HubSpot Reveals The Mind Tricks It Uses To See If You're Right For A Job

It's easy to test for things like coding chops or editing ability. It's much harder to discern whether a potential hire would be a good fit at a company, which is why Hubspot has spent years developing some Jedi-level interview tactics that help it hire right.

When David Cancel interviews potential candidates for engineering jobs at HubSpot, he brings a cup of water into the interview with him. At the end of the meeting, the chief product officer leaves the cup on the table and waits to see what the interviewee does with the garbage. If the person picks up the trash, he is probably a good fit for the job. If he doesn't, that signals he probably wouldn't work well on the team.

Update: Cancel clarifies in a comment that he doesn't ask the interviewee to clean up his trash, but his or her own garbage: "The cup/bottle/trash/etc that I watch if someone disposes of is their own trash not mine. It is the cup/bottle or food item that the interviewee had eaten/drank during the interview."

It might sound like an unfair trick or gimmick, but Cancel insists that it works. "I've tested it over 100 times at this point, and it has always turned out to be pretty accurate for me," Cancel told Fast Company. "The people who didn't go and reach to take the cup were always the people who weren't a great cultural fit." Since starting at HubSpot in 2011 when HubSpot acquired his startup Performable, he has hired more than 100 of the company's almost 700 employees.

The cup test is just one of tactics Cancel uses during interviews to gauge whether a candidate is a good fit. (He wouldn't talk about the others publicly.) The interview process across HubSpot's teams integrates what Cancel calls qualitative tests of character, rather than quantitative measures of skill. Instead of tests and brainteasers, which don't work, hiring managers look for tells that give insights into people's personalities.

Cancel calls his technique "Columbo-like." First, he tries to get candidates to talk about anything, which is a task, since he hires typically introverted engineers. "I'll go in and get them to talk about anything," he said. "I would think that I was a bit crazy, I'm bouncing all over the map."

Once he gets them on a topic that they are passionate about, he notes their facial expression and eyes. Then, he segues to work-related topics, looking to see if the person lights up about anything. "Beyond trying to figure out their passions, I'm also looking a lot at their interactions—the way that they communicate, little tells," Cancel explained. If the person is passionate about something HubSpot related, then he will likely fit in at the company.

Cancel used to rely on more traditional interviewing methods, asking people about their background and to complete games. But it didn't work. "I found that after years of building teams, it didn't lead to the best teams," he explained. "I may have hired great people, but the teams didn't interact as well as I would have thought." He started experimenting and found these more qualitative approaches worked better.

Throughout the marketing software company, the goal is to hire people with "HEART," an acronym that stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. "All of those qualities are ones that you can't really get an answer to from a simple questionnaire or a traditional quantitative approach," says Cancel.

Each hiring manager has his or her own style designed to tease out the personality traits that best fit the department:

  • Tom Cattaneo, a manager at HubSpot, leaves the door a crack open to see if candidates will take the initiative to walk in, or wait for someone to ask them to come in. He would rather hire an assertive person.
  • Michael Redbord, the director of customer support, leaves the majority of the interview open for questions. His hires will have to deal with people's problems. So those who only ask questions about their salary or promotions won't get the job.
  • Meghan Keaney Anderson, a director on the product marketing team, asks people what they like to read and why. She wants to attract people who love to learn and are curious enough to invest their time outside of work in learning.
  • Director of Recruiting, Leslie Mitchell, asks "How lucky are you?" "When was the last time you did something nice for someone?" and "If you were an app, what would you be and why?" along with, "Tell me something nerdy or quirky about yourself."

Since Cancel spread the tactics throughout the organization, the company's Employee Net Promoter Score, a measure of employee engagement, went from average/low to high, according to Cancel. HubSpot also has an 85% retention rate, which is pretty impressive considering it competes with the likes of Facebook and Google.

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100 Comments

  • karlro

    Just walk outside and look at the inside of their car! That gives it way every time.

  • misplacedlonghorn

    I ran into some of these same sorts of interview tactics at Rack* early this year. They tried too hard to appear hip and flexible. To a seasoned, experienced professional it came off as sophomoric and undisciplined. At several points during the interview process I was told how dysfunctional the organization was. The breaking point for me during the weeks-long interview process is when they told me I was not a cultural fit because I was too intellectual. I couldn't run away fast enough!

  • Ioana L. Simileanu

    This is just childish. I would not barge into a room just because they left the door open, educated people have common sense, but this does not make me bad at my job, so if somebody does not hire me just because I didn't entered a room without being invited I am more than glad. I don't want to work for somebody without common sense, I would prefer to work for somebody who appreciates my skills, qualifications and experience. Am with that paper cup: the candidate for the job should be treated like a guest, you would not ask a guest to wash your dishes and put the garbage out before they leave your house; of course nobody with a sane mind wouldn't litter the interview room, but not to hire somebody just because they left behind a paper cup is just stupid. I always carry a bottle of water because I like to stay hydrated, it happened to me to be served with water without being asked and of course I did not picked the cup. Interviewers should go back to the good manners books!

  • haeccity

    Agreed. It sounds like this "cultural fit" is really meant to weed out people from other cultures, such as people who come from Asian families. In my culture, you would NOT take out your own trash when you were a guest - it would be insulting to the host. You would NOT walk in a cracked door, because that would be unspeakably rude to be "assertive" instead of waiting to be invited when you are in a comparatively subordinate position. This test sounds like it is meant to "objectively" (but not really) weed out the many East Asian and Indian immigrants and first-generation kids who come into the tech industry, without literally being racist. Because it is looking for a certain type of mannerism, behavior, and entitlement that comes from a really specific type of white people's culture. But it is racist and exclusionary..

  • Bill O'Connell

    What Hubspot doesn't realise is that in an interview the candidate is the guest of the interviewer. Guests are not normally asked to clear the table. Perhaps Hubspot should acquire some manners before acquiring staff.

  • ms94305

    Seems petty. There are so many other proven interviewing techniques and questions if managers actually took the time to learn them, versus reading candidate PDF resumes 15 minutes before the interview.

    I interviewed at Hubspot in the summer of 2013. The HR rep came off as a car salesman asserting that he was "working for me". Then I got handed off to a recruiter who gave me some case study questions. When I finally got to the hiring manager I was greeted by a disheveled, overweight exec that seemed like he didn't have the time for the interview.

    I assessed the hiring manager to be undisciplined and disorganized. Was I judgemental? - You bet your ass - in the same way they were evaluating me. The whole thing seemed very amateurish. Glad I passed on Hubspot. Best of luck with your recruiting efforts.

  • bigdogads

    Good morning.

    Stig: Good morning.

    Interviewer: (writes) Tell me why did you say 'good morning' when you know perfectly well that it's afternoon?

    Stig: Well, well, you said 'good morning'. Ha, ha.

    Interviewer: (shakes head) Good afternoon.

    Stig: Ah, good afternoon.

    Interviewer: Oh dear. (writes again) Good evening.

    Stig: ... Goodbye?

    Interviewer: Ha, ha. No. (rings small hand-bell) ... Aren't you going to ask me why I rang the bell? (rings bell again)

    Stig: Er why did you ring the bell?

    Interviewer: Why do you think I rang the bell? (shouts) Five, four, three, two, one, zero!

    Stig: Well, I, I...

    Interviewer: Too late! (singing) Goodnight, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. Goodnight. Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding.

    Stig: Um. Oh this is, is the interview for the management training course is it?

    Interviewer: (Rings bell) Yes. Yes it is. Goodnight. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

    Stig: Oh. Oh dear, I don't think I'm doing very well.

  • Helena Carling

    Drink - drank - drunk.

    As in eat - ate - eaten.

    The cup the interviewee had DRUNK [out of].

    Christina Carling

  • Helena Carling

    This is how nerds I am:

    Drink - drank - DRUNK.

    "It is the cup the interviewee had DRUNK. (Out of)

    Christina Carling.

  • Melayna Lokosky

    His actions during the interview process are likely a sign of much larger behavior represented by The Sociopathic Business Model. www.killingmycareer.com

  • Chien-Yu Lin

    ​I had an interview where I had one of these tests.

    She offered me a cup of water with a broken handle and it kept leaking. When I told her about it, she poured out the water and placed it back into the sink. I didn't say anything because for the first ten minutes of the conversation, she kept trying to get me to ask what college she went to and where she lived in Philadelphia (Harvard, and the job was in Lansdale, PA).

    I thought the cup thing was just another sign of how damaged a human being she was on the inside.

  • Kitty TheKat

    I think it's great. I have good character (as in, yes, I pick up after myself) and want to be valued for that. I have worked with too many spoiled, entitled ass-hats who would have been weeded out with a solid test of character.

  • If I'm ever interviewing for a job and some self-important idiot tries to use one of these "mind tricks" on me, I'll karate kick them in the privates and throw my water cup on the floor.