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Editorial
Open Letter: Why Today’s Interview Process Has To Change — And Fast
© Maridav / Adobe Stock
Rachel Schallom
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When Rachel Schallom, a seasoned journalist, was laid off during a mass restructuring, she proceeded to do the same thing that most anyone who gets laid off would do: job search like crazy and go on as many interviews as possible. 

“I applied and interviewed with newsrooms every day for six months and two days before receiving an offer,” she writes in an open letter to hiring managers. “I talked to many of you, maybe even exactly you. And in the past, I’ve been you. I know hiring is tough. But even looking through rose-colored glasses of understanding and patience, I saw all the the ways we must do better.”

You can read the full letter, which was originally published on Source, below — and we’ve also checked in with Schallom to get some further details on her experience and what she hopes hiring managers will take away from her (insanely poignant) letter. 

Fairygodboss: Your open letter specifically addresses hiring managers in newsrooms, but much of your experience seems like it might mirror what other candidates go through across various industries. Do you imagine your story is one that all hiring managers should be aware of (and that the advice you offer in the article is applicable to all sorts of HR departments)? What are some of issues surrounding the hiring process that you think might be most widespread or common? 

Rachel Schallom: Definitely. Many people from other industries reached out to me sharing similar horror stories. The response to the article, in general, was overwhelming. I was disheartened to hear how widespread these issues were, but I also feel even more convicted that this is a problem we need to tackle now. 

One of the most common themes I heard was that candidates felt uncomfortable when they didn't know what to expect or when those expectations weren't met. For example, when they would hear back, how long an interview would be, etc. Setting clear guidelines to keep everyone on the same page and communicating when the game plan changes are best practices no matter what industry you work in. 

FGB: Your experience regarding salary discussions is particularly interesting given the fact that in some cities, it's now illegal for employers to ask candidates about their salary history. What's your take on this trend?

RS: It's unfortunate that something has to become illegal in order to us to treat each other kindly, but I am glad to see the direction of this trend. There has been tons written about how basing a new salary on a previous one only compounds the pay gap for women and people of color, and, to me, that's the biggest issue. 

But even in general, the previous salary question doesn't make much sense. There are so many factors that go into a salary — cost of living, state taxes, status of the company, job responsibilities — that it would almost be impossible to compare apples to apples. I pushed back on this a lot in my interviews, but not everyone feels comfortable doing that, and making it illegal empowers more candidates to have a solid salary negotiation

FGB: You have a ton of great suggestions for hiring managers. Do you have one in particular (or two or three, even) that stand out as most important? 

RS:  In my article, I talk a lot about tangible things we should do, such as better communication, managing job postings more efficiently and providing more constructive feedback than culture fit

But the more I've thought about this and the more I've spoken to other candidates and hiring managers, the more focus I put on hiring managers realizing how much power they have to affect candidates' lives. I think about all the lost nights of sleep because a hiring manager told me they would be in touch by a certain date and then weren't, the endless conversations my partner put up with as I mulled over uncomfortable salary interactions, the stress eating after receiving terrible rejections.  

There are real people on the other end of that application, and hiring managers need to be responsible with the power they have. 

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Below is Schallom’s letter in its entirety: 

To newsroom HR departments and hiring managers,

You come in many shapes and forms: editors, journalists, HR generalists, recruiters. But no matter who you are, we need to talk. Journalism’s hiring process is broken, and we need you to fix it.

Who am I? I am the tried-and-true story of a journalist laid off as part of mass restructuring. I applied and interviewed with newsrooms every day for six months and two days before receiving an offer. I talked to many of you, maybe even exactly you. And in the past, I’ve been you. I know hiring is tough. But even looking through rose-colored glasses of understanding and patience, I saw all the the ways we must do better.

Post Those Jobs

Let’s start with job postings. First, you should have them. I saw a lot of openings that were shared with a social post along the lines of, “Looking for X, PM me.” You’re not going to get your listing in front of a diverse group of people without a listing, and informal postings like this made me feel like I had to read every tweet, Facebook post, and Slack message all day every day for fear of missing the perfect opportunity. Some of you will say that going through the official channels is a pain, and it takes too long. But when official channels don’t work, we have blogs, we have CMSes, we have Medium. Take the time to write down—and publicize—what you want.

Manage Your Postings

Even organizations with job listings were…messy. I applied to many job postings that were either already filled or cancelled—or that were always meant to go to an internal candidate. Looking for a job is a full-time gig, and it’s exhausting. Job titles and job tasks in journalism vary so much that job seekers have to read pretty much every posting to see if they are a fit. Here’s how to make it better:

  • Revisit policies that require you to post jobs when you already know you won’t review the applications.
  • Take down postings immediately when the openings are filled.
  • Email candidates and be transparent when a job is no longer going to be filled.

None of these things are hard to do—and we have technology that makes it easy. If you respect your colleagues in the industry, show that you value the time they spend applying for jobs at your company.

Most of the time my search went like this: I applied to an open position by filling out your online application (which usually meant manually entering everything that was on my resume—so fun!), then sending an email to an editor to let them know I applied. Sometimes I did not get a response. Sometimes I got a quick response that you would be in touch, and then you never were. Sometimes you asked for a phone call. The average response time was one to two weeks.

Some of those applications turned into interviews.

The Money Talk

When the interview process started with an HR screening, you always asked what my salary expectations were. I knew this would happen, and I tried to be as prepared as possible, using cost-of-living calculators and talking to people who had experience working at that company. For the most part, I was completely reliant on the advice of others on what to ask for, and I was always worried I wasn’t going to be in the right range. 

I often was applying for a role that was previously held by a man, and I knew that would be a factor too. (I tried to ask both men and women for salary advice, but finding people to discuss this was difficult at the management level, and I found more ease with talking to women about it. 

You also always asked what I made at my previous position, and I never answered that question. I said that I didn’t find my past salary to be relevant because it was for a different position in a different company in a different city, but I would be happy to discuss an acceptable range for the role I was interviewing for. I pushed and pushed to have you give me a range, but that only worked about half the time. 

It is important to talk about salary—let’s not waste our time if we aren’t on the same page. But we need a new way to do it. Our societal climate does not allow for applicants, especially women and people of color, to have enough information to give themselves a fair shot. I’m not interested in increasing your diversity numbers if I’m not being paid fairly. You, the person with the power to pay fairly and equally, should start this conversation by giving a range for the position instead of forcing the applicant to kick off the negotiation.

The Proposals

If you liked our initial chat, sometimes you asked me to submit a proposal of ideas: how I thought the team should be structured, how I would want to run the team, what changes I would suggest and implement, what stories the team should chase. It became apparent after a few of these that this is essentially free consulting work. In some cases, I saw my ideas used even if I wasn’t hired. Proposals at the management level are complex and time intensive. Organizations vary vastly, and we can’t recycle old ideas. When I submitted these, they had been labored over, and they were tailored just for you.

Proposals are a good way to get into the brain of a candidate, but they deserve much more respect than we’re giving them now. I’m leading a session at SRCCON about proposals and design/development tests. I’ll send you notes on what we learn.

All the Rest

I applied for 71 jobs, had phone interviews at 22 organizations and 6 in-person interviews, sent 11 proposals, and received one offer. It was a months-long marathon of wait and see.

Here are just some of the terrible practices I came in contact with:

-The hiring manager who scheduled a call, didn’t call at the scheduled time, and never replied to my follow-up email.

-The company that required applicants to pay for their own travel and accommodations for in-person interviews.

-The many, many hiring managers and HR staffers who said, “You’ll hear back on (date),” but didn’t contact me for days, weeks or sometimes months after that.

-The hiring manager who, after asking me to put together a proposal for how I would run a new team, told me he wasn’t hiring for that position anymore—and then a month later announced they hired a man to run something shockingly close to my proposal.

-The HR manager who gave me and another applicant completely different stories about the hiring process. (We talk to each other, by the way.)

-The managers who would recommend me for other organizations’ jobs, completely ignoring that I had applied to work for them. (I know you think it’s the nice way of letting me down, but please be honest.)

-The HR screener who forced me to give her a salary range before she would tell me about the position.

-The rejection email that didn’t list the name of the organization or the position, so I had (and still have) literally no idea which application it was for.

-The editor who, after an eight-hour in-person interview, asked me when I wanted to start, and then emailed five days later to say that they decided I wasn’t a good fit.

How You Hire Reveals Your Real Culture

In the six months I spent looking for a new position, what I experienced was the reverse of all the thinkpieces and conference talks on improving hiring and diversity in newsrooms. My age and ambition were constantly questioned. You told me I wasn’t “senior” enough even though I already had the experience—journalism’s subtle way of saying you can be young, you can be female, but you can’t be both. When I asked about benefits, I saw the terror that I might want to get pregnant soon. For the most part, you wanted safe hires, which often meant white men who were recommended by other white men.

You told me I had an interesting resume, but, again, I wasn’t a good fit. You told me the company decided to move in another direction. You told me nothing constructive.

“Culture fit” is a lazy response; it’s what happens when you don’t want to challenge yourself to figure out why the candidate bothers you. You didn’t want to say that I’m too young. You didn’t want to say that the staff may have issues taking direction from a young woman. You didn’t want to say that it bothers you that I challenge you. All these things are in opposition of the industry’s push for diversity, so you chalk it up to “culture fit” and move on.

You have to do better.

It’s Not an Emergency If It Happens Every Day

News will break, things will slip through the cracks, you will reply to interviewees late. It’s inevitable. But the frequency with which it happened to me showed that it wasn’t an emergencies-only behavior. It was consistent.

I was told many time to be patient, that hiring managers have a lot on their plate. Of course that’s true. I know you’re very busy, and this is just one more thing you have to worry about. You probably weren’t even trained on how to do it.

No matter what, you have to be aware of how your actions affect candidates. Your actions affect their anxieties and sense of security. You actions affect whether they renew leases and sleep through the night. You have immense power, and it’s time to be responsible with it.

This is a small industry. It’s an industry where layoffs are always happening, and there are lots of job seekers. We talk, we swap stories and get advice. How you handle hiring and the experience that potential employees have is part of your brand. It matters, and you should care. If we’re going to fight managing by fear, that has to include hiring. Laid-off journalists may not have immediate leverage, but they still deserve to be treated well.

We Can Do Better

I believe that you wish you could do better, that you want candidates to have a good experience with your hiring process. I know there are obstacles in your way, but we can’t keep waiting to have serious conversations about what gets in the way of a more humane process. It’s time to demand hiring training for new managers, an investment in the technology that would make this easier, and better relationships between hiring managers and human resources departments.

It would be easy to write this off as a singular experience because hey, maybe I suck at my job. Or maybe I met the only assholes in the business. But I’m writing to you because I wanted to show it’s not just one guy. I wanted to say that it felt like my time spent talking about diversity and hiring has been a waste of time because the things we preach aren’t being practiced. I wanted you to know that a lot of people who are laid off lose self-confidence because of these hiring practices. 

And I wanted to shine a light for everyone who may be too nervous to speak up.

I’m back in the game, and I’m with you in this struggle. 

Let’s make newsrooms better together,

 

Rachel

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This open letter was originally published on Source. 

Rachel Schallom is an editor specializing in digital strategy and visual and data journalism. She starts as a project manager for the Wall Street Journal in July. She curates a weekly newsletter highlighting interesting things happening in visual journalism. She has been an adjunct professor teaching coding for journalism students, has spoken at national and international conferences, and is involved in making journalism a more equal place for women to work.

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