Finding our Production Assistant

rainbow-pelgrane_150In December, we advertised a vacancy for a Production Assistant. We’re a small company, so this is really significant for us, and we wanted to make sure that we recruited the right person for the role. Simon and I discussed it extensively, and realised that there were two key aspects we were looking for.

  • The first was experience doing – or a demonstrated capacity to do – the job. It’s really important to us that we provide excellent customer service, and the candidate had to be able to do that, while simultaneously managing a workload full of shifting priorities, conflicting deadlines, and a never-ending stream of little tasks to trip up the best-laid plans.
  • The second was excellent communication skills. This comes up in job application forms a lot – what we mean is the ability to explain situations clearly, concisely, and in a friendly and professional way, to everyone we interact with, from customers through to freelancers and, yes, even printers.

We asked applicants to send in CVs and cover letters, which is a surprisingly useful way of identifying communication skills. An ideal cover letter for this job is somewhere from a couple of paragraphs long to just under a page – this gives you enough space to explain why you’re the right candidate for the job, mapping your skills and experience to the role requirements; and is short enough for a harried prospective employer to be able to read a lot of.

We got nearly 50 applications (of whom we believe 40% were women), and it was clear from the cover letters and CVs that they were predominantly of a very high calibre. While I would have liked to interview everyone, that wasn’t realistic, so we decided to initially interview five candidates.

The next stage involved designing a custom application form to test candidate’s skills, and learn more about their personality, working style and mindset. I designed this in three parts. The first part requested basic details which weren’t covered by the CVs. The second consisted of competency scenarios, which tested candidates’ responses to everyday situations Simon and I encounter [I thought of it as being like a professional play-by-post game]. While there was no “right” answer, there were key elements we expected to see in each reply. For example:

  • Scenario: a customer whose book hadn’t been shipped due to our error.
    • Expectation: a genuine apology to the customer, an explanation of what had gone wrong, and a list of the actions being taken to fix the situation for the customer.
  • Scenario: a printer who had caused a massive error.
    • Expectation: a clear message that we wouldn’t be paying them until we received the correctly-printed books, and a request for the printer to print it correctly at their own expense.
  • Scenario: a manager trying to pile another day of super-urgent work on top of an already too large pile of super-urgent work.
    • Expectation: a response pushing back, outlining the current workload, and requesting either additional support, or a readjustment of the deadlines.
  • Scenario: a freelance writer with a horribly impending hard deadline who wasn’t responding to emails.
    • Expectation: a message clarifying that, if there was no reply to the last email within a short timescale (like a day or a few hours), we would reallocate the work to another writer.
  • Scenario: the candidate realises they have made a costly mistake. [I had conveniently made a costly, thoughtless mistake in November which I was able to exaggerate and reuse for this purpose].
    • Expectation: an email to management, explaining what had happened and taking ownership for the mistake, ideally with some suggestions on how to fix it.

The third part was the dreaded “interview questions” section. I appreciate from doing interviews that these can be challenging to answer, but having seen it from the other side of the table, it’s amazing how quickly you get a sense of whether a candidate is a good skills match for a role, and cultural fit for your company. As our Production Assistant will be working remotely, it’s vital they’re able to manage their own workload, work effectively as part of a team, and feed back any issues. We asked some classic questions, like:

  • What is the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make at work? How did you arrive at your decision?
  • Tell us about a time when you had to work with a difficult colleague to achieve a project or achieve your objectives. What happened?
  • Tell us about a project that you planned with other people. How did you organize and schedule the tasks, and what was your action plan?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

[The last one prompted some debate once we got to the reviewing the answers stage. Simon was disappointed no-one said they wanted in five years “to be working at a bigger, better Pelgrane they’d helped develop”. I said that I thought that sounded presumptuous and cocky, and I understood why people would be reluctant to say that. Simon then reminded me how I answered when I was asked that in the interview for my job, which was, apparently, “I want to be running your company.” So, maybe he had a point].

We also asked some questions that are important to us, like:

  • What’s the best RPG you’ve played in the last year, and why?
  • How would you work with the Pelgrane team to increase diversity in the roleplaying community at large, in our games, and in our initiatives?
  • Tell us about a time you went out of your way to ensure a customer received the best possible service.
  • Owlbear, shoggoth, or vampire: what would you rather fight, and why? [this might just save our lives some day].

Given the calibre of the candidates, I also asked what, if anything, they would be willing to do on a freelance basis if they weren’t successful, and was pleased to see most applicants were interested in freelance work with us. People seemed to mostly enjoy completing the form. It was detailed – it took me about an hour and a half to complete – but the questions were relevant to the position, and really helpful to us when we were going through the candidates. I got just over forty responses back, and then came the most difficult part – reducing the list.

Application formFirst, I copied the form responses to another spreadsheet, stripping out any identifying details such as name and email address, and then sorting them in a different order. Then, I went through the scenario-based answers. Responses which ticked all our expectation boxes, and added some “bonus” information that wasn’t in our baseline (e.g., offering to email the customer back to confirm receipt, or  proposals for changing the process to ensure the costly mistake didn’t happen again), I highlighted in green. Responses which covered our expectations, or nearly covered them, I highlighted in amber. Responses which didn’t hit our expectations on two or more questions, I highlighted in red.

I then went through the interview-style questions, and gave them a similar traffic-light highlighting depending on how well they had answered the questions. I was looking for detailed answers, addressing all points, demonstrating self-awareness, and relevant to the question – without glibness or superficiality. Some of these questions were additionally weighted; for example, candidates who answered the “Best RPG” question with a videogame or boardgame were marked down.

Finally, I cross-referenced the rating on both sets of questions, to get an overall sense of the candidate. If both sets were green, amber, or red, they stayed that colour; if the candidate had one red and one amber set, they were marked as red; and if they had one green set and one amber set, I reviewed their answers to both together, marking up some to green, and marking down some to amber. I had been aiming to halve the number of candidates, to around twenty; I ended up with sixteen green candidates, which seemed like a good number. I then contacted everyone who was marked red or amber, to let them know they hadn’t been successful, and giving them specific feedback about their application.

When I had shortlisted the top sixteen candidates, I passed their form responses, without identifying details, on to Simon. He removed responses which were purely informational, then went through the remaining answers on a question-by-question basis, grading them from one to three. At this stage, his intention was not to build up an impression of the candidates one at a time, but to independently measure each response.

Then, he added their marks together, and looked at the number of ones, twos and threes in each submission. He examined each candidate’s answers as a coherent set, to gain a personal impression to supplement the numerical score. Finally, he examined their covering letters, CVs, social media profiles and any writing samples they had provided, to make his choices for the top eight shortlist. His blind selection shortlisted seven women.

Simon and I then went through the eight applications together. Going through the traffic lighting process, there had been four stand-out candidates for me, and I was pleased to note that they were all in Simon’s top eight. Reducing the list to five to interview was a difficult process, as we were confident the top eight would all have done a great job. We discussed their likely commitment to the role; their location; any conflicting loyalties or priorities; their current involvement in the RPG hobby, whether they were interested more in the writing and design aspects than publishing; how we envisaged them integrating with the other Pelgranistas at conventions, and on our Slack channels. After a lot of discussion, and trying to measure apples (“great graphic design skills”) against oranges (“lots of social media experience”), we arrived at a list of five interviewees, all of whom were women. I contacted all the green graded applicants to let them know we had chosen five people to interview, but that I would confirm whether one of those five were successful once we had interviewed them.

We then wrote up a list of interview questions, to make sure we were consistent in what we asked the candidates, that we got all the information we needed to make a decision, and also to remember what we had to say [I was very nervous], and we interviewed them over the next five days. I’d hoped that the interviewees would get to have what Wade Rockett wonderfully described as a “fireside chat” with him, offering candidates the opportunity to candidly discuss working with Pelgrane, and ask a neutral prospective colleague any questions about me and Simon, but I realised that I had promised them a quick response and so there wasn’t time. [This is the only thing I’d change in the process].

After much discussion, Alex Roberts emerged as the strongest candidate in a very strong field. She had been the highest-ranked on Simon’s blind numerical shortlist, and on my more intuitive shortlist. We offered her the role, and she accepted it. I then contacted all the remaining interviewees, and the green-ranked candidates, to say that someone had accepted the role, and giving them specific feedback on why they had not been successful.

So, welcome to Alex Roberts, our new Production Assistant! You can read a bit more about Alex here.

And if you’re interested in seeing the full application form, the link is here.



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