I’m a firm believer that surprises don’t belong at work - especially at startups. Unexpected and unpredictable things can increase anxiety, reduce psychological safety, and make it harder to build and hit milestones.
Surprises especially don't belong in the hiring process.
Here’s a true story about a surprising job interview I experienced - and how it impacted my practices as a hiring manager:
Right after graduate school, I applied to work at a science museum in a major metropolitan area. The role was "Educational Programs Manager.” I got an invitation to come in for an interview and received little additional information.
On the day of the interview, I was brought to an office and asked to verify my qualifications. “You have managed a $1M budget, correct?” At that point in my career I hadn't, so it was a pretty intimidating way to start. It was nowhere near as terrifying, however, as what came next.
The hiring manager told me that I had one hour to prepare a lesson for a live audience. My goal was to teach an engaging lesson about a scientific principle with a bag of balloons as a prop. I was led into a freezing cold library to sit, alone, and plan for an hour.
I can’t tell you how often I considered finding a fire exit and sprinting home while I sat in that library, watching the clock. I was panicked trying to plan something fun and scientific with 10 deflated balloons. I finally decided that maybe I could come up with something tolerable about explaining the differences between rocks and minerals.
I was sweating bullets when the hiring manager came and got me and brought me to a bustling auditorium. The room was big and had something like 30 audience members in it. As I looked around I realized that there were zero children. I walked down the aisle and nearly tripped over a grown up who had rolled out of his seat and was flailing on the floor. I got the sense that every adult in the museum came to my lesson with the intention of acting like a horribly behaved child just to have a laugh and see how I handled it. It was complete chaos.
My brain turned to survival mode and I don’t remember much about my "rocks vs minerals" lesson. I do recall that I left as quickly as I could and did not look back. I was convinced they were batshit crazy and genuinely wondered if I had just been duped on some reality TV show.
I learned from this interviewing experience that I would never surprise a candidate during the hiring process. It’s cruel; putting yourself out there for a new job is scary enough.
some tips to minimize surprises for candidates:
Write a clear job description - be honest about company culture and the actual work.
Acknowledge receipt of everyone’s application (you can automate this).
When you invite someone to interview, make it clear what to expect.
Example: “I’d like to schedule a 15 minute phone screen with you. I look forward to answering your questions about the role, hearing a bit about your professional journey to date, and learning more about why this opportunity excites you…”
Let them know the next steps and timeline.
Example [not that interested]: “Thank you so much for your time today. It’s still early in our process and will be reaching out to communicate next steps within the next 3 weeks.”
Example [interested]: “Thanks so much for your time today. As a next step, I’d like to have you complete a brief homework assignment within the next 48 hours…”
Make sure candidates know how to prepare for interviews - share information about who else will be attending and provide logistical information to make their arrival smooth. Plus: it’s always appreciated when you give tips on attire expectations.
Example: “We’re looking forward to seeing you next Thursday at 2 PM at our headquarters on 123 Main Street in Boston. Here are some tips on how to get to the office [link to directions and parking tips]. I’ll be waiting for you in the lobby to bring you to our suite. Jen Smithy (CFO [profile link]), Marko Cleo (COO [profile link]), and Carolina Fry (CSO [profile link]) will be joining us as well. During our time together, we’d love to get your thoughts on how you might approach this R+D problem. Here’s a brief deck [link] we put together with some context so you can come ready with thoughts. We’re a casual office, so feel free to dress comfortably. Please let me know if you have any questions at all. We look forward to seeing you soon.”
As soon as you are seriously interested in a candidate, let them know.
Example [explicit]: “I really enjoyed our conversation yesterday and would like to consider you as one of three finalists for this opportunity.”
Example [implicit]: “ I really enjoyed our conversation yesterday. Here are some next steps. Please keep me in the loop if anything changes on your end regarding your own timeline. If you have any timely decisions you need to make, I’d appreciate you reaching out to alert me so we can do our best to expedite our process.”
Even if you don’t know exactly what’s happening next, you can let someone know when you’ll be in touch next with more information - and follow through when you say you’re going to.
Communication as quickly as you can to close the loop with turndowns.
Waiting to hear back from a job is really hard. The sooner you can let someone know that they are no longer in the running, the better. I always try to use positive and general language because, as much as it feels like helping to offer "constructive feedback" it's rarely taken well. It also opens you up to potential lawsuits when you share why you didn't select someone.
Example: "Thank you so much for applying for the [role] at our company. We were overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the pool for this opportunity. Unfortunately we are unable to offer you a spot at this time and wish you the very best with your search."
If I want to keep someone as a warm contact, I may add in some additional language that makes it clear I want to keep in touch for future opportunities and provide a few options of specific times we can meet in a few weeks to make it clear it's not just lip service.
If you want to attract top talent, you have to think deeply about their experience during the hiring process. Never sneak attack anyone. Ever. Candidates will be evaluating their time with you - just as you are evaluating them - looking for potential red flags about your company. The more thought and care you put into the candidate experience, the more likely they will want to work with you when you make the offer.