Every company has its own mix of hiring must-haves: hard skills, education, personality traits, ability to problem-solve under pressure and more. But there's one that every firm, regardless of size or industry, should have on its list: empathy.
Before co-founding Ora Organic in 2014, I worked on a $1 billion-plus software transformation project for an Australian financial firm with more than 300 employees on staff. Turnover was high because employees and contractors alike had to think from the perspective of engineers, consultants, the bank itself and end users. The most resilient and successful individuals weren't those who worked the hardest or had the most experience; they were those with empathy.
What I saw on that project has shaped my own hiring strategy. Time and time again, my top team members have been those who can negotiate, understand and revise their approach on the fly. They're not necessarily the best engineers or highest-performing salespeople, but they're the best at understanding what it takes for all parties to get things done. Empathy enables them to see from outside perspectives, evaluate others' agendas and deliver something that meets the needs of all.
That's why, when we're hiring, we don't just look for someone who can do the work. We look for someone who can see why the work is important to her, her managers and the company.
Inevitably, some individuals' roles require more interaction than others. But everyone — regardless of duties, experience or employment arrangements — needs to understand and communicate with teammates and leaders. No matter the metrics a company holds dear, testing for empathy should be an essential part of the hiring process.
How to Interview for Empathy
Empathy isn't just the glue that holds teams together; it's a key ingredient for business growth. The 10 most empathetic companies increased their value by more than double that of those at the bottom.
But aspiring employees don't just put empathy scores on their applications. Employers must learn how to spot truly empathetic candidates. Before we hire someone, we ask these four questions to check whether he or she has the empathy necessary to thrive:
1. "If you were in my position, what skills do you think would be most important to the role you've applied for?"
This question forces interviewees to decide which skills are important to them, their potential manager and the success of the company. Someone who can see from all these perspectives will make better decisions when faced with mission-critical choices.
Ideal answers to this question account for how the role contributes to the company's success. Great candidates can trace the line between day-to-day tasks (which reveals experience) and company goals (which reveals critical thinking skills). Answers that simply adhere to on-paper requirements should make interviewers think twice about whether the respondent can understand the context of the role.
2. "What's the biggest challenge you see for yourself and your potential team in the next 12 months?"
This question is highly subjective, so there's no single correct response. But strong answers consider the nature of growth and address how evolving roles sometimes clash with established workflows. Especially if the individual is interviewing for a non-technical position, listen for responses that go beyond single issues and maintain a broad perspective. Narrow answers indicate a focus on the self and a lack of empathy.
Beyond empathy, this question also tests foresight. The best respondents should be able to predict the effects of current projects on future problems. They should bring enough humility and company knowledge to the table to assess how their contributions might create new challenges.
3. "What is one weakness of our company's current business model that could be improved?"
This is another question that requires candidates to remove themselves from the center of focus and consider the company's context. Interviewees who can analyze big-picture problems that don't directly affect them can empathize with the challenges of upper management. Especially for high-level hires, the ability to see and steer the company's direction is essential.
Prioritize candidates who look to the future. People who fixate on here-and-now problems tend to be more technical than empathetic or visionary. Best-in-class candidates frame their answers in terms of how the company could progress and where its opportunities lie.
4. "An unhappy customer emails us, and you're in charge of customer service. USPS has lost the shipment, and this person wants an immediate refund. Otherwise, he will report the company for fraud. Company policy limits refunds to company mistakes and defective products. What do you do?"
Scenario-based questions like this one reveal whether candidates can think on their feet. Those who can make fair decisions with limited information understand the needs of all stakeholders, not just those of the customer.
Candidates who follow company policy to the letter won't weigh competing needs. On the other hand, those who give customers whatever they want can't be trusted to remember the needs of people who aren't in the room. Give top marks to those who understand the customer's frustration, the reasoning behind the company's policy, and the merits of multiple options. Bonus points for those who come up with creative solutions, such as issuing a credit toward future purchases.
Questions like these tell you much more about potential hires than technical pop quizzes. Most engineers can learn how to work in a new system; not all can consider the perspectives of managers, customers, and team members simultaneously. Just as those who succeeded on my Australian banking project could come up with balanced solutions, so should every new hire who walks through your door. To do that, they need empathy.
If you're struggling to critically evaluate your hires, check out my October 2017 Vunela post about how to be critical without being adversarial.
Sebastian Bryers is the CTO and head of growth at Ora Organic, a digitally native retailer of organic, plant-based and sustainable supplements based in San Diego. A member of Ora’s founding team, Sebastian first served as a developer and designer before also assuming management, growth and sales responsibilities. He previously co-founded web and app agency Shade & Bloom, which he left to pursue full-time work with Ora. A native New Zealander now living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sebastian can be found playing his guitar or sipping black coffee when he’s not growth-hacking at Ora.