Three big problems with hiring processes in international development

Photo by Damian Zaleski on Unsplash

I’ve recently started hearing back from some of the jobs I applied to back in March. Since I have already accepted a new job to begin in June, I took great pleasure in politely withdrawing my candidacy from these roles, not least because they all required participating in a written exercise before progressing to a live human interview.

To be clear, I don’t think that writing assessments are inherently a waste of time. I think they’re a reasonable way to screen for strong writing and analytical skills. But sometimes they go too far and cross the line from pragmatic to problematic. And unfortunately, since the power dynamic between employers and candidates is already so skewed, candidates feel they have no choice but to comply.

I’ve been working in the nonprofit space for over eight years, six of them in international development. I’ve interviewed a million times and also participated in recruiting many people. And I think hiring processes in this space need a looot of work. For decades, too many organizations and hiring managers have been getting away with at best inconsiderate and at worst problematic treatment towards candidates. Here are just some examples of what I’ve encountered over the years.

Writing test or free labor?

In early 2017, I was invited to take a written test for a social media specialist role at a well-established global nonprofit. I hadn’t reached the interview stage yet; this test was a screening tool administered by someone from HR. We agreed on a time (the HR person said it would take approximately two hours), and I sat by the computer eagerly, waiting for the test.

When the email with test instructions dropped in my inbox, I was surprised. The test stated that the nonprofit was planning to undergo a major branding refresh and thus asked me, the potential social media strategist, to create a detailed social media plan to promote the new brand image.

To be very clear: this is the type of work that you pay consultants big bucks to do. If your whole ass nonprofit is going through a rebrand, you need to hire and pay a professional to communicate that new rebrand for you. It is entirely inappropriate to even give off the perception that you could be mining for ideas from unpaid work performed by job candidates.

I was so put off that I didn’t reply to the email. The two hours expired, and a few hours later, the HR person followed up, asking if I was having trouble sending the test back. I told her I was uncomfortable with the scope of the test and wished her best of luck in filling the role.

This happened again in 2019, after I had a great phone interview with a nonprofit in NYC. Again the HR person sent me the test over email, and as I scanned the instructions, I began shaking my head. I don’t recall the exact details, but there were at least three sections, and one of them involved creating several infographics for social media from scratch. Another section was simply, “Write and design a comprehensive plan for a social media awareness-raising campaign by [name of highly well-known climate movement that this nonprofit helps fund].”

This time I was more professional and emailed the HR manager back right away to let her know that I would not be participating in the test. I explained that I have two rules for writing tests: they need to either pertain to a hypothetical scenario or something that has already happened in the past. This fulfilled neither criteria.

Recently, I was asked to design a writing test for a communications role we were hiring for in a country office. The test I came up with involved reading a blog post that we had published nearly a year ago and creating a few tweets and LinkedIn posts to promote it. This was all work that I had already done when the blog post first came out, and so there was no chance that we could be perceived as appropriating the candidates’ work.

Candidates deserve more respect, especially when it comes to their time

I personally had a not-so-great interview experience with the World Bank, where I used to work. When they reached out to me about the interview, they straight-up told me to come at 2pm on a Tuesday and didn’t even ask if I’d be available, even though I already had a full-time job then. I ended up taking a sick day in order to go.

When I arrived on time at the conference room that had been booked for the interview, I saw that they were in the middle of interviewing another candidate. There were no chairs around, so I just stood awkwardly in the hallway outside, occasionally checking my phone and glancing at the interviewers through the incredibly clean and transparent glass walls. Thirty minutes passed before they concluded the interview and called me in. No apology was offered, nor was a glass of water. It was straight to being grilled by a panel for an hour.

I ended up getting the job, and saw similar practices while I was there. Once, my boss told me to email a candidate at 9am asking if she could come in that very afternoon for an in-person interview. I expressed my reservations, and my boss snapped, “Well, why don’t you try at least? She said she is flexible.”

These problematic practices are, of course, not unique to any organization. I once interviewed for an internship with the State Department and sat in the lobby waiting for 20 minutes before the staffer remembered to come get me. (I was ultimately ghosted.) And another time, when I was in grad school, I got through a 30-minute phone interview with a top think tank, the Brookings Institution, for what I understood to be a paid internship, until at the end, when the hiring manager brusquely said, “Oh, and by the way, the website is wrong. The internship is unpaid.” It felt like being catfished by a job. (I was also ghosted by this one.)

Of course, I was a very different person in that era. Timid, inexperienced, eager to please. These were big, prominent organizations with shiny names, and I jumped through all sorts of unreasonable hoops for them, just like many other candidates have done. If something like the first scenario happened today, I might have waited politely for five minutes, then marched up to the glass door, knocked, poked my head in and said, “Hi, I’m here for the 2pm interview — is that still happening? Is there a place I can sit and wait?”

In 2021, with more years of experience under my belt, I finally feel empowered to say, please respect the value of my time and the expertise and insights that I’m bringing to this conversation. But it has definitely been a long road.

Tell people if they didn’t get the job! Yes, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

It genuinely shocks me how many people I’ve worked with — kind, empathetic, efficient colleagues — who do not bother to get back to candidates that took time to interview and even do writing tests for them. For them, the simple act of pressing send on a “sorry but we’ve decided to go in another direction” message seems to be an inconceivable burden.

Ghosting someone who has interviewed is unacceptable. Period. Maybe hiring managers are afraid of delivering bad news. Maybe they’re wary of triggering angry replies and lawsuits. But honestly, how often does that happen? The vast majority of people, upon receiving a canned rejection, don’t reply and just move on. Some will reach out to ask for feedback on how they could have improved. Hiring managers aren’t obligated to give that level of feedback, but it’s a nice thing to do.

For one hiring process, where I liaised with candidates to set up interview times and arrange visitor passes, I realized after the finalist was selected that the hiring managers had no intention of informing the others. I asked, and was met with blank stares and a wave of the hand: well, why don’t you go ahead and do it, if you think that’s a good idea? Well, I did think it was a good idea, and I did do it. I still do it.

In summary – be respectful, be empathetic, and don’t be a jerk.

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