Imagine you could have any skill in the world with just a few dozen hours of effort. This is what hiring allows you to do and it's a neglected skill in the EA movement.
I don’t know how to code, yet “I’ve” built the Nonlinear Library and Superlinear (an x-risk prize platform). I had no experience in Indian politics but “I” was able to help Indian states update their policies to increase vaccination rates.
Because you don’t have to learn how to code or develop decades of experience in a particular political arena. You can just hire people who already have those skills or experiences, and in fact, are probably better than you’d ever have gotten.
It’s one of the highest leverage meta-skills you can develop, especially when combined with fundraising. This is why it was a top contender for my most important “lesson learned” in my last decade in EA and we’re incubating an EA hiring agency to make it so it takes even less time to hire people (they’re accepting clients now!)
It is also one of the things I get asked for advice on the most frequently, so perfect for a blog post. So, without further ado, read on for a very practical guide to hiring.
Designing the right job
You can’t hire the right person unless you have a clear idea of who the right person is. Don’t just pick a job title and work from there; instead, brainstorm a list of the specific tasks that you want your new hire to do, and then choose a job title that fits.
This also makes it clearer to you what you’re looking for. If you think that you want to hire an executive assistant but find yourself listing mostly research tasks, maybe you really want to hire a research assistant instead. Or perhaps you actually want to hire for two or three different roles.
Getting great applicants
Write an enticing job ad
Job advertisements are neglected relative to other aspects of hiring. Everyone knows that interviews are important, but you won’t get lots of good candidates to interview unless they see and respond to your job ad. The more people who apply, the more likely you are to find a great fit. Your job ad should have:
- A fantastic title
The title is the most important part of any piece of writing. This is doubly true for job ads since they’re posted alongside hundreds of other jobs on job boards, or (worse) on social media, where they have to compete against Oscar drama, apocalyptic news stories, and cute red pandas for your would-be applicants’ fractured attention. This means that your title needs to be interesting.
(The writers of the Guardian Experience column have nailed this skill, we can only bow down in wonder and awe.) Here’s a great resource for writing intriguing and useful headlines.
- A gripping first sentence
The second most important part of any piece of writing is the first sentence. A good template for your first sentence is:
‘If your dream job is to ____, _____, and ____, then you might be the perfect fit for [job].’
You should fill in the blanks with things that will attract people who would be a great fit for the role, while repelling people who wouldn’t. For example, in my ad for the EA hiring agency, I wrote:
‘If your dream job is to work in longtermism, be your own boss, and talk to EAs all day, then you might be the perfect fit for starting an EA recruitment agency through Nonlinear’s incubation program.’
I know lots of EAs who would get excited at ‘work in longtermism’ (‘improving the long term future! Sign me up!’) but recoil in terror at ‘talk to EAs all day’ (‘talking?! To people??! Ugh!’) And that’s great! People who don’t love talking would not be a great fit for this particular job. Your first sentence should reel in candidates who’d be perfect for the job, while gently turning away those who wouldn’t.
- Enticing language
Get potential candidates excited to apply by telling them what they’ll love about the job. For example:
‘You’ll be a great fit for this role if:
-You’d be excited to ___
-You’re passionate about ___
If you don’t like these things, bear in mind that there’s almost always someone out there who would be genuinely excited to do the role, even if that person isn’t you.
An interesting picture will make your job ad stand out - you can design one very easily on Canva. It’s very important to make sure that the image looks good and is the right size for the platform it’s being posted on.
- A clear, specific deadline
State the application deadline at the top and bottom of the ad and include the date, the exact time, and the time zone (e.g. ‘Applications are due by April 28th, 11.59 pm, EST’). This prevents needless angst about ‘it’s April 28th, but do they mean before the 28th or by the end of the 28th? By my midnight or their midnight?’
Make sure people see your job ad
You can’t hire great people if they don’t know that you’re hiring, so post your job ad liberally.
Many EAs will just post their ads on the EA Forum and call it a day. This isn’t enough. You should post your job ad, at least on:
- The Effective Altruism Job Postings Facebook group
- The 80,000 Hours job board
- Twitter. You can tag @effective_jobs, which will share it with other EA job-seekers. (Of note, there’s an active prize out for somebody with dev skills to make a job board based on this. More information here for somebody looking to put their coding knowledge to EA use.)
- In EA Facebook groups about topics related to the role. For example, if you’re hiring a writer or copyeditor, you could post it in Effective Altruism Editing and Review; or if you’re an animal advocacy organization, you could post it to Effective Animal Advocacy. Here’s a directory of EA-related Facebook groups.
Don’t worry too much about ‘spamming’ people. You probably feel way spammier than you are. Most people won’t regularly look at all the places you post the ad, so they’ll only see it once or twice. And anyway, even if some people do see your ad five times, are they really going to care? I’d rather hear about a great job opportunity five times than not hear about it at all.
Generally speaking, the two keys to avoiding spamming people are:
- Post sparingly for each audience. Generally aim to just post once for each audience. Sometimes it can be good to post a few weeks later, the day before the deadline, reminding people that the deadline is coming up and it’s not too late. Post a second time only on the highest value channels. If you post three times to the exact same audience about the same job, that’s too much.
- Post relevant job ads. If you’re hiring an AI safety researcher and you post on an AI alignment Facebook group, that’s perfect. They’ll thank you for it. However, if you post it in an EA animal welfare Facebook group, that’s not providing much or any value to the audience and will make people irritated with you.
Ask your friends to refer you potential candidates
Ask people to refer you candidates for the job. Consider asking people who are well-connected in the field in which you’re hiring, (e.g., if you’re hiring a software developer, ask developer friends) or people who just have a large network or anyone else you think would have good taste or special insight.
When you ask people for referrals, it’s most effective to:
- Ask them a direct question, and
- Make your ask low-stakes.
‘Hey, I’m hiring for X! Does anyone come to mind for this role? We’re just collecting names right now.’
is better than
‘Let me know if you know of anyone who’d be a great fit for this role.’
Asking direct questions puts the ball in their court - questions demand answers, and if they’re going to have to answer you anyway, they might as well spend a minute brainstorming potential candidates before they do.
Asking ‘does anyone come to mind’ makes it easier for people to give you names. If you ask ‘who might be a great fit?’, then they’ll have to umm and ahh: ‘I mean I think X might be good, but would they really be a great fit?’
Choosing the right person
OK, let’s say thousands of people saw your job ad, and now you have hundreds of applicants. Now what? How do you narrow them down? I recommend assessing candidates in multiple stages, filtering some out at each stage. The stages are: application form, then test task, then interview. You can also add a second test task and/or a second interview if you need more information and it’s a particularly high-stakes role.
The application form should let you rank candidates quickly
If you have lots of applications, you can quickly rank candidates by including questions where candidates have to check boxes or rank themselves on a scale. For example, when I’ve hired for positions where EA knowledge was crucial, I’ve asked candidates to rate their EA knowledge on a scale of 1-5. This way, you can easily sort candidates: you can rule out the lowest-ranked candidates if appropriate, and look at the applications of the highest-ranked ones first.
After this, ask your candidates to write a short paragraph, which you can use to sort them again. These answers will take longer to sort but will give you a lot more information than a simple number.
Ask teammates to help you sort the applications
I recommend asking two junior teammates to help with ranking candidates. This will save you time and give your colleagues valuable hiring experience. Alternatively, you can work with a hiring agency to filter out candidates in the first round.
For example, ask your colleagues to read the applications and think about whether the candidate should go on to the next stage of the hiring process, and then rank the applications on a 5-point scale according to the answers:
5 = hard yes (i.e., ‘yes they should go on to the next stage’)
4 = soft yes (i.e. ‘maybe they should go on to the next stage’)
3 = uncertain
2 = soft no
1 = hard no (i.e., ‘no, they should not go on to the next stage’)
If both teammates give a candidate a 4 or 5, they automatically go on to the next stage. If both give a candidate a 1 or 2, they automatically do not. If a candidate has a 3, or the teammates disagree on their rankings, you act as tie-breaker.
Test tasks should be as similar as possible to the actual job
Test tasks allow candidates to directly demonstrate their skills. This means that they should imitate what the new hire will actually be doing. If possible, just give them a piece of work to do - for example, if you’re hiring an editor, ask them to edit something.
Sometimes this won’t be possible. In these cases, simulate what the new hire’s job will be like as best you can. For example, when I was hiring for the EA hiring agency, I asked candidates to interview me for a (pretend) job, since that’s what the role would involve.
Give clear instructions
Make sure that the instructions for the test task are extremely clear. Include a checklist of everything that the candidates need to do, even if some of it seems obvious. This will help avoid wasteful misunderstandings.
It’s also informative if candidates don’t follow the instructions correctly. People are usually trying their best on job applications, so if they make mistakes in the application, they’d likely make similar mistakes in the job as well.
Put candidates at ease by asking ‘why do you want this job?’
Job interviews are stressful, and no one is at their best when they’re stressed, so it’s important to help your candidates relax. You can start the interview by asking ‘Why do you want this job?’ - this is a common, unsurprising interview question, so it’s unlikely to freak anyone out. You can also use interviewees’ answers to know what to highlight about the job - for example, if they say that they want the job because they love trying to solve complex problems, you can emphasize the problem-solving aspects of the role.
Craft questions that revealed desired qualities
Brainstorm what your ideal hire would be like, and keep these qualities in mind when you craft your interview questions. You can use High Impact Interview Questions for inspiration. It has questions that are designed to assess many different workplace competencies, such as communication, problem-solving, and teamwork.
Craft your questions so that it’s not embarrassing or difficult for candidates to admit that they don’t have the personal qualities that you are looking for. If you’re trying to work out whether a potential hire is comfortable taking risks, you shouldn’t ask ‘are you more of a risk-taker, or are you more of a quivering mound of jelly who wets themself at the first whiff of adversity?’ Ask what they’d do in a situation where a more daring approach and a more cautious approach both seem reasonable! For example ‘are you somebody who likes to jump head first into a problem or do you hold more of the philosophy of looking before you leap?’
Avoid conflict-prone people like the plague
For most personality traits, whether or not they’re desirable depends on the job; but almost everyone should try not to hire people who tend to cause conflicts. Occasional conflicts are unavoidable, but if a person seems to cause drama and upheaval wherever they go, run a thousand miles in the opposite direction, even if they seem otherwise talented. Their drama won’t just affect their work; it’ll leak out everywhere and affect the whole organization.
Don’t make an offer during an interview
Once I was so enthusiastic about a candidate that I offered them the job right then and there in the interview. But then, I interviewed the next candidate… and they were so much better! Don’t make the same mistake! This is the archetypical secretary problem. Don’t prematurely exploit.
It’s useful to record your interviews. This way, you can share them with others on your team to get other perspectives. Also, if your new hire leaves the organization, you can re-watch their interview and see whether you could have predicted this at the interview stage.
Evaluate questions as you go along
Make sure that your questions are actually sorting people. If everyone gives the same answer to a question, it’s useless to you, and you should tweak it or remove it.
Consider using a hiring agency
Why not hire out the hiring? Hiring usually takes anywhere from a dozen to over one hundred person-hours and months start-to-finish. It also requires a lot of hard-to-articulate social intuitions and an appetite for talking to people that the average introverted EA is less than thrilled about.
Hiring agencies allow you to outsource varying degrees of the work to people who specialize in it. For example, Pineapple Operations by our very own Holly Morgan provides you with a list of pre-vetted PAs you can hire, allowing you to skip promoting the job ad and the first round of vetting. Others, such as the new EA Hiring Agency (working title), can do custom amounts of work for you, ranging from just hopping on a quick advisory call to doing the full hiring process up until the very end, just sending you a shortlist of the top 3-5 candidates along with their recorded interviews, scorecards, and test tasks.
Not only do they save you time, but since hiring agencies specialize in the area of hiring, they can often do far better than you would. For example, despite me being quite experienced at hiring, the EA Hiring Agency is handling the hiring process for our Executive Assistant and they more than doubled the number of people who applied for the role compared to previous rounds.
This is a long post but still far from comprehensive. If you want to skill up more on hiring, I recommend the following:
- This amazing research on hiring by AAC. Probably the single best resource I’ve ever read on hiring. Their tables are drool-worthy
- Takeaways from EAF’s hiring round
- Who, a great, easy read on hiring
- Read a lot of good job descriptions. Keep a "swipe file" of your favorite descriptions that you can use or modify for new jobs.
- Takeaways from FWI’s hiring round
- EA Forum tag on hiring
- Having a consultation call with the EA Hiring Agency to get specific advice tailored to your situation
Leave other tips or resources in the comments.
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This post was written collaboratively by Kat Woods and Amber Dawn Ace as part of Nonlinear’s experimental Writing Internship program. The ideas are Kat’s; Kat explained them to Amber, and Amber wrote them up. We would like to offer this service to other EAs who want to share their as-yet unwritten ideas or expertise.
If you would be interested in working with Amber to write up your ideas, fill out this form.