Want to Really Get to Know a Candidate’s Abilities? Hire on a Trial Basis

Jan 21, 2014 - Joe Matar

Automattic employs 225 people. We’re located all over the world, in 190 different cities. We have a headquarters in San Francisco and it operates similar to a coworking space. For employees who live in the Bay Area, they can work from the office, if they’d like. But in general, the majority of our employees work somewhere other than our homebase.

To us, this arrangement makes sense — we work in open source software, which is a decentralized product. Outsiders were dubious. “That works great until you’re at 10 or 15 people, but when you get to 30, it falls apart,” they’d say. Then we passed 30 people, and we started hearing that the magic number was 100 people. Then people said Dunbar’s number — 150 — would be the point at which it didn’t work. But we keep blowing past these thresholds; we hired more than 100 people in 2013.

But we don’t do it the way most companies do.

It all starts with the way we think about work

In a lot of businesses, if someone shows up in the morning and he isn’t drunk, he doesn’t sleep at his desk and he’s dressed nicely, it’s assumed that he’s working. But none of that takes into account what he’s actually created during the day. Many people create great things without living up to those norms. We measure work based on outputs. I don’t care what hours you work. I don’t care if you sleep late, or if you pick a child up from school in the afternoon. It’s all about your output.

This arrangement isn’t for everyone. But a lot of people like the autonomy we offer, and that’s important. So we’ve arrived at an unorthodox hiring system that serves our needs perfectly.

Hiring by audition

Before we hire anyone, they go through a trial process first, on contract. They can do the work at night or over the weekend, so they don’t have to leave their current job in the meantime. We pay a standard rate of $25 per hour, regardless of whether you’re applying to be an engineer or the chief financial officer.

During the trials, we give the applicants actual work.  If you’re applying to work in customer support, you’ll answer tickets. If you’re an engineer, you’ll work on engineering problems. If you’re a designer, you’ll design.

There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone, working with them day by day. It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews or reference checks. (Click here to tweet this thought.) At the end of the trial, everyone involved has a great sense of whether they want to work together going forward. And, yes, that means everyone — it’s a mutual tryout. Some people decide we’re not the right fit for them.

Overall, we end up hiring about 40 percent of the people who try out with us. It’s a huge time commitment, coordinating the short-term work being done by job applicants, but it leads to extremely low turnover. In the past eight years, we’ve had maybe 10 people leave the company, and another 25 or 30 we’ve let go. So it’s a system we plan to keep utilizing.

Today, I spend at least a third of my time on hiring. And even though it’s a small part of our process, I still look at every resume the company receives and do the final interview for everyone who joins. Nothing has the impact of putting the right people around the table. The aphorism is true: You can’t manage your way out of a bad team. We’ve done experiments to find the best way to hire based on our unique structure; your business can do the same.

This post is adapted from a talk by the author at the December 2013 Lean Startup Conference and originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Visit their Insight Center on Talent and the New World of Hiring for more.

Matt Mullenweg is the founder of Automattic and creator of the open source WordPress software.

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