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 Caroline Stevenson, Gem’s first Head of People from 15→150 employees.

What is a debrief?

  • A debrief is when you make a hiring decision on a candidate. You invite all of the interviewers to walk through their feedback — the goal is to land on a hiring decision.
  • However, you may realize during the debrief you have insufficient information to make a decision. 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’s extremely important to have this information submitted in writing before the debrief, and to also make sure interviewers aren’t talking about the candidate before everyone has written up their 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:
    • Scheduling debriefs at least a few hours after the last interview wraps up so everyone has time to submit feedback.
    • Implementing a rule you must have all feedback submitted at least an hour before the start of a debrief, so everyone 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). For a very small team, you might consider inviting others who would work closely with the potential candidate to make sure they’re comfortable with how you’re evaluating the candidate.

Structuring a debrief

  • 30 minutes is usually enough for a debrief; 45 minutes if it’s a new role and you’re still calibrating candidates.
  • Go around the room and have each interviewer talk about how their interview went, and how they landed on the rating they chose. Maybe three to five minutes each.
  • Ask each interviewer to start by recapping what they were asked to evaluate in their interview, so the room has 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 need to see to give a strong yes, vs. a yes?” or “Why was this a weak no vs. a solid no?”.
  • The order of how you discuss feedback is important. Here is the order I \ recommend:
    • If someone hasn’t submitted written feedback, have them go first. They’re 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 the next steps (e.g., moving to an offer, 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. You’ll need to ask yourself the following:
      • 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 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’s 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’re 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. Are you screening candidates properly before coming onsite? Are you targeting the right profiles/years of experience? Are your 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 your first few roles, but be careful about making this the norm in debriefs as you scale. 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

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