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The Speed to Hire Show - Streamline Hiring with a Lean Team

The Speed to Hire Show – Streamline Hiring with a Lean Team

Episode 1 – Jennifer Howell, American Marketing Association

The American Marketing Association (AMA) has served the marketing community for more than 80 years, providing solutions-based content to advance marketers at any stage in their careers. The lean Culture Team at AMA oversees the hiring process of more than two dozen hiring managers. They streamline hiring with the Spark Hire solution for Speed to Hire.

This episode of The Speed to Hire Show features Jennifer Howell, the Senior Manager of People and Culture at AMA.

Key Takeaways

    • [07:27] Create a hiring road map: Hiring team collaboration and efficiency are key to any hiring team, whether lean or with many stakeholders 
    • [11:16] Focus on the hiring experience: Creating a structured, fair, and accurate hiring process ensures a consistent experience for candidates and hiring professionals
    • [25:34] Make communication clear and personal: Authenticity, connection, and communication are what candidates crave
    • [29:10] Set clear and accurate expectations: Retention starts and ends with making expectations clear in the early stages of screening
    • [40:16] Offer a hiring experience that models employment: Be thoughtful and deliberate with your questions and interactions, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Video Transcript

JOSH TOLAN: So, I guess, first thing if you could just tell me a little bit about AMA and yourself, and your role there. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Sure! So the American Marketing Association is a non-profit association. We serve the individual marketer. So for Human Resource nerds, we have SHRM, Society of Human Resource Management. For marketers, it’s the AMA. We are providing them with solutions-based content to help them grow in their careers. 

We have three different communities, our collegiate community of emerging marketers and students. We have our professional community, which is our marketing practitioners. And then we have our academic community, which is professors and researchers that are providing best practices. They’re writing for our journals, all of that kind of stuff. 

We have been in existence for about 80 years. But how we have served our members has wildly changed over the years. I have been with the AMA for a little over four years. I’m the Senior Manager of People and Culture at the AMA. And kind of my sweet spot, where I love, is talent acquisition. 

I love training hiring managers on how to write the best job descriptions and job postings. Who are you looking for? Conducting really thorough intake meetings. Making sure that I am as fluent in what this job that they are looking to fill is, is humanly possible. So that we can tailor the questions that we ask. And we can make sure that the experience for them is great. 

I also do a lot of training for hiring managers and hiring teams on etiquette. And what are best practices for interviewing candidates? And why is that important? 

And then we’ve also set a recruitment and selection process map. So what our process looks like is unified. So if anybody doesn’t know what is expected of them or what they have to do next, we have a map. Refer to that. That’s going to be your end all, be all for where we are in the process. So we have a really solid, really successful model in place. And Spark Hire has played a really big part in our success with it in the past few years. 

JOSH TOLAN: That’s great. Awesome to hear. So tell me about– what’s the makeup of your team? How many people? And then, I guess, how big is the organization as a whole? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Sure, so the number of people that work for– not members of the AMA, but who work for the AMA. We are a 70-person employer. The people in Culture Team is comprised of three people. So our Director of People and Culture, who handles all of our strategy, building everything, and building the architecture around it. I manage the day to day of the entire operations of human resources. And then we have a People Operation Specialist who is the steward of all of our data.

JOSH TOLAN: Got it. OK, so it sounds like, while talent acquisition is your jam, you’ve got a lot more than just that on your plate. 


JOSH TOLAN: And as a non-profit, it probably makes it even more challenging, just given the resources that you guys have available to you. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Yeah, it really and truly does. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, so what kind of challenges does that present for you, in just being in a nonprofit organization, having a lean team that’s supporting a lot of different things with talent acquisition just being a piece of that? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: I think the challenge of being a lean team, not just in people and culture but as an organization, means that people have really high accountability. 

They have the opportunity to have a really high level of engagement with what their team should look like and the impact that themselves and what their teams will have on the organization and the future of the organization. 

So because we are lean, there are less levels of fat to cut through. And no idea is a bad idea. And so we do a lot of business cases. And what’s a process that’s not working or something, that could be optimized better? Let’s interrogate it a little bit. And let’s see where we can focus on continuous improvement and move the needle and not be so stuck in a certain way of doing things. So that’s a real benefit. 

I think a challenge is time management. And we like to have, from a talent acquisition standpoint, I am an enabler of the process and a steward of the process. But I also want hiring managers to know that they are ultimately responsible for moving people through the pipeline and for taking full responsibility to provide accurate and complete feedback about these candidates at every single step. 

So it’s very high accountability because if somebody else is unilaterally making the decision for a hire then that’s low accountability for a manager. But if they’re engaged and there’s a high level of, this is my person. They went through this entire process for us. I have multiple data points that I can pull from why I believe they’re the best person for this role. 

Then you’re more invested as a manager. So that’s like the dividends of the work that had to happen during talent acquisition. 

JOSH TOLAN: Sure, sure. Yeah, so it sounds like efficiency is obviously key as a leading team. So is collaboration. And then it sounds like, maybe that’s a selling point you guys are using within the recruitment process, is just the level of ownership and accountability and the change that an individual you bring into the organization can impact. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

JOSH TOLAN: That’s great. And how many hiring managers are you guys supporting? 


JOSH TOLAN: Oh, wow. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: There are 27 managers above us. 

JOSH TOLAN: With three people. Three people, but you’ve got a director. Then you said you’re doing– are you the primary person on talent acquisition? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: I’m the only person. 

JOSH TOLAN: So you’re supporting 27 hiring managers. 


JOSH TOLAN: That’s a lot. And it sounds like you guys have done a lot to put the right systems and processes in place to empower, or as you say, enable them, to do what they need to do and take ownership of their responsibilities within the hiring process. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

JOSH TOLAN:  And with all those different hiring managers, what types of roles are you guys recruiting for? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Sure, so the roles that we hire for really vary. They could be a customer service representative who is managing incoming calls, and emails, and questions, and queries, and questions coming in through social media. It could be a community manager or an assistant manager of our communities who are dealing with one of our three academic, professional, or collegiate. 

We just hired a data analyst because the person that was in the data analyst role before was promoted to product manager. We’ve looked for and found several directors, Director of Product Development, Director of Professional Development, Director of Learning, Director of Content Production. Yeah. 

So it’s kind of in every level in between. I think the only one that I don’t touch is our CEO. And that’s it. Everything else, it comes through me. And then, either people are promoted upwards, or we hire at a director level. 

JOSH TOLAN:  Sure. Everything you just said really speaks to why, then, collaboration is so important between you and the hiring managers. Because with 27 different managers, and it’s not like you’re recruiting for the same type of job over and over, you need to have a really solid process to ensure that, like you mentioned, you have a solid grasp of what you guys are trying to hire for. 

And then that factors its way all throughout the hiring process as you’re trying to figure out what questions should we ask? And what stages should we put in our hiring process to make sure that we’re best vetting people for the position? You mentioned you have a map. 


JOSH TOLAN: And, also, it sounds like a hiring manager intake before you start recruiting for any role. Can you just tell me a little bit about that? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Of course. So we were very intentional about our recruitment selection and process map because we didn’t want hiring managers to feel overwhelmed. And so we sort of set it up as swim lanes so that it could be easily digestible. 

The top level is the hiring manager. This is just the hiring manager’s path in this process. The middle chunk is people in culture, so, me, essentially. And then at the bottom end is our executive team. 

So it’s identifying the need for headcount and approving it. And then it’s like the hiring manager is responsible for creating the internal job description and the levels of responsibility and requirements, and then using that information to create the job posting. 

And then, once we have that, then I’m able to do a compensation study and make sure that is what we have budgeted and what the market can bear. Are those in alignment? Do we need to recalibrate a little bit? 

Once we have the job description and the posting set, this is what we need. This is what the budget is. This is what we can afford. This is what the market can bear. Then I have the intake meeting with the hiring manager. And depending upon their experience, we will review the job posting so that I am fluent. Not all times am I, so if I’m looking for a data warehouse architect, (WHISPERS) I don’t know. 

I couldn’t tell you. Yeah, I’m not going to ask you about writing code and the cloud. I don’t know how to do that. But I can become fluent enough to be able to engage in these conversations and critically think about it. Sometimes a lot of those intake meetings are also, what are wins for your team? What would best round out your team? 

So it’s asking them to interrogate, what are areas where you’re not so strong? What are skill gaps or emotional gaps in the team that we can look for and target, and think about when we’re asking questions? So, for example, we just hired a data analyst. And that entire team is super strategic. And they’re very direct. And they’re always the smartest people. 

And so what they were looking for for the data analyst was somebody who could be more relatable to the organization and make data accessible. And so those were things that we looked for in crafting our interview questions. And this was what we were looking for from an observational standpoint and how they communicated. And shared that with the hiring team so that when interviews started happening, they knew what to look for. 

So we’re asking all of these questions in the intake meeting. I’m also asking the hiring manager, here’s our number one question we ask everybody. What interests you in the role and joining the team? And then a question about diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

There’s three questions in the middle. Let’s figure out, what are the things that you need to know that you can glean from this to determine whether or not somebody should move forward. So those are the things that happen within the intake meeting. 

JOSH TOLAN: Got it. And that’s a great point because I feel like, a lot of times when folks come up with what questions they want to ask in any type of interview, they’re always thinking about what are the exact questions I need to know that are specific to this job. But they often don’t do the second part– which you guys are doing in your intake –is OK, but what do I need to know to make sure this person is the right fit for the team and for the organization and filling the gaps that we have? 

Often that is missed, with a lot of different organizations, is they don’t factor in both of those things. They might Google interview questions for whatever role and kind of come up with what they want to ask. And that helps them get a feel for if, technically speaking, somebody has the experience and skill set to do the job. But there’s way more than that goes into making somebody successful in the organization. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Right. And I think one of the things that we use Spark Hire for, in particular, is to get to know somebody. And let them get to know us. So I have an intro and an outro video recorded. It’s me with this background asking them questions. So that they know, you’re not speaking into the void. Somebody is looking at it. And it’s going to be this chick. 

But it’s also, we ask them questions about, what’s something that– tell us about a time when you had– and some of these are specific to the world that we’re hiring for. Tell us about a time when you had several deadlines for several different events and a lot of competing priorities. How did you determine what to deprioritize? And what was the result of that? 

And so it’s specific to the role that we’re hiring for. And so we’re getting our predictive behavioral questions in. And we’re also figuring out how they communicate and how they process their thoughts. And how they can communicate those thoughts. And I think that’s really important. 

And so a lot of the really specific stuff about the role, we save that for the phone screen, which I do, or the virtual interviews. That’s something that the hiring manager should be asking. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yep, yep. Makes a lot of sense. So we’re in 2023 now. What goals do you guys have as an organization, specifically, as it relates to talent acquisition? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: We are going through a change in leadership. We have a new CEO in place. And he is setting a new strategic vision for us. So we haven’t had a new strategic vision in about six years. So we are all very excited about where this is heading and what that means for us. 

And we know that some of it might mean some internal shifts and saying what we need. Who is the talent that we already have that we can capitalize on? And then what’s left? So from a talent acquisition standpoint, I think we’re looking internally. And then we’re going to be looking externally quite a bit as we grow the team. I was told to get ready. 

JOSH TOLAN: That’s good. That’s good. Well, you won’t have a dull day, that’s for sure. 


JOSH TOLAN: So with that, did you have to go back to the drawing board at all? With a new strategic vision for the organization, did you have to go back to the drawing board with your messaging that you’re taking out to market, your job ads, or communication with candidates? Or how does that impact– 

JENNIFER HOWELL: I think some of that is going to be impacted by the new strategic vision. I think some of it is just it’s treating candidates with respect and calibrating expectations right away with them. Even if the strategic vision is shifting a little bit, the work isn’t going to change. So making sure that our process as it pertains to talent acquisition is still respectful and is achieving the same goals. 

We’ve been, in the past, in 2022 we had to rescind an offer to one person after a background check. But outside of that person we have a 100% offer acceptance rate. 


JOSH TOLAN: And that is absolutely due to maintaining the integrity of a really solid recruitment and process plan. And so, regardless of what our strategic vision is going to look like in 2023 and beyond, we are set up for success because we’ve built the house. We can rearrange and rehab if we need to. But our structure is seen in the results of all of the people that we’ve hired in the past four years. And they are the lifeblood of who the AMA is. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yep, yep. I like that house analogy. And, yeah, I think that’s so important in any candidate experience, is the biggest thing is managing candidates’ expectations about your process, your timeline, the job, the company. And I think that’s why you guys have such a strong offer acceptance rate, is it sounds like you’re enabling that at every step along the way in your hiring process. 

So candidates can keep opting in to continue that process with transparency on what they can expect moving forward in your process and at the company. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Yeah, absolutely. 

JOSH TOLAN: So, speaking of process, can you just take me through — I know it’ll probably vary somewhat from role to role but, generally speaking, what’s the hiring process look like at the AMA? What types of interview stages are there? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: So outside of our CEO, it is the same. So there are a couple of variations. So the very first step is, once somebody has applied, the hiring manager reviews the application. And the first step in the process is Spark Hire. So it is. We know right away if they are engaged and if they want this and if they’re interested, then they are going to click that link and click that invite. 

We have, I think at last check, it was like an 85% acceptance and completion rate. So that’s pretty high. After the Spark Hire interview is completed, the hiring manager evaluates each candidate, each question, a lot of work. And then they move people through to the phone screen, which is 30 minutes with me on the phone. 

And if there are questions that emerged in Spark Hire that they want more information on, it gives me the chance in the phone interview to say, one of the things that you mentioned in your Spark Hire was that this was an initiative that you are a part of. I’m curious as to what the metrics of success for that looked like. 

So it’s also telling the candidates, we hear what you told us in Spark Hire. And we’re curious about more. And, then, once the phone interview happens, then the hiring manager will determine who they want to give– if there’s an assignment, so if we’re hiring for a role, right now, that has a writing assignment. 

And so once that phone interview is completed, the hiring manager says, yep, go ahead and send the assignment out to all five of these candidates. And then once those assignments are received, then they say, yep, here are my three finalists. And then we do a virtual on-site interview, which is a Zoom interview with the hiring manager, myself, and then other members of the organization, not necessarily their team. 

But before the virtual on-site interview happens, we have a kickoff meeting with the hiring team. And I go back to my intake meeting notes. And I ask the hiring manager during the intake, what are three to five key talking points that we should share with the interview team? So they’re thinking about it right away. 

This is a backfill for this role. But we’re looking to retailer this so we’re not looking for a replacement for the thing that was. Or this is a brand new role within the AMA. And we are super excited that we are now able to have it. We need somebody who is actively engaged with this, this, and this. Some of these are observable things. 

And then it’s also, we’re really looking for somebody who can relate to whoever it is that they’re speaking to. So a lot of it is expressing the importance of the role that they’re hiring for, observable things. And, then, in a kickoff meeting, the hiring manager, I remind them of it in a private chat. Hey, just as a reminder, what we said in intake. And then they’ll say, this is what we’re looking for for this role. 

The interview team will be able to ask questions about the job posting, what it is that they’re looking for. They know that the finalists that get to this point have already been vetted really thoroughly. So they’re not going to meet people who are a dumpster fire. They’re not going to meet somebody who is thoroughly unqualified. 

If they’ve gotten to this point, that’s for good reason. And then once the virtual on-sites happen, they submit their feedback within 24 hours. And then we have a roundtable after all of the interviews are completed. I pull up everybody’s feedback. We go through. And so, Josh, here’s what you said about this candidate. Is there anything else you’d like to add? So you have immediate feedback and then any reflection that you may have in the time between the interview. 

So then the hiring manager has the candidate’s resume, Spark Hire, their phone interview, and my evaluation. An assignment, if it’s there. Virtual on-site, feedback, and roundtable, that’s so many data points. 

If the roundtable determines there’s a real split, some people are hard no’s, some people are hard yeses. If you decide on that candidate, you have a lot of stakeholder work to do with the hard no’s. 

And so it’s, again, it’s making sure that they feel accountable. And that they’re making a decision about this person with intent. And so that’s our process every time. And one of my favorite things, also, is once somebody is hired, I conduct interviewing 101 training with them. So that they can then be asked to be on an interview team. And they can be on the other side of the table. And so it’s a recruiting culture. 

JOSH TOLAN: That’s awesome. I love it. And so a couple of questions there. So with the hiring team, the members that aren’t the hiring manager, are you providing them with the Spark Hire interview notes from your phone screen, that package beforehand, or what’s their–



JENNIFER HOWELL: So we do not want to enable groupthink. So we want them to evaluate candidates purely so we have six core competencies. And we’ve already done the work by giving 10 to 12 questions that are behavioral interview questions for each competency. 

When somebody is asked to join an interview team, it’s determined by the hiring manager. I’ll ask the hiring manager, which competency would you like this person to tackle? And then we’ll say, all right, Josh, you’re getting stakeholder sensitive. So I’ll send the competency guide to you. And then my ask of you in the kickoff meeting is, all right, pick one or two questions that you ask every candidate. So you are comparing apples to apples. 

JOSH TOLAN: Got it. That makes sense because now you’ve got that team interview as more of, like, another independent data point if you will, that you use as the comprehensive package to ultimately make the decision. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: That’s right. 

JOSH TOLAN: I like that. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: And there are some things that emerge in the virtual on-site that don’t emerge, or didn’t emerge before. And an example that we have that I can speak to is in February/March of last year, we were hiring for a role. And at the very last stage, two of the people that were on the hiring team, one was a Muslim woman and one was a Black man. And the Black man was our director of the DEI. 

And he had asked, so how do you feel that DEI integrates with this role? And the candidate immediately got really anxious, provided a response – but, then, when I wrapped up with the candidate at the end, I said, so you met with these two folks. How did that conversation go? And their response was, “well, they started talking about DEI which was really awkward.” And my response was — …….

And then she clawed it back, clawed it back as fast as she could. And so I was a hard no. And so my feedback up until that point had been yes. But I said, OK, this is somebody who is not comfortable speaking about this. And this is a really important part of who we are as an organization. So in my evaluation, after the virtual on-site, I was the only no. I was the sole dissenting voice. 

And when it came time for me to provide my feedback in the roundtable, the Muslim woman said, I didn’t experience that at all. And she ended up taking herself off-camera. And after the end of the roundtable, she asked to stay on with me. 

And she said it felt like second-hand microaggression. And I said, well, that’s the thing. I don’t want that to happen. And so I said, all right. How can we avoid this in the future? This is something that’s important to us. I’m going to build in a Spark Hire question at the front of our process. So that we know, and our candidates know, this is important to us. 

And so if they are uncomfortable with it in the very first step, that tells us something. And then we haven’t wasted their time. And they haven’t wasted ours. And so this was a place where we were able to learn. And then I was able to integrate that into Spark Hire in order to make it really evident why it’s important. 

And because of that, we’re learning more about how our candidates feel about it. And it’s informing hiring decisions. And it’s informing the directions that we’re going in. So it’s really impactful, the way that we can amend the processes that we have. And it’s been really wonderful. 

JOSH TOLAN: That’s awesome. And then the other thing I want to circle back to is you have the team giving feedback. They have to deliver it before the roundtable, I think you said, within 24 hours of the interview. Is that built into your map, that level of accountability and expectation? 

JENNIFER HOWELL:  Yes, yes. And our applicant tracking system, once you schedule the interviews in it, then it will send the interview team members, hey, this is your evaluation form. And we’ve custom-built it to say how do you rate this candidate on the competency that you’ve been assigned? Excellent, good, fair, poor, or not applicable because we have all six. 

So if they didn’t have it assigned to them they can click not applicable. Are they suited for the position? Yes, no, or maybe. Not do you like them? Are they suited for the position? And then a text box, what else would you like to add? 

And it’s submitted right away. It’s not impacted by groupthink, or anybody else’s opinion. It’s this was what I observed in my interview to the questions that I asked. And then submit it. And a lot of times a maybe turns into a yes. A yes turns into a no, based on the roundtable. So it’s not “speak now or forever hold your peace.” You have time to reflect, which is important. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah that’s awesome. So, as you think about your hiring process as a whole, and I’m sure building out the map, you have layers of accountability is a big part of this. But what are the metrics that are important to you guys? How are you measuring the success of your hiring process? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Retention. If we’re hiring the right people for the right roles, they’re going to stay. And if we’re setting expectations right away, then there’s not going to be a mismatch later. So that’s what means the most to me. And it’s OK if people grow out of their role. It’s OK if it’s no longer a good fit. That’s OK. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah. Yeah. So it sounds like retention quality is the ultimate goal. That’s what you need to deliver for the business. 


JOSH TOLAN:  And then your processes and the strategies that you deploy throughout the hiring process are where the efficiencies and collaboration that’s important with a lean team at your organization is just built into the process 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Yeah, and there are metrics that our COO care about, which is time to fill. 

JOSH TOLAN: Like we need people. We need them now. 

JENNIFER HOWELL:  We need them now. And through the process that we have, we reduced our time to fill for the first half of 2020 to reduce the average time to fill from 42 days to 35 days, which is over a week. But there are extenuating circumstances, always. If a hiring manager doesn’t have the bandwidth, that’s going to be extended. 

So I think a lot of the work that we do is predicated around the quality of the process and the accountability. And making sure we’re hiring the right people for the right roles. Because if we don’t, we’ve done something wrong. 

JOSH TOLAN: And that’s what I tell people all the time, is you have to balance speed and quality. That’s like, ultimately, the dilemma. The business needs people. There’s lost productivity by not having somebody hired. But at the same time, you don’t want to rush it and cut corners because you’ll end up with somebody that’s not a right fit. And in 90 days you’ve got to do it all over again. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: That’s right. And one of the things that we also found – which might be unorthodox – was we realized that for our customer service roles, these are remote roles. And so, traditionally, these could be seen as it’s a temp. It’s like low impact. It’s not low-impact. This might be the first point of contact for a potential member. We need to invest in this. 

So we actually go through the entire process of Spark Hire and everything for temp to hires. And it makes them feel considered and seen in a way that it’s not– they’re more invested because our process is this way. And so our temp-to-hires, they’ve all stayed and moved up within the organization because they felt immediately that they were seen and considered at the very, very start. And I think that’s important, too. 

JOSH TOLAN: Definitely important, sets yourselves up for a strong candidate experience, no matter what role you’re hiring for. And that ultimately trickles its way into bringing on people that are, again, they’ve self-selected into your process. They’ve opted in the whole way. High acceptance rate on your offers. And then, ultimately, people that are engaged and you retain down the road. So that’s awesome. 

One more thing, and then we’ll transition. I just had a few questions specific to Spark Hire that I think our customers would find a lot of value in. But one more thing I was just curious about. Being the AMA, I imagine integrating some aspect of marketing into your recruitment process is important. 

So I’m just curious how you weave the brand of the AMA into your hiring process. And then are you using anything that might be thought of as a marketing strategy to boost your hiring results? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: I wish I could say that we do. We’re also a non-profit. 

JOSH TOLAN: Sure. Fair enough. 

JENNIFER HOWELL:  We have limitations to what we have access to. So as much as I would love to say we have a super extensive LinkedIn life page, we don’t. I don’t have the bandwidth to do it. But what we try to do is make sure that our job descriptions are well thought out and very clear, knowing that you have 10 seconds to engage with a candidate. So what’s the job? Is it exciting? Is it clear from the job posting what it is? 

And then once they get into Spark Hire, the communication of every single step in the process, congratulations. Thank you so much for applying. We are very interested in your candidacy. And the first step in our process is a one-way virtual interview through the Spark Hire platform. 

Here’s what to expect. You’re going to have X number of days to complete it once you accept it. You’ll have unlimited think time. You’re going to meet the boundless cheer of our people and culture team. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. 

And then once I’ve sent that link out, and a couple of hours later, I text them. So that they know there’s a person there. And if they run into problems, which they never do because Spark Hire is pretty seamless, they do it. And then they see my intro of, hey, we know this might be a new experience for you. Here’s what to expect. You’re going to get unlimited think time. We want you to bring your best self, treat this like you would a normal job interview. Be yourself. We want to get to know you. 

And then at the end, it’s like, good job, congratulations. We will be in contact soon. And then I, again, communicate, thank you for being so giving of your time. Our hiring manager’s going to review your Spark Hire. We will get back to you soon. And so it’s calibrating the messaging at every step. Before Spark Hire, within Spark Hire, and after, in a way that lets them know that we’re there. 

JOSH TOLAN:  Yeah, yeah. And you keep them bought into your process. If people know what to expect at every step, including the timeline, they’re going to see everything through. And they’re going to be still excited about what’s next. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: That’s right. And so in terms of your question about how do we market, my marketing strategy is to provide a really wonderful candidate experience. And sometimes that means really poking hiring managers of, hey, look, help me help you. I can’t do some of this. You have to evaluate some of this. Your responsibility as a hiring manager is to go through this and really poking them. 

Any delays are usually due to they’re going through Spark Hires on a weekend. Or they’re going through Spark Hires in the evening. My aim is to make sure that candidates, even if we don’t select them, that they feel as though they had a good enough experience with us that if we ever reached out to them, that they knew that they had a good experience. 

And so that’s how I think about it. And that’s how, as it comes to employment branding from a recruitment standpoint, that personal touch and being really intentional in my communications with candidates. 

JOSH TOLAN:  Yeah, and I think there are a lot of parallels to what you’re doing, to sales and marketing in general. Like you talk about ensuring that hiring managers are doing what they need to do and doing it quickly. I relate that to, on the sales and marketing side, speed to lead. When you get a lead you want to get in touch with them as soon as you possibly can. So there’s that layer of accountability. 

The touch points that you’re putting throughout all of your communication, those are no different than what a marketing team might do with nurture campaigns. Or it’s like somebody might not be ready to buy from you now. But if you continue to nurture them and tell them what to expect as they opt into different parts of your sales process, that leads to a good buying experience. 

So there are a lot of parallels between what you guys are doing on the candidate experience side in a buying experience if you’re looking at a product or service. So a few more questions, then, as it relates to Spark Hire. And you already gave what I think is one of the best best practices which is just informing your candidates, educating them, and setting expectations upfront. 

So, again, they’re nurtured through the process. And they know what to expect and all those types of things. But if we just start at the top and, initially, what problems were you having that made you start looking into Spark Hire to start with? 

JENNIFER HOWELL:  Accessibility. Our previous platform that we used did not have a mobile app. And so it limited the quality of candidates and accessibility for candidates if they didn’t have a desktop computer. So having the free Spark Hire app or being able to access Spark Hire from their mobile device, that was a really big piece for us. And we knew that the intro and outro and being able to record questions was something that we really wanted to do. 

And pre-pandemic we even said, well, they’re going to meet us so having us be a friendly face before they even get further in the process. We’re real people. And so the problem that we were really trying to solve for was, how can we make this more accessible? 

And our previous platform was built into our applicant tracking system. And it wasn’t mobile-friendly. It didn’t allow for recording the video questions. You could only do one retake. And I don’t think that that’s– especially now, knowing what I know about neurodiverse candidates. Now you’re being even less inclusive. 

JOSH TOLAN: Right. And your hiring process and what you’re trying to gather from the interview. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Yeah, so those were the problems that we were trying to solve for, initially. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, so it sounds like you were using, then, video interviewing before Spark Hire. So what was the initial catalyst for you to just get a solution, in general, regardless of it ending up being Spark Hire? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: As the sole person dealing with talent acquisition, I said, there’s got to be a better way. And our Director of People and Culture said, years ago we used Spark Hire. We really liked it. And there was already executive buy-in about Spark Hire. So we already would have buy-in. So reach out. And the AMA was my first exposure to a one-way video interview. 

So I was very excited when I met with the representative back in the end of 2019. He explained, hey, these are the capabilities. And these are the things that you can do. And you can make this accessible. 

This is accessible on mobile. You can have multiple people reviewing candidates. You can just have hiring manager review candidates. You’re using a rating system. You can have unlimited think time. You can have limited think time. There were so many options that we could choose from. And we kind of said, why not? 

And so we signed up for a year, kind of saying, well, let’s give it a try. And two months after we signed a contract, the pandemic started. And all hiring ceased. And so I had two months of experience utilizing Spark Hire from a talent acquisition standpoint. And then six months where we didn’t get to use it at all. But then when we rebooted it, when we rebooted recruitment efforts, I was like, this is why I love Spark Hire. 

It’s because it doesn’t rely on an in-person experience. We’ve already done this work to make sure that this is great. And then it was a volume game. At the end of 2020, we had a high volume of hires, a high volume of candidates. And we saw the value in it immediately. So there was like a six-month gap. But in 2020 it really kind of like– we made the right call. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, that’s awesome. And so, obviously, it’s solving an efficiency challenge for you guys. Did it replace a step in your hiring process? Or was it an additional step? I know you go hiring manager, resume, screen, to Spark Hire now. So how would hiring managers previously get insight on the candidates after the resume screen? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: They would review the video interview questions and simply vote yes or no. And it was not in-depth, discuss your answer. And so it introduced the opportunity for a multitude of biases. And so when we introduced Spark Hire because there were only, I think, two or three people who had used it prior, from the previous administration, we gave them advice on one of the things that we like to do. 

And I think it was the Spark Hire rep who told me this in the first place. Something to think about when people are putting feedback in, what I heard, my impression. And so you could literally just, I’m hearing them talk about blah, blah blah, and then stop. And then my impression of this is that. 

And so it’s a well-thought-out, well-calibrated reasoning after every question. And so if then they decide against that candidate, I can go in and say, so why? You gave them a five-star rating. Why? 

If somebody comes back to us and says, I’m perfect on paper. And then in Spark Hire they saw that I was recording it from my bathroom and I speak with a stutter. They didn’t hire me based on discrimination. Or we can go in and say, actually, you didn’t answer the question– 

JOSH TOLAN: –the scorecard and all that yet. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: And we have the backup. And we’re ensuring that hiring managers are being more thoughtful. 

JOSH TOLAN: Sure, sure. That’s awesome. And so, well, I guess one more question related to your hiring managers. How did you get them to buy in? I know you had a few people who had previously used it. Was it a challenge for you to get hiring managers on board or were there anything specific you needed to do? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Conduct training with them. And some of that was beforehand. I built it into our intake meeting. If they hadn’t had experience with Spark Hire before, I would give them a license. And then I would say, we’re going to review this in intake. And I’m going to show you what this looks like. If you have problems, if you have questions, come back to me. And some of them do. 

But then most of them, once they’ve done it, they’re like, I love this. If they’re trying to get buy-in on a certain candidate then they’ll share the feedback from Spark Hire with others, but not always. But they’ve bought into it. 

I think the only time when it’s not benefited us or it didn’t appear to benefit us was in a technology-heavy role. And folks that are in the tech sector are very particular about privacy and storage of their information. And they’re resistant to completing Spark Hire. 

JOSH TOLAN:  Got it. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: For a role that we had recently, or last fall, we would get people who applied but then they wouldn’t complete Spark Hire. I would reach out via text and then via email to ask why. And they’re like, yeah, I don’t do this. And so, after a period of time, the hiring manager escalated it and said, listen, I need candidates. 

And his chief said, OK. We’ll skip Spark Hire and just have Jennifer ask all the questions we would be asking in Spark Hire in the phone screen. We did not successfully hire anyone for that role. 

JOSH TOLAN: Interesting. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Right now, it’s like our big challenge is resistance to it in certain segments. 

JOSH TOLAN:  Yep, Yep. That makes sense, though. I know, generally, you mentioned that you’ve got a high interview completion rate across all of your roles. Is there a best practice or something that you feel like you guys are doing really well that, for other customers that are just starting out, you would try to impart on them to make sure that they have the most success they can possibly have? 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Do the intro. Record a video intro. I think candidates who are looking for work if you’re a hiring manager or you’re an HR leader, you know what that feels like. And there’s a distinct lack of empathy to candidates. And so this is your opportunity in an intro to say, I see you. And you have gotten to this step. And this is what to expect. Be real clear. Let them know what to expect. 

So one of the things that we changed in the pandemic was, we stopped having limited think time. We have unlimited think time for all of our questions. I would rather somebody provide a thoughtful, crafted, written response that they are reading to me, than feeling like they’re under pressure to find a response and find an answer and then put it forth. And then knowing that it’s not the right one and it’s not complete and having anxiety around it. It doesn’t benefit anyone. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, it’s unnecessary. And that’s not the reality of the workplace, either. You’ll be able to think about the work that you’re doing. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: That’s right. And it’s also, the more that we learn about neurodiverse candidates and barriers to their success in getting jobs, it’s video interviews that have really limited scope. And having limited think time is a hard one. So being able to provide that for candidates, I think, has been a really big thing that’s been repeated back to us and has been repeated back to me of something that they were very grateful for. 

JOSH TOLAN: And it’s fair, right? Because you give every candidate the unlimited takes. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Everyone, everyone. The other thing that I would say to an HR leader why Spark Hire is a worthwhile endeavor, is that the more that you invest in this process, the more you will get back. It’s the simple math of return on investment. 

If you and your hiring managers are investing your time in crafting questions that matter, do not ask that if you were an item in a refrigerator, what would you be? You are absolutely wasting somebody’s time. If you are asking them, tell me something that you are really proud about and this does not have to be about your work, it’s going to take them by surprise. It’s going to delight them. 

So be thoughtful in the questions that you’re asking. And if you can record the questions, then that’s great. You don’t have to. But it’s nice to put a face to it. And our candidates report to us that they already felt like they knew me by the time I had a phone screen. Because I said, yeah, it’s my goofy face asking you these questions. 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah and look, it doesn’t have to be perfect, right? I think that’s a thing is sometimes the barrier to HR leaders doing it, is they think it has to be perfect, and the perfect background, and perfect quality, and edited, and all that type of stuff. And the reality is, candidates just want to hear from you. They want your authentic voice. They want to get to meet you. 

And so, to your point, you record at home on the background you’re on right now. I have recorded them in a variety of different settings. Because the reality is it’s more of the substance of the video than the production of the video that ultimately matters. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: That’s right. And don’t judge a candidate based on where they’re recording it from. If you’re telling them at the start, so to prepare you, make sure that you’re away from distractions like other people or pets. Make sure you’re somewhere where we can hear you. Try and have a stable place where you can have your device so that nobody’s distracted by what’s happening behind you. 

So we’re giving them all the tools. We’re giving them the keys to the kingdom. We want you to succeed in this process. And if we don’t move forward with you and you ask us why I’m going to have feedback as to why. And that’s going to help you the next time. So I think it’s a really valuable tool. And I think that if you use it right it can play into the strategic vision of your organization in whatever direction that is 

JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. That was super helpful. This whole conversation has been really enlightening. You guys are doing great work over there, and, you, specifically. You’ve got a lot going on. And it’s awesome to see all the processes and strategies that you’ve rolled out and seems to have been leading to really awesome results for you. So that’s the best-case scenario. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: It is. Well, thank you so much, Josh. And thank you for reaching out. And thank you for having such a really wonderful team for candidates if they’re having a problem. If I need assistance, I have never had anything less than stellar customer service and a stellar experience on the back end. 

And our candidates, I ask everyone when I get to a phone screen, thank you so much for doing this Spark Hire interview. I hope it was an OK experience for you. And, resoundingly, they say, oh, it was new but it was OK. Or, no, it was great. I really loved it. So if I were to get negative feedback, I would share it. But I don’t have any negative feedback. 

JOSH TOLAN: So that’s great to hear and I appreciate it. Yeah. Thank you for all of your support. And– 


JOSH TOLAN: – we look forward to continuing to partner with you for many years to come. 

JENNIFER HOWELL: Likewise. Thank you so much, Josh. I appreciate it. 

JOSH TOLAN: Thanks. All right, take care. Appreciate it. See you. 



Josh Tolan

Josh Tolan is the Founder and CEO of Spark Hire, a video interviewing platform used by 6,000+ customers in over 100 countries.