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.