'Cover letters are awful.' Here's another way to hire.
Just after the spot opened up for KPCC’s managing editor, Kristen Muller faced something she’s done many times before.
With this hire, however, she wanted the hiring process to be totally different.
Muller went back and re-read Hearken’s approach to hiring (KPCC is also a Hearken newsroom) and advice from Stacy-Marie Ishmael, previously editor of BuzzFeed News apps. Muller, Southern California Public Radio’s chief content officer, spent the weekend workshopping a new job description. Then, she asked her team if they’d all be involved.
The whole process offers a new approach to a pretty old and essential practice — hiring.
In the old way, it was pretty much Muller and the human resources department. She’d write a job description, hand it to HR and they’d promote it in all the usual places.
But with this hire, Muller and her team have worked together weekly, modifying Hearken’s process for themselves.
That original process evolved pretty naturally at Hearken, said Summer Fields, an engagement consultant. When she was hired, they’d already done away with a pretty solid convention in hiring: the cover letter.
Instead, they asked a few questions about the organization and the role.
“I just remember it being so invigorating,” Fields said. “Cover letters are awful. It’s much easier to type up an answer to each of these pointed questions that I know are specific to what they need to know.”
In addition to being a drag for the person who has to read them all, she said, they can also cause candidates who have the skills for the job, but not skills for writing cover letters, to get cut.
After Fields was hired, they refined the process further, working on being clearer with communication with candidates, plus clearer on the salary and the timeline.
With this process, a lot of the work has to happen before the job is even posted, Fields said. That can help make sure the candidates you’re getting are the ones you say you want.
Some of that upfront work includes bringing in more people to help spread the word. What connections do people on your team have with different journalism organizations, schools and groups that can help with outreach? Who have you already met who you should reach out to specifically?
“You don’t just expect that you can put the job out there and people will flock to it,” Fields said.
After people apply, Hearken recommends starting with the answers to those questions that replaced the cover letter. The team scores them separately based on a rubric, then they see who scored above average.
Only then do they look at the resumes.
For KPCC, the hire is a huge one, Muller said. KPCC’s leadership team is new and gelling, so they wanted to be smart with how they added another person.
Through their process, which is still ongoing, they’ve checked the language they use to make sure they’re not turning people off who would be great for the job. (Think: “biggest news chops” and other masculine ways of talking about journalism.)
They came up with a big list of organizations and people to reach out to, and they drew up some dream candidates, focusing on qualities they wanted in that person instead of skills and behaviors.
The goal, Muller said, is to finish the process by January. Close to 40 people have applied so far.
So how can you do this if your newsroom still uses the old approach?
You could take pieces of the process, Fields said, including writing up your own list of qualities. You could meet with HR and tell them about the outreach you plan on doing, as well as flag specific people you think might apply and would like to see.
And you could spend time, as a team, figuring out what your needs are.
Also, you could try starting with one simple change, she said.
“Just banish the cover letter.”