5c. How to run a debrief

5c. How to run a debrief

As soon as your team is done interviewing, you’re going to want to debrief on candidates to decide whether to move forward with an offer.

Here are some best practices on how to debrief written by our very own Head of People, Caroline Stevenson.

Feedback? Suggestions? Ideas? Comment directly, suggest edits, or email steve@gem.com and caroline@gem.com 

What is a debrief?

  • A debrief is when you make a hiring decision on a candidate. You invite all of the interviewers to talk through their feedback and aim to land on a hiring decision.
  • However, you may realize in a debrief that you have insufficient information to make a hiring decision, and in this case, a debrief is still helpful because it will help you uncover what signal you may be missing on a candidate and align on what next steps (if any) to take (e.g., on the candidate specifically, and/or how you need to change your interview process to capture more signal).

Pre debrief

  • Every interviewer should have detailed notes in writing on how their interview went, along with a yes or no hire rating. It is extremely important to have this submitted in writing before the debrief, and to also make sure that interviewers are not talking about the candidate before everyone has written up this feedback. Talking to one another before submitting written feedback will lead to interviewers biasing each other on the panel: interviewers will re-evaluate the performance in their own interview in light of hearing about another interview that went well or poorly.
  • It’s also important to give every interviewer time to both write and read feedback before the debrief. You might consider implementing some guidelines like:
    • Schedule debriefs at least a few hours after the last interview wraps up so everyone has time to submit feedback.
    • Implement a rule that you must have all feedback submitted at least an hour before the start of a debrief, so folks can read all of the feedback ahead of going into the meeting.
  • You should invite every member of the interview panel to this debrief (including phone interviewers) and for a very small team, you might consider inviting others that would work closely with this person to make sure they are comfortable with how you are evaluating the candidate.

Structuring a debrief

  • 30 minutes is usually enough for a debrief. You might do 45 minutes if it’s a new role and you’re still calibrating on candidates.
  • You want to go around the room and have each interviewer talk about how their interview went, and how they landed on the rating they chose. Maybe 3-5 minutes each.
  • Ask each interviewer to start by recapping what they were asked to evaluate in their interview, so the room has that context.
  • If you’re having trouble understanding how the interviewer landed on their rating, you should ask follow up questions, like “this interview sounded positive, what would you have needed to see to give a strong yes, vs. a yes?” or “why was this a weak no vs. a solid no?”.
  • The ordering of how you discuss feedback is important. Here is the order I would recommend:
    • If someone hasn’t submitted written feedback, have them go first. They are the most susceptible to bias, since they haven’t put their initial thoughts in writing yet.
    • After that, go in order of seniority. Having junior folks on the team share feedback first is a good practice. Some junior team members (in both company tenure and career experience) may feel uncomfortable disagreeing or giving a totally different evaluation than a senior team member.
    • Save leadership for last, as they’re the most likely to bias the group if they go first.

Making a decision

  • You might end the debrief in clear alignment with the team on next steps (moving to an offer or reference checks, or rejecting).
  • It is also ok to end without a clear decision, and you might end the debrief torn on what to do. There are a few different scenarios here:
    • You believe the candidate is good, but you don’t have enough information to feel confident in making a decision. Ask yourself:
      • Do we need to change our interview process to make sure we get this signal next time? Why did we miss it this time around?
      • Is there a way to get this signal from the candidate at this point in time? Maybe we do another interview, a take-home test, or something else.
    • You might be torn because the interview panel was torn. Some want to make a hire, and others don’t.
      • First off, don’t feel like you have to make a decision in the room. It’s ok to say “thanks for the feedback. I’m going to think this over and will follow up on the next steps”.
      • There will likely be additional steps here if you decide to move forward, as you’ll likely want to revisit anything that was assessed negatively, if it was deemed important to the role.
      • If your team is small, it’s probably important to have a lot of alignment and excitement around the first few hires. If a debrief is particularly contentious, you might want to pass.

Other best practices

  • If you’re seeing interview feedback come in that is trending very negatively, it’s okay to cancel the debrief and save everyone 30 minutes, since it’s clear this person won’t move to the offer stage. However, if you are hiring for a new role, you may want to keep this meeting on the calendar as it will be valuable to learn if there are things you can improve on. Are you screening candidates properly before coming onsite? Are you targeting the right profiles/years of experience? Are expectations on performance correct? Debugging things early might save you a lot of time.
  • Always try to benchmark the candidate against the hiring plan and interview rubric. Comparing candidates side by side is ok when you’re small and trying to calibrate on your first few roles, but be careful about scaling this into debrief culture as you grow. This can have a lot of implications with unconscious bias and privilege. For example, maybe one candidate doesn’t have as robust of a skillset in one area or another, because they weren’t given the same opportunities to develop these skills or the same access to education. You ultimately want to evaluate everyone against what you determine as necessary for the role and be cognizant if you’re building a culture of stack ranking candidates against one another.

Next Steps

Back ← Back to home here ← 5. How to interview here
Next Up → 5d. Reference checks here → Skip ahead to selling & closing here

Feedback? Suggestions? Ideas? Comment directly or email steve@gem.com