August 24, 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 Valence 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 work experience. This concept, developed by Automattic, is just as it sounds - prospective hires go through a short, time-bound, paid work experience, working alongside the team to gauge mutual fit before signing on full time.
“Before we started doing pre-employment work experiences,” says Dominik Strohmeier, Head of Product and Data at Valence, “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 pre-employment work experience 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 pre-employment work experience 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 Valence.
“The pre-employment work experience was my greatest professional development experience to date,” says Kirsty McLaughlin, Product Manager at Valence. “I received so much feedback and quickly understood what would be expected of me at Valence.”
We’ve undertaken a series of pre-employment work experiences since our first experiment with Kirsty last October. Here’s what we’ve learned about making pre-employment work experiences a powerful step in our hiring process.
We are explicit about why we have pre-employment work experiences 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 Valence, completed his pre-employment work experience in January 2021. "I admit that at first, I was slightly skeptical of the pre-employment work experience 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.”
Pre-employment work experiences go far beyond a typical take-home skill-testing assignment often found earlier in a recruitment process. Unlike homework assignments, pre-employment work experiences recreate the opaque problems that our teams face daily. Pre-employment work experience 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 pre-employment work experience was realizing that the team was not taking it easy on me,” says Ryan Lalkaka, who recently completed a 1-week pre-employment work experience at Valence. “I was given a very real representation of what I aspired to be a part of.”
We are a growth-focused organization at the core, and pre-employment work experiences 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 Valence 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 pre-employment work experience) 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 pre-employment work experiences. “I try to make the pre-employment work experiences 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 Valence.”
This is only the beginning of Valence's experience with pre-employment work experiences. 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 Valence's work and culture and are thus able to better navigate our inherent startup complexity - all well before day 1.
"Meaningful, lasting behavioral change is a complex process, requiring timely personalized guidance. Startups like Valence provide teams with a fabric of interactive activities that emphasize mutual feedback and allow them to learn on the job while doing the work they always do."