Hiring Reflections from First Time Managers
Neither my coworker Sophia Park nor I expected our first time as Fractured Atlas hiring managers to be such a heady experience.
Going through the process of hiring a new member to the External Relations team has shifted how we think about the job interview process and the relationship between applicant and hiring team. It has been an opportunity for us to face our own internal biases and to work through them with one another as we live out our belief in a non-hierarchical decision-making structure.
We don’t often have the opportunity to reflect on what it means to step into new roles professionally, to assess how teams have worked together, and to share how our professional tasks sometimes encourage us to do some soul-searching. But we think it’s crucial that we do so.
After we made the offer and it was accepted, Sophia and I spoke with one another about how it felt to hire for the first time at Fractured Atlas. We talked about where our anti-racism and anti-oppression values showed up, how we navigated hiring as equal partners, and what it meant to confront our own biases in the process.
Self-Reflection and Power Shifts
Sophia Park (SP): I was surprised at the amount of self-reflection I would have to do. Even though on the surface, hiring [seems like] a unidirectional thing, in actuality it's not. I saw a lot of parallels to how when I curate in a collaborative setting; we have to figure out how to end up at a single decision together.
Hiring is a big responsibility, right? You're giving an opportunity to someone and we are gaining an opportunity to have an awesome person join our team. There's a lot of weight tied to just the act of hiring or bringing anyone onto a team. And so I think there were just a lot of moments in which I felt very emotional about it, even though we're taught to not be emotional about it. And there were many times when I had to really think about my own biases. As a person, a professional, and an art person, there are many biases depending on the various levels that we exist in as human beings. I didn't quite understand how much of an impact it would have on the process.
Nina Berman (NB): It was my first time being in that kind of a role, where people are applying to a thing and I'm selecting them for something. It really struck me how much hiring managers want applicants to do well [or at least how much we wanted them to do well]. I think there's this feeling when you're applying for jobs, you feel like there's a right answer to the interview question or like the interviewers are playing a mind game with you that if you mess up one little thing, then you're out. But really, at least for us, (both because of the kind of people we are, but just because we have to find someone good to bring onto the team) we wanted these people to do well. We didn't want to trip them up.
It helped refigure the power dynamic as well, in my mind. Because when you're applying for jobs, it feels like you are just this little nobody trying to grab at something, especially if you're applying for positions where you feel like there's a lot of competition. But people are hiring because they need someone! I think that understanding what a team feels like when it needs to be staffed better helped me understand that the power dynamic isn't so imbalanced.
Compassion and Transparency
SP: For us, I think the decision to get back to everyone that we decided to interview for a second or third round is one that other companies will not do because it takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy - even if you have templates, even if you have the system in place. You need someone to press the button.
You need to think about when you're sending how you're [communicating with applicants] because it's a part of the company's image. That's something that I’m taking away from the process. How to be compassionate, but also make sure that you're not overworking yourself or giving too much of yourself.
NB: Compassion is something that should be extended to the hiring team as well, right? How can we be as compassionate as possible to the pool of applicants and then how can we also develop a system that works for us and fits in with what our bandwidth is?
SP: When you're dealing with anyone else professionally, you should treat them with as much courtesy as you can and try to operate with a sense of trying to understand each other instead of saying, ”Oh, this person has so much power because they're hiring.” [I wish there could be more] transparency around why people are hired and how choices are made because what I found was that our choices were not very clear cut in some ways. I wish there could be some kind of a mutual understanding between the hiring team and the candidate. “I'm giving you this feedback. We made this choice because of X, Y, Z reasons.”
When you're looking for a job, you just don't know. You don't even know if your cover letter makes sense. No one's giving you feedback. It could be luck, but could be something that you were saying on your resume or cover letter. [I wish that] allowing hiring teams to have some space and time to be able to give that feedback [was practiced more widely].
NB: I wish that it was in our capacity to make ourselves available to everyone we didn't select. Just to say, “If you want to talk about why we made the decision we did, here's what it is…” because with some people, there are errors that indicate that they are not well suited for the tasks of a particular job. But then there's others. It's like, they’re so good and so talented, but you don’t think this job is the best use for what they’re really great at. Or maybe it's not the right culture fit or something.
But when you are applying to jobs, you often don't know why you're not getting selected. It just becomes this thing that breeds a lot of confusion and frustration and shame. And it just becomes a really overwhelming experience for people.
Creating a Welcoming Environment for Applicants and Their Questions
SP: I think being available, acknowledging each other's time, and trying to make our candidates as successful as possible is in itself pretty different [from other hiring teams at other workplaces]. I don't want to say radical, but I do think it's different and it needs to be pointed out. It seems so simple, but it's actually not, and a lot of people don't practice this.
NB: We tried to be pretty open about what we accepted in terms of a writing sample, understanding that everyone is going to come with a variety of backgrounds and left it to them to send us the writing that they thought showed what they could do. People sent us template emails, writing they did for other jobs or articles, or college essays. That kind of flexibility was helpful.
SP: I think asking for a Q&A instead of a cover letter in itself was really great for us because you don't know what people want in a cover letter and we explicitly asked. Like in a healthy relationship. This is what we want you to answer, we want to hear these things from you. And if people were able to give us those answers, then we were very happy with that.
NB: I was most impressed when people came with questions that were legitimate questions that they have about if they would want to work at Fractured Atlas. There are a number of those boilerplate questions that actually do get at that and so I don't fault people for using those lists of questions to ask. I’ve even written those lists. But it was best when it really felt like a two-way thing, when people were asking the questions that would have made that decision for them, and so that they could kind of get to know us better.
SP: Making sure we create an environment in which they can ask those questions is also another example of how to set up our applicants for success. I explicitly told applicants to email us if they had additional questions. I think the worry is that it can create moments of bias if they're emailing us additional questions or something; that it’s not fair. But I treated it as what if someone came to me for an information interview? What if someone came to me and just had a question about a job?
Biases, Neutrality, and Anti-Racism
NB: You have to balance the ways that you're checking your own kind of bias and not giving people extra special treatment in a way that could be damaging for other applicants. We also have to be human beings and not robots.
SP: That's what we're expected to do, right? Be a robot. Our current system is so filled with moments of biases against in particular candidates who come from other backgrounds. There's this kind of going backwards in a way to try and make it more less biased and more robotic and more scientific in a way.
NB: It's like people are trying to remove bias by heading towards neutrality, but that doesn't exist.
I also really had an intense experience of kind of coming to grips with my own bias. Part of it was a personality thing and a professional thing. But then also that is intimately tied to race and other factors. The people that I felt most immediately comfortable with were the people who immediately projected being very comfortable, being very chatty, quick on their feet. For one thing, these are all characteristics I see in myself. [Also noteworthy that being quick on your feet does not mean being smarter.]
But then, talking through things with you and reflecting on it, I wondered what are the conditions that make someone enter a job interview feeling more confident than other people? And what are the systemic things that bring that about? Do you feel reflected in the industry or the institution that you're applying to? And if you don't, that might put you more in your guard. There’s a bias towards similarity and the ways it's rooted in structural issues and then also just rooted people’s preference for applicants who are similar to them, which is also not necessarily good for hiring.
SP: The biggest question that I started asking myself was “How do you hire ‘diverse candidates’ without making it seem like we are doing a diversity hire?” I don't want to fill a diversity quota but I want to ensure that I give everyone, especially those who haven't been given those chances previously, a fair chance at getting this position. And I think as hiring teams go, the most challenging part is figuring out where you are in that work.
Are you doing kind of a white savior thing? Or are you doing actual work to determine if someone would be a good fit and they have the best qualities and the characteristics for the job? Because ultimately, like you say all the time, it's a job. We are hiring for a job and we do need to ensure that they can do the job. There are also some other considerations. We’re first time managers within the context of Fractured Atlas, we are co-managing which in itself is a concept that a lot of people are not familiar with. Can they work with us? Can we work with them? How can we give them a fair chance so that we're setting them up for success in the role?
NB: It’s not just how you select a candidate from the pool that you have, it's how you build that pool. And then once you have a candidate, how you support them. One of the other things that I feel like I learned or that I feel very strongly about is that someone's capacity to be successful at work is like so much down to the managers and how they like onboard someone, how they set them up. Most people are pretty smart and capable. But if you're not given the tools or the structures of the resources that work for you, it doesn't matter.
SP: I think the hard questions that I assume you'd be asking at couple’s therapy, we were asking those questions ourselves as we made decisions together. I'm biased, but I think we did it right in the sense that we did talk about the sticky things, we talked about our emotions, we talked about our biases, we talked about the things that were keeping us backward, moving us forward. I don't know if it's a special thing, because it could be related to the working relationship that we already had before, or if it was because of the nature of how we handled our discussions and our collaboration with the same kind of compassion and care that we extended to our candidates I think we did to ourselves.
That's probably the meat of what it means to hire someone, right, to consider these questions, to have these tough conversations, and to think about the future.
NB: We're having these conversations that are very vulnerable, right? And that also we know the decision is going to impact our day-to-day life. I think it was a really positive experience just because there was this feeling that we were ultimately really on the same page with what we wanted, even if we would have different responses to various factors. I am really happy not to have gone through this alone because there's someone I would always be working together with, bouncing ideas with, and sharing the labor. Having somebody to help you check your gut, I think, was really good.
SP: I don't think, as humans, we were designed to make these tough decisions by ourselves, yet we're expected to because we live in an individualistic society. I think that relates to what we talk about in terms of power, right? If you alone are given that power, then I think you're setting up some type of system that is already built on hierarchy.
NB: So many people (both because of who Fractured Atlas is and because people should always ask this) asked us about our relationship to anti-racism and anti-oppression and how that manifests in our work. Some of it manifests in the content that we share and the ways that we increase accessibility, but really what it is is the way that we figure power with one another. We answered that question as we were going through this process where we were engaging in that shared power.
SP: It's an interesting exercise in a way, too, because in many of our discussions around power, it's very abstract, right? Like we are discussing potential kinds of relationships and power dynamics. But we don't necessarily have something to test it out on. And I think it was good that we were able to actually enact the beliefs that we think that we have on this very important task; not a smaller work decision like “are we going to use this word or that word in an email.”
Building Trust Slowly to Move Quickly
SP: Something I'm still actively thinking through is how you're told to slow down to make decisions and that the process of slowing down, you're taught is anti-capitalist, anti-current system type of thinking. Yet we did this [hiring process] very quickly. I think it's not the matter of slowing down, but it's more the principles that you learn when you slow down. Because we have worked in that way in the past, we were able to apply that to this. I don't think we sacrificed the tough conversations because we needed to move quickly to hire someone because the need was great. How did we do this in a way that was fast, but still compassionate and had an intense amount of care?
NB: This is one of the reasons that I feel it's really important for teams, especially people that have decision-making power and are engaging in shared leadership, to build trust over a long period of time because that lets you move fast, right? It's slow work to build that trust and to build that capacity to have those conversations. But then once that's in place, you don't have to do the hand wringing of “is it okay if I say that I'm having this struggle about my own internal bias” because we already have that trust built, so even if we're venturing into new territory, we've done work before that helped us get there.
If you’re interested in our other thoughts and experiences about creating humane workplaces, check out our blog posts about toxic workplaces, pay transparency, interviewing, and why we don’t think you should be required to be friends with your coworkers.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.