Why we are believers in a pre-employment trial

Recruiting the right people for any business is hard - especially with the complexities of the last year at work. We’ve found that a pre-employment trial - working alongside a potential hire on a challenging, time bound project - has changed how we gauge the right fit well before day 1.

Allison Langille
June 21, 2021

The success of most companies hinges on their people. Yet, as anyone who has played a role in hiring knows, finding people who are the right fit is hard - really hard. Layer on the complexities of the last year at work and the demands of a startup, and at Shift we knew our hiring practices needed to evolve.

That’s why this past October when hiring a Product Manager, we added a step to our hiring process: a pre-employment trial. This concept, developed by Automattic, is just as it sounds - prospective hires go through a short, time-bound, paid trial, working alongside the team to gauge mutual fit before signing on full time.

“Before we started doing trials,” says Dominik Strohmeier, Head of Product and Data at Shift, “we often found that candidates would seem a good match based on their interviews, but when it came to doing the work in week 1 - to apply creative thinking, to get their hands dirty - the fit wasn’t there.”

Our first trial was for the Product Manager role and was overseen by Dominik. We structured high-value projects for the candidate with clear success metrics, then ran a 2-week trial that included daily feedback. The process demanded a lot from both the candidate and Dominik, but the return was invaluable. Dominik quickly learned how the candidate worked, along with strengths, blindspots, and growth potential. Meanwhile, the potential hire got a real sense of what it’s like to work at Shift.

“The trial was my greatest professional development experience to date,” says Kirsty McLaughlin, Product Manager at Shift. “I received so much feedback and quickly understood what would be  expected of me at Shift.”

We’ve undertaken a series of trials since our first experiment with Kirsty last October. Here’s what we’ve learned about making pre-employment trials a powerful step in our hiring process. 

1. Make it mutually beneficial

We are explicit about why we have trials following the normal recruitment process. A lot of candidates are initially taken aback and want to know why, after a rigorous, multi-step recruitment process, we aren’t yet confident they’re the right fit. We speak to the importance of working alongside each other to really understand if it’s the right fit - for both of us.

Knowing this, we are quick to jump in with our take on the mutual benefit - saying things like ‘we want you to give us a test run - we don’t want any surprises for you on day 1’. When clearly positioned, candidates can immediately see that this is an exciting opportunity to try a company and a role before signing on. 

Ryan Ackerman, now a Client Solutions Associate with Shift, completed his trial in January 2021. "I admit that at first, I was slightly skeptical of the trial period,” he says. “Yet, that time built my confidence that while the responsibilities were different from what I'd done before, I would be able to step into the role and knock it out of the park.” 

2. Test with real and important projects

Trials go far beyond a typical take-home skill-testing assignment often found earlier in a recruitment process. Unlike homework assignments, trials recreate the opaque problems that our teams face daily. Trial projects should be reflective of a company’s specific culture, conditions and role expectations. 

What this means for us is tailoring relevant projects that are both inside - and intentionally outside - of the candidate's scope of expertise. They are deeply ambiguous and often lacking in directionality towards the ‘right answer’ - we hope that the individual will ask clarifying questions early, engage in quick feedback loops, reorient and lay out assumptions when all else fails. 

“The highlight for me during the trial was realizing that the team was not taking it easy on me,” says Ryan Lalkaka, who recently completed a 1-week trial at Shift. “I was given a very real representation of what I aspired to be a part of.”

3. Help the candidate grow

We are a growth-focused organization at the core, and trials are no exception. Our managers invest heavily in providing candidates with a valuable experience that, regardless of whether an offer follows, will contribute to their professional growth.

Candidates receive daily feedback that pushes on the boundaries of their skills. While this is a benefit for candidates’ growth, it is also an important investment for Shift as it helps us learn about a candidate’s receptivity to feedback and problem-solving process. Our managers spend significant time (up to 3 hours a day during a trial) observing a candidate’s style, course correcting, providing challenging feedback, and analyzing how they navigate through unexpected pivots. 

Dominik (Head of Product and Data) has run several trials. “I try to make the trials an honest experience of life on my team,” he says, “so I push hard, give lots of feedback, gauge their overall learning and willingness to do uncomfortable things - because this is what the reality looks at Shift.”

This is only the beginning of Shift’s experience with trials. We are keen to iterate, identify how we can engage increasingly senior candidates or those who are already in full-time positions. The possibilities are endless, and we’re looking to further explore. 

But for now, our data is showing that new hires are landing faster and easier in their new roles. They have a more clear picture of Shift’s work and culture and are thus able to better navigate our inherent startup complexity - all well before day 1.

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