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Why SafeGraph Does Written Interviews ✍️ (and Why Your Company Should Do Them Too)

August 1, 2019
Auren Hoffman

Most jobs at SafeGraph require a written interview. We’ve found these written interviews to be extremely valuable, and including them in our hiring process leads to better results. This post outlines our thinking about written interviews.

What is a written interview?

A written interview is not a test…and it is different from a project or presentation. It is essentially the same thing as a live interview except it is communicated in written form so candidates can take their time to compose their answers.

We simply send candidates a link to a Google Doc with 4–8 questions. We ask them to get us responses within 3 days…so they should have ample time to think things through. Usually, candidates take 20–60 minutes to complete a SafeGraph written interview, and we try to have the courtesy to respond to the candidate within 12 hours of submitting the interview with any feedback or next steps.

Written interviews can augment the interview process.

While we are not arguing that companies should stop doing live interviews, we think replacing one of those live interviews with a written interview will significantly increase the interview experience (for both companies and candidates) and ultimately lead to better outcomes.

Written interviews give everyone in the company a baseline about the candidate.

Before doing a live interview of a candidate, every interviewer always reads the candidate’s resume and hopefully thinks about some good questions. At SafeGraph we also ask interviewers to do the extra step of reading the written interview before conducting their live interview.

That means the candidate does not have to answer the same questions to everyone. Everyone at SafeGraph who interviews the candidate starts with a deeper understanding of the candidate, and interviewers can ask follow-up questions about the written interview.

Written interviews help reduce the biases in favor of people that think fast on their feet that are inherent in live interviews.

Not everyone does their best thinking on-the-spot (I certainly don’t). Some people (myself included) need to take some time to think about a problem before having a decent answer. A candidate should be prepared to talk about some topics live and on-the-spot (like their work experience), but other areas require thought (and research) to deliver a good answer. Written interviews can also change the dynamic of the interview process. With written interviews, you provide candidates an opportunity to comfortably showcase their creativity and critical thinking skills in a way that is abstracted from questions normally asked in an in-person interview.

While all of the people hired at SafeGraph did well in both written and live interviews (otherwise they would not have gotten an offer), some of the best performed significantly better in the written interviews. In our small but rapidly growing start-up, we would have overlooked at least two great people if we did not get a chance to see their extraordinary written interviews.

What stage of the interview process is the best time to do a written interview?

After doing a resume review, we schedule a quick (under 30 minutes) live phone/video call to discuss the candidate, role, etc. We prefer the specific hiring manager for that role to do the first phone interview (when possible).

When we have a good first live interview (usually a phone or video call), then we send a written interview to the candidate. We let them know why we are doing the written interview and walk them through the process.

What are some good questions to ask in a written interview?

Our written interview is currently six questions.

There are three types of well-written interview questions:

  1. Expectations Questions.
  2. Research Questions.
  3. Thought Questions.

Expectations Questions are usually ones that give the candidate a chance to opt-out. For instance, if a job requires a massive amount of overseas travel, you might want to ask “this job will require you to be on the road 6–9 days a month. Are you ok with that?”

These questions do not require a lot of thought or a lengthy response, but we find that one gets a more truthful answer in a written interview (and it allows candidates to gracefully drop out of the process if they do not feel they can fit the criteria). Expectations questions are not a test, rather they are a confirmation that SafeGraph and the candidate are aligned on some fundamental expectations of the role.

Research Questions are ones that require the candidate to do some research and get back to you. For instance, you might ask a marketing candidate: “Evaluate our website. What do you like and what can we do better?”

Research Questions are hard to give in a live interview because they take time. But it is a shame to omit them because they give candidates a real opportunity to shine. Candidates also make choices on how to present the information (e.g., graphically, in a Gantt Chart, via a presentation, a recorded video, organized bullets, prose, etc.) that is helpful to understand how a candidate would communicate in the real workplace.

Thought Questions are more open-ended questions that take consideration to provide meaningful answers. As an interviewer, my goal is not to hear the first answer…I prefer to hear the candidate’s best answer.

For example, the classic Peter Thiel question is better to ask in a written interview than live. Our version is “what is something important that you believe that most people at SafeGraph would disagree with?” Even in written form, with plenty of time to collect your thoughts, this is an incredibly hard question (in fact, we usually get answers that most people at SafeGraph do very much agree with). Asking this live does not give the candidate a chance to shine.

Because I am a big reader, another written question we like to ask is “what is a great non-fiction book or article that you would recommend we read?” Many of my best readings have been recommended to me from candidates. Asking this question live might not get the best answer (one may just get a sub-optimal recommendation that is top of mind).

Written interviews should not entirely replace live interviews.

One thing that rarely gets asked is why do companies do interviews live (in real-time)?

One reason is to ask follow-up questions. If an interview was done asynchronously (like over email), it would be really hard to ask follow-up questions. The back-and-forth might take weeks. So having a set time (like Wednesday at 10:30 am) to have a live conversation can be really helpful for a quality back-and-forth.

Another reason to have a live interview is to assess how fast someone thinks on their feet. For some roles, like sales, this is a very important skill. But if you rely too heavily on live interviews then you will be biased towards hiring people that think quickly on their feet. That is not a core skill a company should optimize for…at least for most roles.

Another benefit to having live interviews is to allow the candidate to ask the interviewer questions. “What is it like to work at your company?” “What is your personal story about how you joined the company?” Live interviews allow the candidate to ask follow-ups on their questions.

Live interviews also give you a sense of the candidate’s personality. How does this person verbally communicate? Would they be a good fit in my company’s culture? And they allow the candidate to get cultural cues about the company (which is especially true when visiting the office). But these cultural cues can also lead to implicit biases (Bob may be overly biased to hold favorable opinions of people that look and act like Bob) so they need to be tempered with other data.

Can candidates give written interviews to companies?

In live interviews, it is common to allow the candidate to ask the company questions and hear the company answer. While it is not common, we have seen candidates send us written interviews to answer. This usually happens when the process is more mature (near the offer stage). Candidates might have a list of questions about the company that they want to know and asking them in written form might be both efficient and ensure the best answers (we want to be able to provide our best answers, and not just our first answers, too!).

Want to try out a written interview?

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