How to Design a Structured Hiring Process

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under hiring management scale-up

Handshake at the end of a great interview process

Recruiting the right team takes thought. Learn how to structure your interview process so you don't have to rely on your gut (it's probably wrong).

Ten years ago, I learnt a critical lesson about recruiting while I was sitting on a bus.

I noticed the guy next to me was reading a popular book about startups, so we started talking. It turned out he was the marketing manager of a high-profile company and we had a lot in common. When I mentioned that my business was scaling quickly, he took a genuine interest and made some insightful points about our marketing strategy.

We needed a marketing manager and something about this guy gave me a great feeling. I offered him a job on the spot.

He accepted and joined my company shortly after.

But three months later, we had to let him go. He performed terribly.

In retrospect, this outcome was inevitable. I hadn’t put in the preparation to really know what I was looking for. I hadn’t met enough candidates. And crucially, I’d relied on intuition rather than a structured process.

Since then, I’ve completely changed the way I recruit — and made far better hiring decisions as a result. So I’m sharing my interview design process in the hope it can inspire you to improve yours, too.

My interview design process has two parts:

  • Part 1: Role Design
  • Part 2: Structured Interview Design

Let’s take a look at each in turn. 

Part 1: Role Design

Before designing the interview process, you need to clarify the role you’re recruiting for. The clearer you can visualise the role, the better you can interview for it. And the key is to write two job descriptions. We’ll get to that in a moment.

1) List the tasks and skills required

I recommend starting by listing all the tasks and activities the role is likely to involve. If you can’t come up with 25–50 tasks, you need to research the role, either with advisors or on Google.

Next, link each task to an activity, and identify the key skills needed to succeed. To help you visualise this, here’s a screenshot of my task analysis for a recent role in my company:

A screenshot of my task analysis for an operations associate role.

2) Write the ‘internal’ job description

You should write two job descriptions for every role. The first is purely to clarify the role and contains information you wouldn’t share outside your company.

Here’s how I structure my internal job descriptions:

  • Job title: Aim for traditional titles, and avoid unnecessary title inflation. For example, I don’t hire VPs for a company with less than 20 employees.
  • Key responsibilities: Transform the list of activities in the above table into responsibilities.
  • Objectives (and key results): List out the overarching goals and how to measure success.
  • Competencies: Flesh out the list of skills identified earlier.
  • Known challenges: Outline known problems the recruit will inherit and what could make the job harder.
  • Key stakeholders: List all the people the recruit will frequently work with.
  • Month-one goals: Write out what they’ll work on first.

Many managers only get to this level of detail after a candidate accepts their offer, but clarifying it at the start helps improve your interview design.

3) Write the ‘external’ job description

The external job description has only one purpose: to attract as many qualified applicants as possible. It’s simply a marketing document. The larger the pool of applicants, the more likely it’ll contain great candidates.

I include the following sections:

  • Job title: As above.
  • About the company: This is a chance to sell the vision of the company and explain why this role is an important one. Spell out the opportunity for the candidate.
  • Key responsibilities: Remove anything sensitive that appears in the internal version.
  • Qualities required: Create a simplified version of the competencies here.
  • Experience required: Detail any experience requirements in five or six bullet points.
  • Benefits: Sell the benefits of the job, not the features — who they work with, what they work on, and what they’ll master might also be seen as benefits.

Early-stage startups often try to make the copy appealing by using words like ‘amazing’, ‘fantastic’, and ‘world-class’ — or they’ll use quirky job titles like ‘ninja’. Most of the time, this comes off as insecure or naive. Showing some personality is great, but exaggeration may lose credibility with experienced hires.

It’s also worth running through Glassdoor’s 10 Ways to Remove Gender Bias from Job Descriptions to ensure you’re appealing to the widest pool of applicants.

A quick note on sourcing candidates

It’s essential to get your job opening in front of as many high-quality candidates as possible. This is hard work and there’s no getting around it, but to help generate candidates, try the following:

  • Add your job opportunity to popular job boards
  • Promote your job opportunity on your company website and newsletters
  • Ask existing employees and advisors for high-quality recommendations*
  • Reach out proactively to ideal candidates on LinkedIn
  • Post the job on your social media channels and personal WhatsApp groups
  • Use an agency — if you have the budget
  • Hire an in-house recruiter — if you’re scaling extremely quickly

*Be careful with recommendations. Glowing endorsements are a great source of candidates, but don’t be tempted to let them fast-track your standard interview process. Social proof is a great reason to interview, but it’s a lousy reason to hire.

Part 2: Structured Interview Design

In a structured interview process, you rate candidates on skill requirements based on a standard set of questions. Why do structured interviews outperform intuitive ones?

Daniel Kahnmann, Nobel-laureate and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, puts it succinctly: ‘When it comes to decision-making, algorithms are superior to people.’ We have too many inherent biases for us to be objective — especially when judging other people.

Sadly, unconscious bias training won’t help. Biases are a bit like optical illusions—they still fool you even when you know how it works.

That’s why you hire the candidate with a sufficiently high aggregate score, not the one you like best.

In other words, you go with the data, not your feelings.

To rate your candidates’ skills, you need a behaviourally-anchored rating scale (BARS), which provides specific narrative examples of good and bad performance. Concrete examples of what 1 out of 5 and 5 out of 5 look like help you focus on behaviours, rather than vague intuition.

Here’s an example for writing skills:

  • A score of 1: Poor grammar, typos, doesn’t follow the word count, generic ideas that aren’t engaging
  • A score of 5: Good grammar with few typos, simple and concise language, persuasive and engaging ideas

If you don’t have data to drive your definitions of good and bad performance, try this thought experiment: ‘What specific reasons would make me give a candidate a low or high score in an annual performance review?’

An interview process is structured into multiple stages, in each of which you assess different qualities. For my junior-to-mid level roles, I design my process around the following six stages:

  1. Application Questions
  2. Phone Screen (20 minutes)
  3. Pre-employment Assessments
  4. Practical Assignment
  5. Competency Interview (1 hour)
  6. Final Round Interview (1 hour)

If you’re hiring for a senior role, a technical position, or if you want to involve multiple team members, you can add to and adapt this process as needed. For example, you could include a technical interview or additional competency interviews.

1: Application Questions

Checking expectations early saves everyone’s time. For example, do they understand what it’s like to work at a startup? Do they want to undertake the required activities? Are their progression expectations realistic?

I ask candidates to answer questions in my job description to screen them for writing skills and alignment of expectations. I’ve found these questions helpful (100-word answers, maximum):

  • Why would you like to work at ___[Company Name]?
  • How do you see yourself adding value as a ___[Job Title]?
  • Where do you want to be in two (or five) years?

Assessment criteria on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent):

  • Expectations ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Communication ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

2: Phone Screen (20 minutes)

A short phone interview can help determine the candidate’s enthusiasm and diligence. Was the candidate well prepared for the call? Were they excited about the role? Did expectations still seem to align?

I often send out a friendly five-minute video ahead of the call, in which I provide an overview of the business and the role, the interview process, and the advantages of joining now. This enables me to spend less of the call talking and more of it listening.

Phone interviews can be pretty nerve-wracking after all, so it’s a good idea to start with some small talk. However, transition as quickly as possible into asking your questions so you don’t go off track.

‘As we don’t have a lot of time, I’m going to jump right in with my planned questions so we have enough time to go through your questions at the end.’

To help candidates stay relaxed, I’ve found ‘Tell me about yourself’ a gentle way of transitioning into the interview. Then, I ask questions like:

  • What was it like to work at [X]?
  • What would you be most excited to work on?
  • What are you most concerned about when choosing your next role?
  • What do you want to do differently in your next role?

As I listen to their response, I ask probing questions that help me better understand their motivations, values, and goals.

Finally, I ask the candidate for their own questions and clarify the next step of the recruiting process. I pay close attention to their questions, since they reveal what the candidate really cares about.

Assessment criteria on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent):

  • Diligence ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Enthusiasm ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Expectations ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

3: Pre-employment Assessments

Pre-employment assessments can help uncover useful personality traits, as well as a candidate’s ability to read, write and do basic maths — general cognitive ability. If you’ve done your phone screening properly and built a connection with your best candidates, they’ll be more willing to invest their time in taking assessments.

I suggest you run the following tests for most roles:

  • Numeracy Test (15 mins)
  • Reading Comprehension Test (15 mins)
  • Big Five’ personality assessment (10 mins)

When you assess the results, look for compatibility with the role and the team. For example, if the role involves numbers and problem-solving, you want a high-score in general cognitive ability. If it involves careful planning and attention to detail, you want high conscientiousness.

However, use these results with caution. Pre-employment assessments aren’t perfect and you shouldn’t base a decision directly on their results.

Assessment criteria on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent):

  • Cognitive ability ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Personality fit ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

4: Practical Assignment

The first three stages are relatively generic, whereas the next three are adapted to assess the specific skills of the role. You can assess skills through interviews or practical assignments.

I run my practical assessment before the competency interview, but after a phone screen. As with pre-employment assessments, candidates need to be wowed by your recruiting process to commit to it, and you need to believe they’re a real fit.

When designing a practical assignment, it helps to choose skills that lend themselves to a practical format: design and presentation skills, for example, or planning.

I filter the tasks linked to those skills from the task analysis and look for a couple that would fit a simple 60 to 90-minute assignment. Coming up with assignment ideas is a creative challenge, but I’ve found choosing one of the following formats to be a helpful first step:

  • A document, e.g., writing an email to a client based on a hypothetical situation
  • A table in a spreadsheet, e.g., an analysis of a financial statement
  • A plan, e.g., an action plan for a new initiative
  • A presentation, e.g., on a particular topic
  • A design mock-up, e.g., a solution to a simple design issue
  • A programming function, e.g. a solution to a programming problem (several websites offer this as a service)

When presenting the assignment, I create a short story as a way to give some background and explain how it relates to the role. This context helps motivate the candidate. I also indicate which skills I’m assessing, how long the assignment should take, and how the candidate will submit their work.

Assessment criteria on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent):

  • Specific skill 1 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Specific skill 2 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Specific skill 3 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

5: Competency Interview (1 hour)

In this interview, the goal is to rate any remaining skills by asking the candidate to reflect on past situations (behavioural interview questions) and hypothetical situations (situational interview questions).

There’s a fierce debate between recruiters over which types of questions are most effective, but it appears that behavioural questions have the edge. In other words, past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.

I start the interview by asking how the assignment went, and what the candidate would have done if they‘d had more time. Then, I transition quickly into the behavioural interview.

In James Colino’s Udemy course, Ask Better Questions, Hire Better People, he recommends explaining how the interview works:

I’m going to run a behavioural interview where I ask you to recall situations from your past, and I’d like you to respond in such a way that each answer resembles a story with a beginning, middle and end. I’ll be looking for context, actions and results — and a reflection at the end. Keep that in mind, and if you get off-track, I’ll help and nudge you back into the format, ok?’

The secret to creating behavioural interview questions is to ask about extreme situations in which the skill you’re testing would be essential — i.e., the worst, the hardest, the best, the easiest, and so on. Here are some examples I used in a recent interview:

  • Tell me about a time when you felt most overwhelmed at work (skill to assess: organisation).
  • Tell me about a difficult time when you worked closely with someone completely different to you (skill to assess: adaptability).
  • Tell me about the worst mistake you’ve made at work (skill to assess: conscientiousness).

As the candidate answers, I take structured notes using the CARR framework — context, actions, results, and reflection — which helps me remember what candidates said. And I ask questions that help me dig deeper into the skill I’m assessing, such as:

  • What were you hoping to achieve?
  • What exactly did you do?
  • Tell me more about that?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What mattered most to you?
  • What other options did you consider?
  • What else?

Situational interview questions reveal what a candidate would do in a hypothetical work situation. For example, ‘Imagine X happened. What would you do?’ While these questions don’t predict future behaviours, they are useful to assess problem-solving, structured thinking, and creativity — a bit like a consulting case study.

Assessment criteria on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent):

  • Specific skill 4 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Specific skill 5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • Specific skill 6 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

6: Final round (1 hour)

By the time an ideal candidate reaches the final interview, you should have established that they’re smart, compatible, and have the skills for the role. This is your last chance to test for culture fit.

In this meeting, I like to go through the internal job description with the candidate. In other words, I simulate the meeting we’d have if I’d made them an offer. There are a lot of things to discuss, from objectives and key results to known challenges.

When discussing their month-one goals, I ask questions like:

  • How would you approach that?
  • What do you see as the challenge here?
  • What have you done before that’s similar?

What should you look for in the final interview? This depends on your culture and your company values. In my company, I want to see candidates ask great questions, I want them to have a bias for ownership, and to show they are coachable.

And I finish with one last question:

  • What haven’t I asked that I should have asked?

We end with next steps and a clear decision date, which will be no later than five working days ahead, though ideally, I aim to make the decision much more quickly.

Assessment criteria on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent):

  • Attitude ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Making a final decision

A good interview process identifies qualified candidates. There’s no such thing as a ‘best’ candidate, since the word ‘best’ is always subjective and your pool of applicants is somewhat arbitrary.

As candidates progress through the process, their scorecard will begin to look something like this:

  1. Communication ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  2. Expectations ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  3. Personality ⭐⭐⭐⭐
  4. Cognitive ability ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  5. Diligence ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  6. Enthusiasm ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  7. Specific skill 1 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
  8. Specific skill 2 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  9. Specific skill 3 ⭐⭐⭐
  10. Specific skill 4 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
  11. Specific skill 5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  12. Specific skill 6 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
  13. Attitude ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In my process, a candidate only moves to the subsequent round if they maintain an average rating greater than 4 out of 5. That way, whoever gets past the last round should be qualified to perform the role.

The point of a structured interview is that it takes the decision out of your hands; the candidate with the highest score gets the first offer. If you have multiple equally-qualified candidates, then you make a judgement call.

I recommend making conditional offers subject to a time limit. This allows you to offer the role to another qualified candidate if the first one doesn’t accept — and trust me, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a ‘yes’.

Looking after the candidate experience

Every recruiting process is also a sales process. You need to look after your candidates for the best chance of your offer being accepted.

You can break every design challenge into two chunks: (i) ‘don’t annoy them’ and (ii) ‘make them smile with delight’. Generally, you only get smiles if you don’t annoy them first.

Here are the top 10 ways to annoy candidates. I go out of my way not to do them.

  1. Publish confusing job descriptions that use complex or ‘trying-too-hard’ words
  2. Create long application forms
  3. Make spelling mistakes in emails
  4. Fail to clarify the process
  5. Start or end interviews late
  6. Forget what candidates said in previous interviews
  7. Offer compensation drastically below market
  8. Respond to emails slowly
  9. ‘Go dark’ and disappear without a trace
  10. Behave inappropriately

And here are the top 10 ways to make candidates smile with delight. I aim to do as many of these as I can.

  1. Create exceptionally clear and helpful videos
  2. Ask questions candidates enjoy answering
  3. Design fun work assignments
  4. Make the company’s big vision come alive
  5. Provide additional context so candidates know exactly what’s going on
  6. Pay for assignments that could reasonably add value to the company
  7. Warmly welcome candidates to every interview
  8. Show tokens of appreciation for candidates’ time and effort
  9. Look after little details, like providing water for the interview
  10. Provide relevant feedback after the interview

Note: when you rate candidates on multiple dimensions where you’ve defined what a ‘5 out of 5’ looks like, providing feedback becomes much easier.

A final word on the recruiting mindset

Recruiting is hard and time-consuming, and even a structured process won’t save you from making hiring mistakes. There’ll be times when you feel like you’ll never find the right person.

If you’re in this position, I offer you these words of hope. When it comes to recruiting, let the process itself do the heavy-lifting — your job is to clarify the role and show up. If you believe you’ll find the right candidate, you will. Don’t give up and keep searching.

Continue reading about recruiting new talent:

Originally published Jan 27, 2021, last updated Aug 20, 2021

Learn a new skill every week

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter and learn new skills and mental frameworks that make startup life easier.

Unsubscribe any time.

Popular articles

How to Drive a Culture of Ownership

Do you wish your team took more ownership? Here’s how to trust them to get the job done without you...

How to Ask Your Team The Right Questions

To improve your ability to ask great questions, it helps to understand the types of questions you can ask...

A Guide to Running Exceptional One-on-Ones

How effective are your one-on-ones? Here's a practical guide for managers and their direct reports...

Join my newsletter

©2023 Founder Coaching Limited. All Rights Reserved.
FOUNDER COACH® is a registered trademark of Founder Coaching Limited.