get at the office. Candidates love the office. They love the dogs. They love walking by the glass-window meeting rooms and seeing teams laughing with each other. We can preserve some of that.

Lunch and coffee chats were a big one, since one of the reasons we’ve got such a strong company culture is that we eat and drink coffee or tea together every day. So we make that part of the candidate experience—except now it happens over Zoom. That means traditions stay alive for employees and candidates to feel like they’re part of the tradition. Another thing is that we still keep our greets—something two recent candidates called out as an essential part of their experience with us. It’s so important for candidates to have that initial interaction with someone, even if it has to be through Zoom. It gives them the opportunity to ask questions; and it gives us the opportunity to alleviate their anxiety.

Virtual interviews can be intimidating and uncomfortable; so it’s very important to be there to calm their nerves. We also schedule breaks between interviews, which isn’t what happened at the office—interviews were back-to-back then. But screen fatigue is real; and we want to give candidates the time and space to close their eyes, move around, take some deep breaths before the next interview.

Georgena: One thing I would add is that, whereas before I would maybe have one or two conversations with a candidate before they came onsite, I’m now needing to have a few more. In those calls, I still go into detail about what the interviewer focus areas are, what the day will look like over video, and check to see if they have a strong internet connection. Now, I send an extra text or email to make sure the candidate knows that they can reach out for anything.

I plan to keep doing this once things go back to normal. Everyone that I've pulled through the interview process is interviewing more than normal right now. The more touchpoints I can have, the better. I also make sure I have a face-to-face wrap-up over video after the interviews are over. Before Covid I may have  sent an email or given them a call to ask how the day was. When we were in the office, following up with an email wasn’t a problem, because I would  have met the candidate at some point during their onsite. But email just doesn’t cut it right now.

Viet: One thing I think is particularly useful right now is the reverse-interview. This is something I’ve employed at just about every place I’ve worked; it allows the candidate to turn the tables and interview the interviewers. Importantly, this step happens after the company has already extended an offer to the candidate. It changes the dynamic and allows the candidate to ask the tough questions they might not have felt comfortable asking during the interview process. “What’s your least favorite part of the job?” "What's a piece of feedback you've shared about the founder(s)?” "What's the most dysfunctional part of the team/company and how has it affected you?" And especially now—as Georgena mentioned earlier—”How has the company proven itself as a thoughtful and compassionate org throughout the pandemic and shelter-in-place? Are there things you wish it was doing differently?”

As employers, we ask talent to make huge life decisions after we’ve gotten to know them over the course of an interview process. But what about them getting to know us? It's our responsibility to be transparent and to share as much as possible about the opportunity so the candidate can make a confident decision. That’s what the reverse-interview does; and it’s as important as ever to offer right now.

How do you think this crisis is affecting recruitment on the whole?

Georgena: Inclusion is the first thing that comes to mind. So for example, now that teams are 100% remote, there’s a space that’s opened up to include people with different abilities in the conversation, or to give them more resources. For instance, for talent that’s hard-of-hearing, video may actually be better for them because they're able to have a stronger earpiece, or because they’re not distracted by all of the other things going on in the office.

Diana: I totally agree with GG on that one. Another thing I think about right away is the ways we can be more flexible when it comes to candidate experience. If we do have a longer interview loop, for example, maybe we split it across a couple of days to give candidates’ eyes a break. If parents are interviewing from home, maybe we schedule those interviews much earlier or later in the day. I think teams are being more attentive than ever to the candidate experience and to how the candidate is feeling—both about the position and about life as a whole; and I think this pandemic might shift that for good.

Right now, we send candidates a survey before their “onsite” and ask about time preferences, whether they want breaks, if they’d rather eat lunch or dinner with us, or just meet the rest of the team over a coffee chat. These things were always intentional; but now they’re super-intentional. We’ll keep posting these updates for as long as they’re helpful to you. Feel free to reach out and let us know what your team is learning or discovering, or how it’s shifting, during this time. We’d love to keep this conversation going. And if you're a recruiter looking for work or a recruiter who is hiring recruiters (R4R) right now, check out Gem's Recruiting-for-Recruiters list. We hope it's a useful resource for you on your hiring (or job-seeking) journey.

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Content Strategist
May 15, 2020
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